A rich history is exposed
PHOTOGRAPHS chronicle the lives of Quebec Jews, always a small minority
The photograph showing three female singers, one with an accordion, looked somewhat familiar to Erica Travis.
It was taken in Quebec City in the mid-1950s, Travis was newly married, and she was the accordion player at a Jewish fundraising event.
“When I look at this picture I have goose bumps – I can’t remember being like that,” Travis confessed last week as former members of that city’s small Jewish community gathered to reminisce.
The picture is part of a poster advertising the exhibit called Same Cloth, Different Threads that chronicles the Jewish presence in the provincial capital.
It was prepared for last year’s 400th anniversary events in Quebec, and is on display at the YMYWHA in Snowdon.
Quebec City never had a huge Jewish population – it peaked at about 125 families in the late 1960s to early 1970s – since most immigrants preferred Montreal.
But there was a Jewish presence there, going back to Esther Brandau, said to be the first to arrive in Quebec in 1738 when she posed as Jacques Lafarge.
Discovered as a Jew, she was given the choice of converting to Catholicism or leaving … and she left.
But others came, including English merchant Aaron Hart, merchant and banker Abraham Joseph, part of the Hart clan, and Prussian-born Sigismund Mohr, who helped bring electricity and telegraph lines to the city.
For Travis, it was all about love and marriage. It was 1953 and she was visiting from Israel, on leave from the army. She met and married William Travis in Montreal in 1953 and they moved to Quebec City. His family owned and operated five department stores.
Like many of her Jewish friends, the focus of community life was at the synagogue.
“I loved it, it was very friendly, very warm, and for a newcomer I was made to feel very welcome,” Travis said.
Eleven years later, the family left because “the children were growing up, and schooling and interaction with other Jewish people was very limited. We wanted them to live in a bigger community.”
Gerald Weiser was born in Quebec City, the son of a Ukraine-born father, who supported the family as a peddler and freelance photographer at Montmorency Falls.
Then he opened a clothing store on St. Joseph St. in Lower Town, where many of the Jew- ish families lived. It was close to the old synagogue, and Jewish life was centred around it.
“I spoke French before I spoke English. My parents spoke Russian and Yiddish and I learned French on the street, from the neighbourhood children.”
Weiser and his wife, Jean, left in 1984.
“It was an eerie feeling when people started to leave – the community started to shrink,” Jean Weiser reflected. “And you knew your children were going to leave to get their English education. And once the children left, I felt we had to make a new life and move to a bigger city.”
Montreal-born Elsie Skolnik, one of the poster trio, also moved to Quebec City after she got married in 1953. She stayed for 25 years.
“My husband, Joe Skolnik, had a family wholesale and retail business called Montreal Jobbing,” she said. “We lived in Sillery, we had lovely Frenchspeaking neighbours, and we got along with them extremely well.”
“It was a very nice life, it was easy bringing up children, language was not a problem – they all learned French by necessity.
“We were all very active in the synagogue and took part in functions – we baked, cooked and sewed, went canvassing for ads for a community telephone directory. It was a very congenial environment.”
They moved back to Montreal so the children could continue their education here.
Her children were delivered by obstetrician Samuel Pollack. He was one of four children of Maurice Pollack, who went from peddler to department store owner and philanthropist.
Samuel Pollack’s daughter Lana Harper was born in Chicago, where her father did his internship, and moved to Quebec City as a toddler.
Harper, who lived in Quebec City until she was sent to a boarding high school in Boston, recalled one negative anecdote told by her uncle Charles Pollack.
In 1950, Maurice Pollack built an ultra-modern international- style department store on Charest Blvd. where old-timers remember a Star of David above the entrance.
According to the anecdote, then-archbishop Maurice Roy ordered him to remove the symbol or the store would be boycotted. Pollack refused.
“They preached in 70 churches not to shop at Pollack’s,” Harper said.
In response, Pollack had signs removed from delivery trucks so phone orders could be delivered surreptitiously.
“Grandpa drove the truck and finally an edict was passed to rescind the boycott edict,” Harper said.
Apparently Pollack was not bitter, saying this was nothing compared with the virulent antiSemitism in Ukraine that drove hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave for North America.
He prospered and eventually devoted himself to philanthropy, creating a foundation that, among other endeavours, endowed a pavilion at Laval University and created Pollack Hall at McGill University.
Samuel Frestman (left) and Gerry Weiser tour Same Cloth, Different Threads, an exhibit that offers a glimpse of Jewish life in the provincial capital.