Poverty and the past on the Prairies: Farmer recounts early days of Jewish settlements

Among Saskatchewan’s wind-swept, rolling prairies in the far south near the United States border, a tiny Jewish cemetery is one of the last markers of the Sonnenfeld Colony, a poor, Jewish farm colony whose members the government barred from owning land neighbouring each other.

The manicured, gopher-infested cemetery doesn't show it, but the colony’s early members are lucky to have made a go of it at all — newly arrived from Europe and armed with their training, they had to contend with harsh winds, bitter cold, unforgiving heat, drought years and soon the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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Usher Berger, 93 years old, is one of the few living members of the former colony; his father Philip helped found it in 1906.

As Berger chronicles growing up poor, Jewish and rural in Saskatchewan, he recalls how his family just got by, especially after his father died early in Usher's childhood.

What started as $10 worth of a quarter section of land (160 acres) his dad bought, Berger built into 15 sections worth $1 million at its last valuation; he earned a Saskatchewan Century Family Farm award in 2014.

While Berger’s life story is now in its sunset years, it begins another continent and century away in a now-defunct region of eastern Europe called Galicia.

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Now southeastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine, Galicia once existed as a piece of Crown land of the Habsburg Empire from 1772 to the end of the First World War.

Usher’s father, Philip, was born in the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia in the mid-1880s.

As a teenager, the elder Berger attended and graduated from the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College with Israel Hoffer and Majer Feldman.

“They spent four years there, part-time studying the books, agriculture, and part-time actual farming the land,” Usher says of his dad. “He had quite a bit of experience in farming. But comparing their climate to the climate he encountered in the homestead in Saskatchewan, it's quite a difference.”

Neither his father nor his mother were ready for the cold, windy, flat prairies.

The elder Berger, Feldman and Hoffer founded the Sonnenfeld Colony in 1906, according to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. It was located in the area of Oungre, about 60 kilometres south of Weyburn.

The hamlet was named after a director of the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), Louis Oungre of France, who had helped the JCA purchase land in Saskatchewan.

Though Sonnenfeld was, in Berger's memory, the poorest of the Jewish colonies in the province, it still hosted a synagogue, complete with living quarters for the rabbi and his family.

It was built in 1912, Berger says.

He estimates Sonnenfeld’s population grew to about 225 people.

Philip received title to his section of land in 1910, Usher says, from a Canadian government that seemed desperate to get the area settled.

“The government was worried about the Americans coming in, they wanted to settle up pretty quickly. For $10 we got 160 acres of land,” Usher recalls, noting $10 was still considered substantial.

“You were given three years to put so many improvements on it, and if you succeeded, you got title to the land. The government decided that you could make a living from (that) … which was easier said than done.”

Not everyone found success.

“Life was tough. You can't blame the ones who moved away quick,” he says.

No one in those early days had running water or electricity up until and after Usher was born in 1927. Compounding the hardship, his dad died when Usher was five years old in 1932.

His mom became “a widow with six kids and I am the youngest. She hired a Polish immigrant that had worked with my father for a short time and he was very good. Eventually she sold him the horses and the harnesses and the machinery on a note and rented the land to him for half share of the crop; she supplied the seed.”

It wasn’t easy living, but the Berger family got by and survived, usually on welfare, which was then called relief, Usher says.

When he died, Philip Berger left five quarters of land “mortgaged the hilt,” his son says.

Around the time Usher was 16 years old, in 1943 and right in the middle of the Second World War, he got a crash course in farm business. By then more land was available for purchase, and the Polish lessee had moved on to other properties.

His mother “gave me some money to go around to auction sales to buy up machinery and harnesses and horses, and I had one awful time … the war material — everything was going into war material, you couldn’t buy anything. Even buying a pair of pliers was impossible.”

He didn’t buy his family’s first tractor until 1945, after the war was over.

Maintaining and surviving on the family farm fell on his and his mother’s shoulders; of his two older brothers, one had graduated university to become a teacher, while the other was attending university and could only return in the summer to help.

Eventually, Usher and his mother were able to settle the mortgage. But he doesn’t recall much surplus money. “If you made some money it went into more machinery.”

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The tough way of life on the colony helped create an appreciation for hard work and a drive to do more than simply survive.

