Story of Saskatchewan's Jewish farmers goes to national museum

A scholar has donated 40 years of research about Saskatchewan's lost Jewish colonies to the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Thousands settled around Edenbridge, Lipton, Hirsch, other towns

One of the Saskatchewan Jewish farm colonies was formed around Lipton. Shown here are farmers threshing wheat in 1925. (National Archives)

They were established a over century ago and had names like Edenbridge, New Jerusalem and Sonnenfeld.

They are the lost Jewish farming colonies of Saskatchewan.

Jews began arriving in the region starting in the 1880s, before Saskatchewan was a province, with many fleeing from poverty and persecution in Europe.

By the early 1930s, thousands of Jewish farmers and family members lived in Saskatchewan on homesteads near small towns.

'Being a farmer at that particular time, you developed a certain type of personality. They loved challenges because life was a tremendous challenge.'—Anna Feldman

All that remains today are some abandoned buildings, including a few synagogues, the graves of the original settlers and lots of open prairie where family farms used to be.

For the most part, knowledge of these places has faded, even among the people who still live and farm near the old colony sites.

Jewish settlers had once hoped 10,000 families would make their homes around Hirsch, but today it's a ghost town. (Google Street View)

However, a recent donation by a scholar to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., could shed new light on an overlooked chapter of Saskatchewan history.

The scholar is Anna Feldman, who is in her 80s and lives in a downtown Toronto seniors' complex.

Sask. farm colonies focus of career

Before her retirement, Feldman spent a 40-year academic career amassing research on the lost Saskatchewan communities.

Members of the Lipton Jewish colony gather around a Model T. (National Archives)

She's hoping the donation of her life’s work to the federal government will help recover those lost memories

"I was so fascinated by [this work]," Feldman said in a recent interview, "First, because of the farmers. Being a farmer at that particular time, you developed a certain type of personality. They loved challenges because life was a tremendous challenge."

Over the course of her lifetime, Feldman conducted hundreds of interviews with former colonists, collected thousands of documents and photos and studied their music.

Saskatchewan's secret history of Yiddish songs

When large numbers of the colonists arrived in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, they had few resources and certainly no money to spend on entertainment.

So they made their own fun, including composing and performing original songs — in Yiddish — for their fellow colonists.

In the 1960s, Feldman recorded a number of the songs and remembers some well enough to perform them for visitors to her apartment.

One her favourites is Un Du Akerst — [And You Harvest] — which might have been on the Sonnenfeld colony hit parade around 1920.

'Her collection is extremely important ... It is wonderfully unique."'—Museum curator Judith Klassen

Judith Klassen, curator of music at the Canadian Museum of Civilization said she was thrilled to receive Feldman's vast collection.

"Her collection is extremely important," Klassen said.

"This focus on the Jewish farm colonies, but also the lives of women in rural, and in small urban and urban settings in Saskatchewan. It is wonderfully unique.

"One of the things that is really striking about it is that it allows you to explore individual experience because she was meticulous in her documentation and in her engagement with people, really wanting to understand what they were expressing when they were in conversation with her," Klassen said. "It allows you to look at broader issues."

Jewish refugees pose for a photo near Edenbridge in 1939. Thousands came to Saskatchewan in the early part of the 20th century. (National Archives)

From Feldman’s documents, a picture is painted of young Jewish settlers coming to Western Canada at the beginning of the 20th century with few possessions and hardly any farming experience. With time, though, their settlements began to bloom.

Jewish farmer numbers decline

But the 1930s slammed all farmers hard. It took years to recover from the ravages of the Depression and the drought of the Dirty Thirties.

The number of Jewish families in Saskatchewan began a slow decline.

By the late 1940s lifestyles on the colonies had improved. But changing demographics, technology and markets were squeezing small farmers everywhere on the Prairies, including the colonists.

The Tiferes Israel School was a major part of the community at the Lipton Jewish colony in 1918. (National Archives)

One man interviewed by Anna in 1985, Cecil Gordon, was a second-generation farmer at the Edenbridge colony. He described what happened to him:

"We stayed on the farm until 1954. In ’54 we wanted to give the kids a better chance for education, so we sold our stock, all our animals, and went to the city for winters, Saskatoon, that is.

"We came back in the spring and continued farming. For 10 years I farmed that way."

His story was typical of most of the farm colonists and by the ‘60s, almost all had left the land for good.

Scholar hopes story will be rediscovered

Feldman hopes the archive created from her work will help put the colonies back on the map.

"It was my life," she said.

"My husband and my family and the project were my life. And it means a great deal to me. And I’d be delighted to know that other people might be, and can, use my material at the Canadian Museum of Civilization."

With files from Dorothy Lichtblau