Jewish Farmers on the Canadian Prairies

Please do click on the links in the text. They lead to so much fascinating information.

This post on Jewish farmers on the Canadian prairies was inspired by Land of Hope, the memoirs of Clara Hoffer. In 1907 Clara’s husband, Israel, co-founded the Sonnenfeld Colony in Saskatchewan. Clara had lived previously a little further north with her parents in the Lipton Colony, which was founded by Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 1901. Land of Hope was sent to me by Mark Gardner whose grandfather Aaron and great-uncle Harry also settled in Sonnenfeld. I am very grateful.

The Background

Louis Rosenberg, JCA Western Canada Director, 1916. Courtesy of Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Between 1884 and 1912 thirty-one Jewish farming settlements were formed on the Canadian prairies spread out among three western provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. 1 That is quite a hefty figure. Especially, when we remember that farming was not at all a typical Jewish profession where these settlers came from, Eastern Europe and Russia.

But somehow in Canada, things were different. As the Western Canada Director of Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association, Louis Rosenberg noted, among all the peoples who settled in Canada, the percentage of those who farmed in Canada is lower than the percentage who farmed in their country of origin. Except for the Jews. By coming to Canada the Jews actually increased the percentage of farmers in their community. 2

And in Saskatchewan where most of the Jewish farming colonies were located, Jewish homesteaders were some of the first in the province. They arrived before the Doukhobors, Russians, Germans, Hungarians, and Ukrainians. “Only the “Mennonites and immigrants from Britain and Iceland,” preceded the Jews.3 In fact, the earliest marked grave in all of the Canadian prairies can be found in the Hirsch Colony cemetery. It belongs to Judah Blank and is dated December 18, 1894. 4

Baron Hirsch Helps Them Out

Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Baron Hirsch’s generosity helped many of these farmers. ( For a thorough discussion of how Baron Hirsch funds came to Canada see Chiel, Arthur (1961) Agricultural Attempts, “The Jews of Manitoba, ” University of Toronto Press, 1961. ) Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) only established two of the colonies, Hirsch and Lipton. But there was not one farming community “in the whole of Canada that [did] not benefit … from the assistance of [the JCA].” 5 The JCA helped build synagogues, offered the original capital for cooperatives, paid for teachers and rabbis, and gave out loans at half the usual bank rates, over 2000 loans between 1900 and 1923. 6

Spirit of Jewish farm colonies lives on, Leader-Post, Regina, July 5, 1980, pp. 8-9.

In fact, when the Regina, Saskatchewan Leader-Post published a story in July 1980 on the Jewish Farming Communities, they chose as their lead photo a portrait of the Baron.

This post is just an outline of this Canadian prairie story and doesn’t cover all of the settlements. There is so much more to tell and so many wonderful sources. So click on all the links in the text and footnotes and enjoy the richness of this history. Note that in footnote nr. 7 you can find a list of major works on this agricultural adventure.7

And if you are looking for information on a particular Jewish Canadian prairie farmer go to the website of the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network and put his or her name into the search bar. You could be amazed by what you find.

The Beginning

Sir Alexander Galt8

The year was 1882 and Sir Alexander Galt, Canada’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) in London was looking to help the Canadian government populate the Canadian West. The West had just become part of Canada a dozen years before. A transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific, was being built, and treaties with the indigenous peoples had made the land available for settlers. Interestingly, the Canadians not only sought to build out their nation. They also wanted to settle the West quickly because they feared that pioneers in the United States would seek to extend the border further north. In addition, Galt had plans to build railroads to hook up with the transcontinental to transfer the coal from his newly purchased mines.

