Ontario Jewish Archives: treasure trove on Bathurst Street

Dr. Speisman, z"l

Ask Dr. Stephen Speisman about the 80-year-old minute books of Toronto’s Kielcer Society and a gleam appears in his eyes.

Director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, Speisman has long been seeking early records of landsmanschaft, mutual benefit and like societies in Toronto and other Jewish communities in Ontario. But too often such records get stashed in dusty basements and ultimately trashed.

By chance, the widow of a once-active Kielcer told him her husband “had some books in the basement that he used to go down and look at, every so often.” She was sure they were nothing. He persuaded her to show them to him, and lo — “they were the Kielcer Society records, in beautiful Yiddish writing, going right back to the Twenties. That’s the kind of treasure we get sometimes.”

Again through happenstance, the late Sol Edell, a key early volunteer at the Archives, learned that some important Jewish communal medical records of the Folksverein, the former social service agency headquartered on Beverley Street, had already been loaded onto a truck bound for the city dump.

Edell, the story goes, jumped into his car in pursuit of the records, stopping only long enough to hire two labourers. “They followed the garbage truck to the dump, and managed to save a small portion of the records as the crusher was coming along,” Speisman says. Now housed at the Archives, the Folksverein documents show the medical treatments that thousands of Toronto Jews received from the 1920s forward. (Due to privacy considerations, viewing restrictions apply.)

One recent Pesach, officials of the Eitz Chaim school on Viewmount Ave. pried up some loose floorboards on the stage in the lunchroom, and uncovered a horde of old institutional and student records from the school’s former days on D’Arcy St. Again, the material ended up in the Archives.

Such discoveries lend excitement to the professional lives of Speisman and assistant archivist Howard Markus, who spend their work days chasing down and cataloguing worthy materials, overseeing a staff of dedicated volunteers, and trying to bring order to the Archives’ vast and seemingly chaotic holdings.

“I haven’t done an inventory in a long time, and I couldn’t venture a guess as to the size of the collection,” Speisman says of the vast assortment of materials housed partly in the Archives’ vault and handling areas in the Lipa Green Building, and partly in a remote warehouse.

Finding aids? A plurality of binders and printed lists suffice for many of the collections, only a few of which are inventoried on computer. The real finding aids, a visitor soon discovers, are Messrs. Speisman and Markus themselves.

The institution possesses badges, blueprints, cornerstones and many other historic artifacts. Larger items include some Hebrew signs “from Rabbi Price’s old yeshiva on College Street”, the tiny desk of former Toronto mayor Phil Givens, and a “No Jews” sign that once adorned the boardwalk on Toronto’s Beaches.

Ellen Scheinberg, the second director, left in 2011

For genealogists, there are many sorts of old records — landsmanschaften, mohels, synagogues, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, and so on. Also available are thousands of historic photographs, taped oral histories, a few old diaries, microfilms of old Yiddish newspapers, Toronto Jewish city directories from 1925, 1926 and 1931, and various records from small towns. Although the earliest documents date from 1856, the bulk of materials are from the 1920s through the 1970s.

Funded by the Jewish Federation, the Archives also holds a few genealogies related to Ontario families, and both Speisman and Markus say they would welcome more. Research is by appointment. Phone 416-635-2883, ext. 170 or 183. Its website is http://www.ontariojewisharchives.org ♦

Note: In the fall of 2011 the Archives is temporarily without a director, but it still operates; its phone number is the same. 

© 2001

Resources on the Ontario Jewish Archives website include:

Resources at the Archives include:

  • Some family histories
  • Jewish city directories for Toronto and London
  • Jewish newspapers from Ontario
  • A small number of records documenting marriages, naturalization, and circumcisions
  • Some cemetery records
  • Synagogue and Jewish fraternal society records
  • Some immigration case files created by JIAS and the CJC
  • Some ledgers from Jewish shipping agents that brought families over from Europe before the Second World War