Berger eagerly talks about others who came from Sonnenfeld and their accomplishments, TV-marketing guru Philip Kives and controversial psychiatrist Dr. Abram Hoffer.

Kives founded K-tel International, essentially inventing the now-ubiquitous TV infomercial as he sold the Veg-O-Matic, Miracle Brush and other household staples. His death in 2016 garnered obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Through his life as a psychiatrist, Hoffer was resolute in asserting high doses of vitamin C and niacin, both anti-oxidants, helped treat patients with schizophrenic symptoms. He studied the effects of LSD on the human brain to better understand schizophrenia; in 1950 Hoffer organized a provincial division aimed at researching psychiatry, much to the chagrin of Saskatchewan’s medical community. He died in 2009.

As children of the Sonnenfeld Colony, Berger, Kives and Hoffer represent a fraction of Jews who grew up as part of the province’s Jewish farm settlements; before and after Saskatchewan’s incorporation in 1905, such settlements were scattered across the Prairies.

Initiated by Baron Maurice de Hirsch (the namesake of Philip Berger’s agricultural school), the Jewish Colonization Association established its first Saskatchewan-based colony, named Hirsch, in 1892 between Estevan and Oxbow. It was first made up of 47 families from Russia.

The intent of the JCA was to help resettle poor or persecuted Jews in new countries, while finding agricultural work for them. Many of the Saskatchewan-area’s Russian Jews in the late 1800s were those escaping pogroms, government-sponsored massacres, in that country.

Similar to Sonnenfeld, the Hirsch cemetery is among the few remaining markers of the Jewish colony that once settled the area.

Cemeteries at Lipton, north of Fort Qu’Appelle, and Edenbridge, in between Melfort and Nipawin, also serve as markers of Jewish farm settlements in the province; Edenbridge’s Beth Israel Synagogue has been declared a municipal heritage site.

Colonies beyond those four also had a go of it in Saskatchewan’s tough climate.

The first attempt, a settlement of 26 families called New Jerusalem near Moosomin in 1884, failed after five years; a crop fire was the final nail in its coffin.

Between 1886 and 1907, approximately 50 Jewish families built up a settlement north of Wapella, near the Manitoba border.

The Alsask settlement, also known as Eyre, was founded in 1910 west of Kindersley, near the Alberta border.

Berger remembers farmers in the Sonnenfeld area expressing "quite a bit of ... you might call it envy or you might call it jealousy" toward those who received help from the JCA. "They (the JCA) supplied them

But he doesn’t recall outright acts of anti-Semitism directed toward him and his family, during the Second World War or otherwise.

“You just took it for granted that you wouldn't have the advantage that others did,” he says.

The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan at least hints at government-directed discrimination toward Jews.

“The Department of the Interior admitted people not only from the United States and Great Britain, the preferred countries, but from continental Europe as well. Jews, who at other times in Canadian history were subjected to many restrictions, were also welcomed then. However, unlike several groups including the Mennonites who were encouraged to settle blocs of land, the government ruled that the Jews could not do so: They had to be interspersed with their non-Jewish neighbours,” the Encyclopedia says.

The Sonnenfeld Colony was in Treaty 4 territory, but education about how and why large tracts of land were absent of Indigenous people was scant for Berger and his peers in those days.

“The Aboriginals were driven into reserves. I don't think there were any; I never saw an Aboriginal for years and years,” he says.

By 1900, after Ottawa’s starvation and assimilation policies directed at Indigenous people, the bison — First Nations’ cultural and dietary staple — was all but extinct; fewer than 1,000 bison remained roaming on the Great Plains at the turn of the century. By 1930, the federal government had given Prairie provinces control over all natural resources and Crown lands, without considering Indigenous interests.

Berger says he vaguely recalls a popular, cruel poem at the time, something to do with the RCMP protecting the pioneer and "restraining the savage."

“I guess we didn't understand very much what was going on besides in our own community," Berger says. "Life was pretty well confined to the community. I mean, how far could you go with a team of horses?"

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Berger and his mom didn't get electricity and running water on their farm until the 1950s.

“(She) couldn't quite accept the fact that you had to pay monthly for getting power. ‘Well there's nothing wrong with the kerosine lamps,’ ” he recalls her often saying.