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  1. FRIEDGUT, T. H. (2007). Jewish pioneers on Canada’s prairies: The Lipton Jewish agricultural colony. Jewish History, 21(3/4), p. 390. []
  2. Rosenberg, Louis, (1939) ” “Jews in Agriculture,” in Canada’s Jews: A social and economic study of Jews in Canada in the 1930s, p 218. , Text available at archive.net To use archive.net you need to establish a free account. []
  3. Feldman, Anna (1995) A Woman of Valor, Who Can Find, Jewish-Saskatchewan Women in Two Rural Settings, 1882-1939, Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women, eds: David De Brou, ‎Aileen Moffatt, University of Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, p. 62 []
  4. Archer, John, Early Jewish Settlement in Western Canada, Part II, Viewpoint, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1967, p. 4 []
  5. Rosenberg (1939) p 218. archive.net To use archive.net you need to establish a free account. []
  6. Belkin, Simon (1926), “Jewish Colonization in Canada,” in Arthur Daniel Hart, ed., The Jew in Canada (Toronto and Montreal), pp. 486-487 (pp. 506-507 in the digital version. ) []
  7. Major Works on Jewish Farmers on the Canadian Prairies:

    Chiel, Arthur (1961) “Agricultural Attempts, “The Jews of Manitoba, ” University of Toronto Press, pp. 43- 47,

    Settling the West: Immigration to the Prairies from 1867 to 1914, Canadian Museum of Immigration, Jan. 2022.

    Belkin, Simon (1926), “Jewish Colonization in Canada,” in Arthur Daniel Hart, ed., The Jew in Canada (Toronto and Montreal), pp. 483-488 (pp. 503-508 in the digital version),

    Wolff, Martin. “THE JEWS OF CANADA.” The American Jewish Year Book 27 (1925): 154–229. ( see especially Agricultural Colonies pp. 192-198)

    Rosenberg, Louis (1939), Jews in Agriculture, Canada’s Jews, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 217-225. (This is on archive.net. To use archive.net you need to establish a free account.) []

  8. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3215898  []

Baron Hirsch, An Amazing New Biography

Mathias Lehmann, professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Irvine has just published The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century. a biography of Baron Hirsch that fills a major gap, the lack of biographies of the Baron in English. 1

And Lehmann also provides us an eyewitness view of so much of Baron Hirsch’s life, based on Lehmann’s extensive archival research in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Israel, Turkey, and the United States.

The Embankment, Ostend, Belgium 1890s , the resort to which Baron Hirsch was summoned by King Leopold II, Library of Congress.

Readers will enjoy this very readable and delightfully detailed text that describes human beings, not just historical figures. We are able to see the building of transcontinental railroads and the formation of huge refugee projects from the details of the daily activities that led to these achievements, as exemplified by the book’s first paragraph ” At seven o’clock one summer morning in August 1895, Maurice de Hirsch, accompanied by his twenty-nine-year-old son Lucien, set out from Boitsfort, on the outskirts of Brussels, to catch the express train to the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend. The reason for that morning’s journey was a summons by King Leopold II, who was eager to convince the prominent Jewish banker and businessman to invest in the construction of a new railroad in the Belgian Congo.” 2

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  1. Other biographies include Grunwald, Kurt, Turkenhirsch: Study of Baron Maurice De Hirsch, 1966; Frischer, DominiqueEl Moises de las Americas: Vida Y Obra Del Baron De Hirsch (trans from French), 2004; Lee, Samuel,  Moses of the New World: The Work of Baron Hirsch (1970); Rozenblum, Serge-Allian Le Baron De Hirsch: Un Financier Au Service De L’humanite2006 []
  2. Lehmann, Mathias (2022). The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 19. []

Baron Hirsch’s Brazilian Jewish Farming Communities

This post contains a short history of the first Brazilian Jewish farming communities supported by Baron Hirsch’s legacy and some references. You can read about eyewitness descriptions of these communities here.

Available on Amazon or at archive.org.

Baron Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Agency (JCA) in 1891  “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia… and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America ….”. And during the Baron’s lifetime, the Agency supported farming communities for Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Argentina, the United States, and  Canada.

But after the Baron died in 1896, bequeathing seven million pounds sterling (equivalent to $US 1.12 billion in today’s dollars) to the JCA,1  a newly elected board of trustees voted to use some of this windfall to expand JCA’s colonization activities to southern Brazil,2where the JCA purchased land in 1902.3

For those willing to emigrate to these colonies the JCA offered to ” cover travel expenses and provide each settler with 25-30 hectares [60-75 acres] of land, a house, agricultural implements, two teams of oxen, two cows, one horse and an allowance that varied in accordance with the size of the family, payable once it had become self-sufficient.”  4

Philippson (Filipson), 720 miles south of São Paulo

Homesteaders first reached the JCA’s first Brazilian colony, Philippson, or Filipson in Portuguese, in 1904. Philippson was located near the city of Santa Maria in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The JCA had not yet built the houses they had promised, so the thirty-seven families were housed in barracks. It took months for the settlers to be assigned land and, once assigned, they discovered it was very hard to farm.

