The Benefits of Grandparents’ Desperation

Late in the nineteenth century, troops of vicious, ruthless Russian Cossacks ran roughshod over the surrounding countries. Their focus was usually on the Jewish Ghettos, most of which stood in small villages or rural surroundings. Occasionally, the sword-bearing ruffians would ride into a city to destroy a Jewish-owned shop. No matter where a Jew was, in countries like Poland and Latvia, he was feared and despised. A Jew, be it man, woman, or child, could be beaten, cut, and even killed with impunity. Jewish families with the means and courage to escape the tyranny sought refuge across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Herzog Family had a small dry goods shop in the Latvian town of Grobina. The young family shared the work of stocking and managing the shop. Most of the community trusted the Herzogs, and business was good. There was one woman, however, who was a rampant racist. She claimed that the Herzogs had cheated her, and were a coven of bloodsucking thieves. The lie spread, and soon a pack of drunken Cossacks burned the Herzog shop to the ground.

Before they rode off, a Cossack officer showed rare sensitivity when he told Mrs. Herzog that he was sorry, but he had orders that he dare not disobey. All the Jewish families in Central and Eastern Europe were well aware that the highest government authorities wanted the Jews exterminated or driven out of the country. Such adversity is evident throughout human history.

Raphael Herzog had a cousin in Riga, a large city quite far away. The cousin had contacts that could help the Herzogs gain passage to the port of Halifax, Canada. There would be representatives of a local social group to help them get started on their frightening, strange new life. Within a few days, the family was transported to the port city of Jurmala by horse-drawn carriage. They spent two days as guests in the home of a sympathetic Muslim family. Finally, they boarded a transport ship on which they shared dark, dank quarters below decks with several other families. All were escaping racial suffering by stepping into a terrifying adventure seeking personal liberty.

During that same era of trauma in Eastern Europe, a family in Poland was viciously  ridiculed and taunted. It was only a matter of time until the drunken Cossacks took note of their abattoir. The Jewish community was not large, but it needed kosher meat. The Starkman family had been providing reliably kosher products to the Jewish community for more decades than could be remembered. It was heartbreaking when the family left their home and business outside of the small city of Lodz. With the help of a small Jewish underground group, the Starkmans travelled to Warsaw on an old cart pulled by a pair of underfed horses. After some heated negotiations, and some care for the horses, the family was carried on to the port city of Gdansk.

Similarly to the Herzogs fleeing Latvia, the Starkmans suffered sickening conditions in the hold of a leaping, bouncing freight ship. They suffered all the way from Gdansk, Poland to Halifax, Canada. It was a different world at which they arrived, and without the help of the members of a small synagogue, they would have been helpless. The synagogue had been established in the humble home of a young Rabbi, also still new to this world.

The families of Herzogs and Starkmans did not know of each other. There were thousands of immigrants, all fleeing tyranny, all seeking a life in the new world. All were told that the larger city of Toronto was the place to make a life. They traveled on trains to Toronto, where they were met by supporters and assisted in finding food, shelter, and religious facilities.

Two decades later, the youngest son of the Herzog family met the youngest daughter of the Starkman family. Eventually they married and had children. Some of the children became successful merchants. Some became successful tradesmen. Several became doctors and lawyers, and all of them flourished independently of each other.

If desperation to live freely had not driven Eastern European families from their homes and into the arms of a welcoming Canada, a wide column of successful, honest and free families would not be in Canada, and the nation would be the weaker for it.

Other families from other countries claw desperately at the door to freedom in Canada. All of us that are not of the Native People of this land must remember that we are here by good fortune and the courage of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Reach out to new arrivals as others did to our ancestors, and give new families a chance to become established.

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