Hidden sign reveals history of influential Jewish couple in St. John's

A couple who ran a clothing store on Water Street for decades came to N.L. after surviving the Second World War as Jewish resistance fighters living in the woods.

The Fermans ran a clothing store after surviving Holocaust as resistance fighters

The Lewis Ferman & Co. sign, almost as it looked when intact. (Provided by Terra Barrett)

"Anyone know who Lewis Ferman and Co. were?"

That short question, asked in a tweet on Monday afternoon, began the rediscovery of a St. John's couple who came to Newfoundland from Poland, where they were Jewish resistance fighters who formed a community in the Belarusian woods during the Second World War.

If that sounds like a movie, it was. People like Lewis Ferman and his wife Grunia Ferman, whom he met in the resistance camp, were the real-life inspiration for the 2008 movie Defiance.

"It's an incredible, incredible story," said Dale Jarvis, folklorist and intangible cultural heritage officer with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.

For a short time yesterday afternoon it looked like part of that story — the long wooden sign that hung above the clothing store the Fermans ran on Water Street — would be lost to the dump.

Jewish resistance fighters

The Fermans met while both were living in the Naliboki Forest, in current-day Belarus, with one of the organized camps of Jewish resistance fighters led by leader Tuvia Bielski. Those camps eventually became home to 1,200 Jews seeking refuge from the Nazi concentration camps.

Lewis Ferman was an electrician and explosives expert who sabotaged German supply lines and rescued people from the Jewish ghettos, Jarvis said.

He had lost his wife and daughter, who were among the Jews killed by the Nazis in Lida, currently located in Belarus.

Grunia Movschovitch found refuge at the camp, where she worked as a nurse, after her brother was shot trying to escape from a Nazi-occupied ghetto in Poland, and her father and brother were sent to a concentration camp.

The couple survived the war, and came to St. John's with the help of the Wilansky family, Jarvis said. The province's Jewish community is small, with only 285 members according to the 2016 census, but longstanding.

According to the Atlantic Jewish Council, the first Jewish settler to the island of Newfoundland was believed to have arrived from England around 1800, though others travelled here for the salt fish and fur trades as early as the 1770s.

Folklorist Dale Jarvis ran down to the construction site when he saw a tweet about the Lewis Ferman and Co. sign. (Paula Gale/CBC)

More than 12,000 individual applications from Jewish would-be refugees to Newfoundland and Labrador were rejected by various governments and administrations, despite a need for immigrants generally and doctors and entrepreneurs specifically, according to the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

After the province joined Canada in 1949, the local Jewish community helped 26 families who survived the Holocaust move to Newfoundland and Labrador. The Fermans were among them.

Influential in St. John's

Once here, the couple set up Lewis Ferman and Co., a women's clothing store, on Water Street. Ferman would also travel to other communities, including Placentia Bay, selling women's clothing.

"They were really influential people along Water Street," Jarvis said.

"He worked unofficially as a translator. If there were people who came in who needed things translated, he would translate for them."

The wooden sign hung above this storefront, which was last a location of the Subway franchise. (Provided by Terra Barrett)

One woman wrote to Jarvis yesterday to tell him that she remembered Lewis Ferman coming to the Grace Hospital, where she worked, to translate for patients.

An old Torah he was given by a Polish sailor in 1972 while working as a translator for a ship crew that came into St. John's was donated to the local Beth-El congregation.

The Fermans, who had two children, ran their store for several decades and moved to Toronto in the late 1980s. Over those years, the couple, who also started the city's Holocaust remembrance service, made an impact in the community.

When Dale Jarvis and Terra Barrett arrived at the construction site, the wooden sign had been cut into pieces and removed from the facade. (Provided by Terra Barrett)

"It's interesting how many people have memories of them, or their grandparents knew them," Jarvis said, after hearing many of these stories for the first time Monday.

"So it's really quite a remarkable story that was hidden behind the Subway sign on Water Street."

'We literally ran'

That sign, original to the former store and still intact, was uncovered unexpectedly during renovations on the building, which had for many years been the home of a Subway franchise.

Jarvis happened to be on Twitter when the tweet wondering about the sign's history was posted, and quickly took action to save it.

"Myself and a coworker, Terra Barrett, we literally ran from our office on Springdale Street down to Water," he said. "The sign was in pieces at that point, but we managed to salvage the pieces and bring it back to our office."

The sign's pieces were set to be taken away to the dump with other debris from the construction site. (Provided by Terra Barrett)

That's where it's sitting now, saved but in questionable shape.

Jarvis said he plans to reach out to people who may know where the sign's next, and more permanent, home should be, and welcomes inquiries from anyone with expertise that may be helpful.

The city's heritage regulations don't necessarily apply to objects like signs uncovered during renovations, and construction workers were instructed to get it off the building — which is how it ended up in six or seven pieces — and throw it out along with other materials from the site.

When Jarvis and Barrett arrived at the site, a construction worker was putting materials — sign pieces included — in a wheelbarrow and taking it to the dumpster.

"If we had been 10 minutes later, that would have been in the dumpster and heading to the dump."

With files from On the Go

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story misspelled the surname of the Wilansky family. It has been corrected.
    Oct 02, 2018 4:20 PM NT