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  1. LESSER, Jeff (1991). Jewish Colonization in Rio Grande Do Sul, 1904-1925, São Paulo: Centro de Estudos de Demografia Historica da America Latina, p. 24 []
  2. GRITTI, Isabel Rosa (1997). Imigração judaica no Rio Grande do Sul: a Jewish Colonization Association e a colonização de Quatro Irmãos, Porto Alegre: Martins Livreiro-Editor, p. 19. []
  3. NORMAN, Theodore (1985). An outstretched arm: a history of the Jewish Colonization Association, London: Routledge & K. Paul, p. 90  Also read an account of the status of the JCA in 1906 here []
  4. Falbel, Nachman. “Jewish agricultural settlement in Brazil,”  Jewish History (2007) 21, p. 329. []

Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Farmers Dream

Where did it come from?

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, White House Historical Association

Dreams of turning Jewish tradesmen into farmers date back to the mid-eighteenth century and feature some strange bedfellows. Besides Baron Hirsch, these utopian efforts involved Polish patriots, Russian Czars, German Mennonites, and of course, the Zionists. Like Thomas Jefferson, these Europeans and many other eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thinkers believed that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens . . , the most vigorous. . . [and] the most virtuous.”1

The idea of turning Jews into farmers to make them vigorous and virtuous was first proposed In Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century when Austria, Germany, and Russia were trying to gobble up Poland. To ward off this national decapitation the Polish government sought to strengthen Polish society.  One concern was the large number of non-assimilated Jews who had settled in Poland since the 12th Century because of the relatively liberal environment that allowed them to prosper and practice their religion. Many of the Jews worked for the nobles, managing estates and selling crops.   

By the late 18th century, half of the world’s Jews, about 1.5 million, lived in Poland. The Polish bourgeoisie considered this large community of Jews to be unwelcome competitors and the general populous put the Jews in the same basket as the nobles, resenting both.  Polish leaders saw these conflicts as one more cause for the weakness of the country. They thought that if Jews would become farmers they would be like everyone else and the conflicts would cease. Plans were drawn up but were never implemented.  And Austria, Germany, and Russia did gobble up Poland. 

The areas of Poland annexed by Russia are shown in mauve, lilac, and gray.

The majority of the Polish Jews, approximately 1 million, lived in the areas of Eastern Poland that were annexed by Russia between 1772 and 1795. (Listen to a discussion on how this annexation affected these Polish Jews.)

 So when Czar Alexander I rose to the throne in 1801 he faced a dual dilemma. First, how could he populate New Russia and Crimea in southern Russia, lands recently conquered from the Ottomans following the Russo-Turkish Wars? In addition, how could the Czar integrate the one million Jews who had recently come under Russian rule through these partitions of Poland

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  1. JEFFERSON, Thomas. Letter to John Jay, Aug. 23, 1785, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (DLC) Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. []

FLEISCHMANNS

A HEBREW HAMLET IN THE CATSKILLS

Where did early 20th Century Jewish shopkeepers earn so much that they wintered in Paris’ most elegant hotel? In Fleischmanns, a summer home for wealthy German-American Jews, founded in the Western Catskills, in 1883 by Charles Fleischmann of the yeast company fame.

These wealthy summer residents drew lots of Jewish entrepreneurs, many of Hungarian origin, who set up stores, hotels, and camps to service this affluent community. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th Century Eastern European Jewish farmers, storekeepers, and summer visitors also added to the area’s population.

Did Baron Hirsch assist these farmers or contribute funds for the synagogue the Fleischmanns’ Jewish community built in 1920, Congregation B’nai Israel? The answer will have to wait until I can visit the Baron Hirsch archives in New York sometime this year. But meanwhile here is some history of this community taken from a presentation at Congregation B’nai Israel I made in July 2021 which you can watch here.

