From peddlers to doctors to fox farming: Hidden history of P.E.I.'s Jews uncovered

A researcher from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who recently moved to P.E.I. has discovered there is much more to the history of Jews on the Island than he ever suspected.

'All together there was about two paragraphs'

Fox farmer Leo Frank was one of the most prominent Jews in P.E.I. history. (Submitted by Joseph Glass)

A researcher from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who recently moved to P.E.I. has discovered there is much more to the history of Jews on the Island than he ever suspected.

"I was quite curious about the history of the Jews of Prince Edward Island and I found that nothing had been written about them," said Joseph Glass.

"All together there was about two paragraphs."

Glass started with the basics, going through censuses and enumeration papers to first determine just how many Jews had lived on the Island. He found more than he expected, more than 100 in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Jews in the 19th century

The earliest he discovered was a tailor named Joseph Levy who arrived in the 1840s and stayed about 20 years, living in Princetown, which is now Malpeque. A number of Jewish peddlers arrived in the 1870s and tried to establish businesses, but they only stayed a year or two.

The peddler traffic increased in the 1890s, and some ended up staying, and the Jewish population began to grow.

They had the first Jewish wedding on the Island.- Joseph Glass

The censuses did not turn out to be a good source for uncovering these peddlers, because they would often come and go between censuses, and never be recorded.

"There was a family, the Hoffmans, who arrived on the Island in 1912 and stayed here until 1916, so they wouldn't have been picked up on the census," said Glass.

"The Hoffman family ran a clothing store called National Clothing. And what's interesting about the Hoffmans as well is that they had the first Jewish wedding on the Island."

That 1913 wedding was front page news in the Charlottetown Guardian. As far as Glass can determine, there hasn't been an official Jewish wedding on the Island since.

Jews on the Island in WWII

There were a number of Jews who trained at airfields on the Island during the Second World War. They did not settle in the province, but the war also created a doctor shortage, as doctors signed up for military service.

There were efforts to attract doctors who were Jewish refugees, and that brought Dr. Sydney Bandler in 1943. Bandler was a prominent doctor in West Prince, and contributed to the founding of Western Hospital in Alberton.

Perhaps the most prominent Jew ever on the Island was Leo Frank, who ran a fox farm in Rosebank from 1915 to 1944.

"He stands out among the Jewish population because at first he wasn't connected to them," said Glass.

Joseph Glass is writing a book about the history of Jews on P.E.I. (UPEI)

The only way you would have known that he was Jewish is if you had looked at his census enumeration page."

In the 1921 census Frank said he was born in Scotland, but he identified as a Jew both ethnically and religiously.

"If you looked at the newspapers of that time you would have no idea that Leo Frank was Jewish," said Glass.

Frank was an experimenter, mixing breeds to make unique pelts, developing new feeds and selling them to other fox farmers. He promoted not just his own farm, but fox farming on the Island in general.

"He was a personality that was larger than life. He was a promoter," said Glass.

Glass is writing a book on the history of the Jewish people on Prince Edward Island that will cover up to the mid-20th century.

On Tuesday night he will give a lecture at UPEI on the life and times of Leo Frank.

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