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Friday, April 18, 2014

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A century of Jewish life in Ste. Sophie

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The Jewish cemetery in Ste. Sophie is the resting place of the immigrant farmers who settled there a century ago.

MONTREAL — The Russian Jewish immigrants who were settled on land north of Montreal in the early 20th century and told to set up farms were resourceful people. They had to be.

Few had agricultural experience, they’d never owned property, and the soil was poor in the Catholic parish of Ste. Sophie. Subsistence seemed the most they could hope for.

Being willing to farm in Canada was a way of escaping persecution and turmoil more quickly than by the usual urban route. In the early 1900s, the federal government, working with the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), was offering these refugees acreage as an incentive.

The JCA is better known for establishing Jewish homesteads in the West, but the Jewish farming community of Ste. Sophie and neighbouring New Glasgow lasted longer than most of those on the Prairies.

Although conditions were difficult, these immigrants laid the groundwork for, in particular, a thriving poultry agriculture. The Jewish families, who never numbered much more than 30, also built a solid community life, erecting a school and a synagogue.

They worked alongside a population made up of French-Canadians and those of mainly Scottish, Irish and Ukrainian origin.

And they were an integral part of civic life. Willie Rudy, a farmer, was an alderman for more than two decades and served as mayor for eight years in the 1960s.

Only a handful of Jews still live in the area.

For many thousands of Jews from Montreal, Ste. Sophie was a summer holiday destination. To make extra income, some farmers took in guests. In time, a few opened kosher hotels, like Kottenberg’s.

Ste. Sophie, northeast of St. Jérôme, was just 35 miles from Montreal, and reachable by train.

Rudy’s son Fred, and Howard Gontovnick, whose father, Louis, has the distinction of having been the last Jewish egg farmer in Quebec, as well as May Polsky and her nephew George Polsky, who also have roots in the area, are organizing a celebration of a century of Jewish presence in Ste. Sophie/New Glasgow (one municipality since 2000) for next year.

According to the Canadian Jewish Congress Archives, the colony began in 1905 with two Jewish families: the Sakalovs and the Alberts. By 1912, 32 Jewish families had settled in Ste. Sophie. Tobacco and grains were the most common crops originally, but chickens, dairy cows and even hogs became the more important sources of revenue.

The Goodz family began marinating excess cucumbers in the ’40s, and that was the start of Putter’s Pickles.

The centenary activities are set for June 30 and July 1, 2013, based at the Gontovnick farm, and will include exhibitions, speakers and tours of mostly former Jewish sites. A special service will be held in the synagogue.

The committee is trying to track down former residents and others with memories or artifacts related to Ste. Sophie. The oral histories of the major families, like Goodz, Zaritsky, Yarofsky, Kahansky and Lagunov, are being collected and will be preserved. Concordia University Jewish studies professor Ira Robinson is acting as a consultant.

The response has been strong, Gontovnick said, and has come from as far away as Israel, where a significant number of the early settlers later went. Gontovnick, a psychologist by profession, has devoted years to researching the area’s Jewish history. He frankly admires its characters.

“They were people who struggled to build a life in a new and strange world and they built something from just about nothing,” he said. “They made the best of things during times when survival was the name of the game.”

The farm, which Louis Gontovnick ceased operating about five years ago, is next to the synagogue, which was built during World War I. It is still used on the High Holidays, drawing 50 or 60 people. The building was also a school for some 30 years, closing after World War II.

The Gontovnicks were not one of the pioneering families. Louis’ Lithuanian-born father, Burach, became the shochet in Ste. Sophie in the ’40s.

His Montreal-born son ran the farm of Mount Sinai Hospital near Ste. Agathe for nine years, then, in 1963, he bought his first chicken house, in Ste. Sophie.

By the ’90s it had become one of the major egg processing operations in the province.

With the modernization of agriculture that began around 1960, a lot families got out of the business or continued to operate their farms while living in the Montreal area, notably Chomedey, which was a growing suburb.

The Jewish cemetery in Ste. Sophie continues to be the lasting landmark. The front section is used by a chassidic community (not local) and the back is the resting place of the hardy Jews who persisted in trying to make a living from the poor soil.

For information, contact Gontovnick at 450-686-2440 or howardg@alumni.concordia.ca.

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