How did Fleischmanns become a Jewish village?  It all started with Joseph Seligmann, a Jew from Bavaria. He arrived in the US in 1837 at the age of 18.  By the late 1870s, he was a multi-millionaire, his family having made a fortune clothing the Union army.  Years later they even helped finance the Panama Canal.

In the summer of 1877, Seligmann took his family to Saratoga, NY a very fashionable resort, to stay at the Grand Union Hotel where they had stayed before.  But this time he and his family were turned away because they were “Hebrews”.  As we shall see, it could be said that this act of anti-Semitism was what caused Fleischmann’s founding. 

The Seligmann affair became a major scandal widely reported, including in the NY Times. 1. There was even a song written about it:

“The Hebrews they need not apply; the reason we do not know why; But still they do say, it’s a free country; where the Hebrews they need not apply!

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  1. New York Times, June 19, 1877, p. 1. []

Life on a Toms River Chicken Farm

The Good, the Bad and the Worse

By Joyce Zelnick Weiss

This story was kindly shared by Joyce Zelnick Weiss. Another story of Growing up on a Chicken Farm in Toms River, by Joyce’s husband Ben Weiss can be found by clicking here.

Toms River, NJ, near the shore just south of Lakewood, 80 miles from Brooklyn

How did a little girl from the big city end up on a chicken farm in the middle of New Jersey?


I will try to tell you my story of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In the 1940s Toms River was much further from Brooklyn than it is now. Transportation was not readily available. We would ride on a bus for a few hours while passengers came and went at various stops in New Jersey. For those lucky enough to have a car it was a shorter trip.

BROOKLYN – TOMS RIVER

I was 9 years old when my father, Max, and mother, Bess, decided to move to Toms River. My father was a pharmacist who owned his own store in Brooklyn, N.Y. We lived on the top floor of a two-family house, and Bess’s parents lived downstairs. My parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and it was common to live close to the relatives and friends that one knew from the old country. So my comfort circle of people that I saw all the time were mostly all related to us.

We used to visit my Uncle Philip and Aunt Bertha in Toms River, New Jersey, on their chicken farm which they bought after selling their grocery business in Newark, N.J. Uncle Philip was one of my father’s older brothers, and he was married to Aunt Bertha.

I don’t know how my relatives ended up in Toms River, and I never did find out but, for reasons unknown to me, my parents decided that getting out of the city and moving to the country was a good decision for them and for their children. I don’t recall how long it took for us to pack up and move, but before I knew what was happening, we had moved.

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Baron Hirsch Genealogical and Historical Archives

BREAKING NEWS:

Online searching is available for Baron Hirsch related genealogical records available through the Center for Jewish History in New York. See the video at this Facebook link below for instructions. Some complete records are online, and when only a reference to a record is online you can request the full document from the Center.

Baron Maurice de Hirsch

https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=524793465186555&ref=watch_permalink

More Archives

In addition, the genealogical and historical archives described below (alphabetized by city) contain reports and correspondence relating to Baron Hirsch-funded Jewish farming projects and individual immigrants who received aid from the Baron Hirsch charitable organizations. These archives are scattered around the world. Some of the holdings have been uploaded digitally – see the links below – but most are only available on-site.

For texts in French, Spanish and Portuguese I suggest copy-pasting into google translate. It really works.

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The Catskills, Farming the Jewish Alps

Hospitality and Kosher Chickens

Original Grossinger Farm at Ferndale, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

In 1913, Selig and Malke Grossinger, aided by the Baron Hirsch Fund’s Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), bought a farm in the Catskills Mountains in Ferndale, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan. They began to take in paying guests who were fleeing New York City’s heat and humidity each summer. 1

The Grossingers were among the close to two thousand other Jewish immigrant families who bought farms in the foothills of the Catskills mountains in the 1890s or during the first decades of the twentieth century, many with JAS assistance. Like these other farmers, the Grossingers found that the rocky Catskills soil, which had allowed them to buy the land cheaply, did not respond well to crop raising. 

