Exploring Hamilton’s Jewish history
October 18, 2012 | Judy Weinryb - Correspondent
HAMILTON - From the Farming Workshop of Working Family Stories and Treasures:
Henry Muller’s family left Czechoslovakia in 1939....
“My dad went to the Canadian consul and said, “I need eight visas – four for my family and four for my brother.” And the guy says, “We only give visas to farmers and nobody else.” And my father said, “I’m a farmer.” He says, “Show me your hands.” And he says, “Those are not the hands of a farmer.” We were wholesale retail grocery and commodity players so we were not farmers, so the hands did not look like farmers’ hands.”
Henry Muller’s father was able to convince the consul to grant him a visa and established a farm near Hamilton.
The Jewish community of Hamilton is honouring its history by presenting a nostalgic exhibit of stories and artwork at the ‘you me gallery’ at 330 James St. N., from Oct. 12 to Nov. 4. Called Haimish, which is loosely interpreted as homey in Yiddish, the exhibit is set in the warmth and comfort of the collective living room of the community, inviting those who attend to view artwork, historical objects and photos from days gone by. Visitors can watch a video on a tube television set or listen to interviews played on an antique radio, as they pull up a chair and go back in time.
Hamilton Jewry has a rich history that clearly exemplifies a strong work ethic. During the period from the ’20s till the ’70s, the downtown core boasted many Jewish-owned businesses, including shops and eateries where the owners often lived above their stores.
As well, scrap yards were established by Jewish pedlars who collected pieces of metal and sold them to the steel companies, who in turn melted them down or, in essence, recycled them in their plants. A third form of enterprise was the arrival of the Jewish farmer to the area, which began before World War II, when the Canadian government offered land to people who were prepared to be farmers – if they agreed to stay for at least five years.
Haimish is the brainchild of local history enthusiasts Kathryn Petersen and Lyn Center, both of whom have been involved with the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton. As part of the planning process, Working Family Stories and Treasures (WFST) of the Hamilton Jewish Community organized workshops led by local artists who guided their participants in creatively sharing their unique family histories. Reaching out to Jewish community agencies and schools, the project has enabled seniors and students alike to express themselves through such media as writing, printmaking and photography. Stories have been translated into monologues and skits, many of which have been filmed for the exhibit. In essence, linkages have been made that not only evoke the past but also bring together generations in the present.
The vision for the event, however, goes far beyond the current exhibit.
Melinda Richter, curator and project manager, would like to share the tools that have been developed by the WFST with other communities who may wish to develop similar programs.
The website, www.WFST.ca, which they hope will be up in early 2013, will include a format that can be downloaded and will offer resources and guidance, if requested.
For further information about the exhibit, contact Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.