Nfld. & Labrador

'It means an awful lot': Family members thrilled at uncovering of Ferman sign

The public response since the original Lewis Ferman and Co. sign was found on Water Street has been emotional, the couple's son says.

Sign for clothing store Lewis Ferman and Co. uncovered during construction on Water Street

Lewis and Grunia Ferman met during the Second World War. (Provided by Michael Ferman)

The uncovering of the original sign from his family's St. John's store, and the warm response that has followed, has been been an emotional experience, says the son of a Jewish couple who came to St. John's after surviving the Holocaust as resistance fighters.

"They had suffered so much and they went through such a time of not having any food to eat or water to drink, and fighting against the Nazis in the woods," Alan Ferman said of his parents, Lewis and Grunia Ferman, who ran a clothing shop in downtown St. John's after coming to Canada.

"When they came to St. John's they felt like this was the greatest place in the world. and you know, people just really went out of their way to be kind and nice to them and my parents gave it back in droves to people," Ferman told the St. John's Morning Show Friday.

Stories about his parents' lives — including their original meeting as members of the Beilski Brigade resistance, a community of Jews who survived the Second World War living in the Naliboki Forest of Eastern Europe — have resurfaced since Brad Collins sent a tweet Monday asking who Lewis Ferman was.

Brad Collins noticed this sign during construction on a Water Street building, and sent a tweet with a photo wondering who Lewis Ferman was. (Provided by Brad Collins)

That tweet, with a picture of the sign found during construction, led to provincial folklorist Dale Jarvis rushing to the site to save a piece of St. John's history.

But it also prompted people who knew Lewis and Grunia Ferman to begin to tell the story of their lives.

From the Naliboki Forest to St. John's

The Fermans experienced considerable tragedy and hardship in their earlier years. Both escaped Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland, where Lewis lost his wife and child and Grunia her father and two brothers. They survived the war thanks to the Bielski brigade, which was documented in the 2008 film Defiance.

"When you hear the stories from somebody else it's hard to believe, but when you hear it from your parents you realize how real it was and how difficult it was," Alan Ferman said of that time in his parents' lives.

Lewis, a munitions expert, and Grunia, a nurse, met in the Naliboki Forest and survived the war. Displaced afterward, they first went to Austria, then to Venice, then to Rome.

When Dale Jarvis and his colleague arrived at the construction site, the Ferman sign was in pieces. (Provided by Dale Jarvis)

Then the family learned they had relatives in St. John's. In 1947 they flew across the Atlantic to move to a place they'd never seen. 

"They had an opportunity to come to a community, to come to a city, a country that really put their arms around them and welcomed them like their own," said Michael Ferman, the couple's grandson.

Part of the community

The welcome continued as they settled in St. John's and opened Lewis Ferman and Co., a clothing store with women's fashions on the main floor and men's and children's on the upper.

The Fermans were one of several Jewish St. John's families in the retail business. The community had about 150 families at its peak, and members like Vera Perlin and Leonard Miller made lasting contributions to the city's business and cultural life.

Grunia and Lewis Ferman, pictured together in a family photograph. (Submitted by Michael Ferman)

"A lot of them didn't have a chance to finish school and that's what was open to them, was business," said Claire Frankel-Salama, who met the Fermans when she moved to St. John's 35 years ago. 

Frankel-Salama remembered a party for Lewis Ferman's 80th birthday, held shortly before the couple moved to Toronto be closer to their children and grandchildren.

"Even when he was 80, if he shook your hand your hand felt it for a little while afterwards," she said. 

"He was a very strong man in all ways. In his character, in his beliefs, physically."

Paying it forward

Lewis and Grunia Ferman believed it was important to extend the kindness they'd experienced to others in their community, Alan Ferman said. 

The family's store on Water Street was both a place of business and a community meeting place.

"They would come in to have a cup of coffee, or say hello, or talk about the weather," said Ferman, who remembers working in the store as a child. 

"It was like a melting pot, the store. People from all over the Avalon would come there and talk and my father used to say, every one of the customers are really our friends."

Lewis Ferman at a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Jewish concentration camps from the Nazis. (Provided by Michael Ferman)

Lewis Ferman spoke nine languages, and often put that skill to use. People at the hospitals around town used to call him Dr. Ferman because he was so often there to translate for patients from Russian and Polish ships, Alan Ferman said.

And the couple were active in the local community as well, visiting people around the holidays — Jewish and Christian — and initiating the city's Holocaust remembrance service.

"It was wonderful for them, after being through the hell of the Holocaust," Alan Ferman said.

Sign to be part of exhibit at The Rooms

Now uncovered and saved, albeit in pieces, the Fermans' store sign will be preserved and eventually become part of an exhibition on the province's Jewish community that the provincial museum has been working on for more than a year.

"It was always a plan to create other stories besides what you'd typically hear in Newfoundland," said The Rooms curator Maureen Power, who said the Jewish exhibit would be near an existing one on the history of the province's Chinese community.

Lewis and Grunia Ferman, seen in a family photo. (Provided by Michael Ferman)

Alan Ferman hopes to be there when the exhibit is eventually opened, to see the sign that has brought back many wonderful memories for him and his family over the past few days.

"It means an awful lot to me," he said.

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates, Here & Now and the St. John's Morning Show

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