ITZAK ELI BERNSTEIN AND HIS PROGENY – By Cecil Shnier
The following account is drawn mostly from my recollection of stories told by my mother, Sarah Shnier, my uncle Morris Bernstein, and from my great-aunt Bassia Book, all of whom are now departed. Since the information is all second and third hand it may contain many inaccuracies. I would therefore appreciate receiving any corrections or additional details that others of you may know of.
We are told that in his youth, Itzak Eli undertook several hazardous trading ventures that took him as far as Turkey and the Middle East. From these ventures, he appeared to have accumulated some capital, as well as some political connections by which he was able to gain special dispensation from the Czar permitting him to hold title to land, a privilege that was otherwise denied to Jews in Russia. He purchased a large tract near Kreminicz, in Galicia, a province that was at different times part of Austria, Poland and Russia. He engaged in various farming and industrial ventures and married Miriam Gold, a small, deeply religious woman who was reputed to be well-educated in Hebrew. By the standards of his time he was a man of wealth and influence, employing many people in his different businesses. Hersch Book, who married his daughter Bassia had been one of his supervisors, and Toba Kessler, his second wife had been his housekeeper and secretary. In the tradition of wealthy Jews of the time, he raised his oldest son, Yechiel Michael, to be a "Talmud Chochem", that is, a Talmudic scholar.
After he had been married about twenty-four years, and raised five children he and Miriam became estranged. As a successful businessman and traveler, he had become modern, sophisticated, and "Epicurian", while Miriam had retained her traditional Orthodox way of life. About 1888 he procured a "gett" and married his secretary, Toba, a much younger woman, who bore him five more children. His relations with Miriam apparently remained amicable and he continued to support her and her children. He and Toba moved to Lanovitz, a few miles away while Miriam and her children remained in Kreminicz.
About the turn-of-the-century Itzak Eli's political fortunes suffered a reverse. The special dispensation from the Czar permitting him to own land was withdrawn and his farm was confiscated. Anticipating further reverses Miriam's children all emigrated to North America between 1900 and 1906. Miriam's twin sister Reitza had married Tevel Finkelstein and had emigrated to Winnipeg some years earlier. Tevel had become a pioneer Manitoba fur-trader, and is mentioned in some Canadian history texts. With some help from him Bassia and Hersch Book with their children emigrated to Winnipeg and shortly thereafter settled in Star City, a town of a few hundred population in Northern Saskatchewan. A short time earlier Yechiel Michael with his wife and seven children were able to smuggle themselves across the border into Austria, from whence they were able to reach England before their money ran out. After about three years in England they were able to save enough money from the earnings of Yechiel Michael and the older children, to continue their voyage to Winnipeg with some further help from Tevel. They lived first in a house at 494 Flora Avenue, and later moved to a store, with rooms above on 474 Mountain Avenue a few blocks away. The store was run by Yechiel's wife Pearl, while Yechiel Michael, who was a gentle learned a man without any aptitude for business tended the horse and made deliveries.
About the same time Ansia, and her husband Leon Semler with their children had emigrated to Portland, Oregon, while Freda Berger, with her husband Max and children found their way to St. Louis, Missouri. Chia, the youngest of Miriam's children, who had married Colton, was thus the last one remaining in Poland. About 1905 their home was raided by a party of Cossaks in search of money and jewels. While Chia, who is pregnant with Sam at the time, was holding Jack in her arms her husband it was slashed to death before her eyes. Arrangements were made to bring Chia and her son to Winnipeg where she lived with Yechiel Michael and his family for a few years during which time Sam was born and Jack received treatment for scurvy and attended primary school. After a few years in Winnipeg Chia was invited by her oldest sister, Ansia, to join her in Portland. At that time Jewish single girls or widows were in great demand anywhere in North America and shortly after she moved to Portland she married Kessler and bore her third son, Max. It was undoubtedly a mere co-incidence that her second husband's surname was the same as the maiden name of her step-mother.
Toba's children Max and Dobsi emigrated as soon as they came of age. Dobsi married Israel Sopinsky in December 1912 in Lanovitz, and shortly thereafter left with him for Philadelphia. A copy of her marriage contract furnished to us by her son Philip, is reproduced in this booklet. About the same time Max emigrated and settled in Buffalo, changing his name from Bernstein to Brown. Their sister Sarah had married a Russian, converted, and lost contact with the family. Ethel and Herschel remained in Poland where they married and raised their families. They were still there when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and no trace has since been found of them or any of their children.
After Itzak Eli's death, about 1914, Toba remained in Lanovitz with Ethel and Herschel until her death about 1937. Miriam remained in Kreminicz through the first World War and was then brought to Winnipeg through the joint efforts of her brother-in-law Tevel Finkelstein and her grandchildren, Sarah and Moishe Shnier. She moved into the home of her son Yechiel Michael, on Mountain Avenue, where I and other of her Winnipeg great-grandchildren visited her and recall seeing her often, sitting on the porch reading the Talmud or the Chumash. To distinguish her from their grandmothers Pearl and Bassia, and because of her diminutive size, the Winnipeg cousins called her "the Little Baba". She outlived her son Yechiel Michael, by a few months and was moved to the Winnipeg "Moshav Zekanim" where she died in 1922 at about the age of 82. She was buried in Winnipeg in the Finkelstein family plot, where her headstone bears the name "Miriam Gold".
By 1922 most of the family had spread out from Winnipeg. Moishe Shnier had suffered business reverses during the post-war recession, and moved to Melfort, Saskatchewan a few miles from Star City where Bassia and Hersch Book lived. Harry moved with his family to Los Angeles where he shortened his name to Berns. Fanny Paull had moved with her husband to Regina, and Ann Rose had moved with hers to Oklahoma at the invitation of her mother's cousin, Morris Greenspun, who was involved in the Piggly Wigley grocery store chain in Oklahoma and Texas. This left only Yechiel Michael, his wife, his mother Miriam, and his children Abe, 30 Morris, 21 and Bertha, 17, remaining in Winnipeg. Within a period of a few months Yechiel Michael, his wife Pearl, and his mother Miriam all died, followed by Abe, who left a young wife and three small children. Morris, who had recently married was the only member of the immediate family left to shoulder the mounting responsibilities. It was probably from this experience that he developed his concern for the welfare of the family which was to continue until he became afflicted with Parkinson's disease forty years later.
by 1930, partly on account of the Depression, Moishe Shnier moved with his large family back to Emerson, a small town to the south of Winnipeg, and the Books returned to Winnipeg. A new generation was reaching adulthood, and Winnipeg again became the centre of the Canadian Mishpocha. Contact between the Canadian and American branches had continued by mail and by the occasional visit. Max Brown had visited Winnipeg in 1923 but at that time was able to meet only Morris Bernstein who was preoccupied with the family problems. Fifteen years later George Shnier moved to Toronto to start the business that was to become Gesco Distributing Ltd. He was soon followed by his brothers Irving and Norman,