Grossingers Front View, Liberty, NY, Library of Congress, John Margolies, photographer

But summer guests seeking cool air and kosher food were indeed profitable. The Grossingers’ enterprise became extremely profitable, with 150,000 guests each year, served in a property of over 1200 acres that boasted its own airfield and performers as famous as Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. Grossingers was also the first resort in the country to use artificial snow on its ski slopes. And Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married at Grossingers.

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  1. Lavender, Abraham, and Steinberg, Clarence, Jewish farmers of the Catskills, In the Catskills, A Century of the Jewish Experience in The Mountains. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 33. []

Nightingale’s Nest, a Catskill Summer Story

This delightful short story was offered to thebaronhirschcommunity.org by the author’s daughter, Nora Fischer Kisch, and the author’s niece and nephew, Tamra Hope Miller and Jon Meyerson. We are very grateful for their generosity.

An Ulster County farm in 1922

The Nightingale’s Nest takes place in 1920 on a Jewish farm in Ulster County NY, in the Catskill mountains, 100 miles northwest of Manhattan. You can read more about Jewish farming in the Catskills and the Baron Hirsch Fund’s support for these efforts right here.

Many Jewish farmers in the Catskills,, like the family in The Nightingale’s Nest, rented rooms to summer visitors from crowded New York neighborhoods. These paying guests frequently were on the kuchalayn plan, cooking their own meals, offering the farmers a ready market for their products. Like the Lippman – Miller family, from Belarus, described in this story, these Jewish farmers often obtained financing to purchase these farms from the Baron Hirsch Jewish Agricultural Society.

In 1936 the author and her mystery writer husband, Bruno Fischer, returned to the idyllic landscapes north of New York City where they became founders of the Three Arrows Cooperative Society , a 125 acre vacation colony based on socialist ideas. Located just south of the Catskills in Putnam Valley, NY , Three Arrows is still active and homes are for sale.

The Catskill’s Nightingale’s Nest

by Ruth Fischer
The author, Ruth Fischer, about the time when she wrote the Nightingale’s Nest. ( courtesy of Nora Fischer Kisch)

Nobody cared for animals more than Grandma, if they met her simple specifications of giving milk or eggs. She tolerated a cat for necessary service, but it was only grudgingly given house room.


For as long as I can remember, there was a running battle between my grandmother and grandfather because of his affection for a horse. During the summer when the horse grazed on the open fields and required no greater expenditure than labor, she could overlook his absurd extravagance. But in the winter it was a different story; she would make life miserable for poor Grandpa when the feed bills came in.

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On a Clear April Morning Highlights

Preface and Chapter 1

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Academic Studies Press

Series: Jewish Latin American Studies June 2020 | 146 pp.

9781644692981 | $22.95 | Paperback

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SUMMARY

On a Clear April Morning, by Marcos Iolovitch, is a lyrical and riveting coming of age story set among early twentieth-century settlers brought to an almost unknown Jewish farming experiment in an isolated corner of Brazil. This autobiographical novel is filled with drama, joy, disasters, romance, and humor. It travels from farms where the crops won’t grow to towns where the Yiddish-speaking protagonist falls in love, befriends sons of German immigrants, studies philosophy with the Jesuits, and becomes an important member of Brazil’s literary world. This first English edition includes elucidating historical notes on the origin of Jewish farming communities in the U.S., Canada and South America by the translator, Merrie Blocker, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.

About the author and translator

Born in a small Ukrainian village, Marcos Iolovitch was raised in southern Brazil among poor Jewish farmers and peddlers. He became a noted poet and essayist and practiced law. A fighter for social justice, he dedicated his autobiographical novel to “all those who suffer and dream of a better world.”

Merrie Blocker is a former U.S. diplomat who served as Cultural Attaché in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the setting for On a Clear April Morning, as well as in Central Asia, Romania and throughout Latin America.

Translator’s Preface

Marcos Iolovitch, author of On a Clear April Morning, was an avid student of the great philosophers. But he believed that to reach “true wisdom” we need to open our windows and observe the “subtle shades of reality that envelope” us. In this autobiographical novel, in which a young man seeks to find a righteous and fulfilling path, we watch this charming and caring protagonist discover his own wisdom through the realities that envelop him, the realities of Jewish immigrants in southern Brazil during the first decades of the twentieth century.

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