That decade he started taking ownership in the land, adding on new sections to it when he had money and when it became available. By the time he acquired 15 sections, he kept a half section, 320 acres, as pasture land for cattle to graze.

After Israel gained statehood in 1948, talk of Zionism and Jews returning to their ancestral homelands was a popular topic. “There were quite a few young fellas that took agriculture and went to Israel and were successful there.”

But he always disliked how religious leaders in Israel prescribed the Hebrew Calendar for him and other Jews half a world way; the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar one, which means it uses lunar cycles and the Earth’s rotation around the sun to determine Jewish holidays and religious observances, unlike the commonly-used Gregorian one in North America.

“(They were) telling you that for the Jewish holidays when New Year’s comes, (possibly) during harvest,” Berger says. “For three days to quit farming and celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That didn't go over very well with me.”

That same independent mindset allowed him to ensure he wouldn’t leave his children, a daughter and his late son, saddled with mortgage debt from land purchases.

“I decided no kid of mine was ever going to pay off a mortgage,” he says.

As he continued farming through to the 1990s, “I paid cash for everything,” though he admits he missed out on a few land purchase opportunities.

Berger eventually moved to live in Regina full time in the '90s. He still makes regular trips to his property in the Oungre area.

Looking back on how he and his family started — with 160 acres of land, an unforgiving climate, little knowledge of the history and people of the area, hardly any money, a dispersed Jewish community, growing up without a father — he speaks with pride.

“I'm quite proud having been brought up on welfare, what I have accomplished,” he says.

His two grandsons are in their early 20s now; one is studying to become an engineer, while the other wants to pursue sports administration.

“As a kid when you're brought up in that type of life (one of poverty), and everyone around you is pretty well in the same boat, you don't think of anything else. You don't even expect your life will ever improve,” Berger says.

That doesn’t mean he’s regretful of his choice to maintain and build the farm. “I was born at the farm, I wanted to stay at the farm and I managed to do it.”

In his view, the manner of how that happened through the 1930s and the war years, with little available farm material, is noteworthy.

“Some people (say), 'we were never on relief, our father would never accept relief' ... Most are ashamed to admit it (accepting welfare). I'm proud of it. I'm proud that I worked my way out of it,” he says.

It's the same pride he speaks with when considering his roots, the Sonnenfeld Colony and the people who originated there.

Like its hidden cemetery at the corner of a couple of gravely grid roads, the colony's history is weaved into the patchwork quilt of the province's diverse and complicated history.

State of cemeteries reflect surrounding community, says scholar

burial

The burial site of Philip Berger, father of Usher Berger, is among those at the Sonnenfeld cemetery, a Jewish cemetery near Oungre, Sask., about 70 kilometres west of Estevan. The cemetery is among the last remaining markers of the Sonnenfeld colony, first established by Jewish settler farmers in the early 1900s. As of June 2020, the cemetery is still maintained. Evan Radford/Regina Leader-Post

Over the years and decades ahead, whether Saskatchewan’s rural Jewish cemeteries are neglected or maintained will be indicative of the communities in which they reside, says Amila Buturovic, a religious studies professor at York University.

“Some cemeteries continue their life in a kind of modified way. They adjust to the passage of time because the people who live near them and around them are aware of them in new ways,” she says. “No longer in that kind of personal connection, as a first- or second-generation, but in terms of cultural memory.”

A community’s cultural memory can be inclusive (remembrance) or exclusive (negligence) of its cemeteries and other historical artifacts, she says.

Over eight years, Buturovic studied gravesites and tombstones from the 1400s to the 1700s in Europe’s central Balkans; her goal was to understand how Ottoman (Islamic) influence changed death practices and memory in formerly Christian and Jewish areas.

The Sonnenfeld cemetery is now administered and maintained by the Rural Municipality of Souris Valley; the RM must maintain it “in a manner that ensures the safety of the public and is compatible with community standards,” the province’s Financial and Consumer Affairs Authority (FCAA) says.

Whether those cemeteries are maintained or slowly consumed by the surrounding landscape will be reflective of historical or political events that prompt those processes, Buturovic says.

Such events — drought, migration to larger urban centres, the formation of a new state or government administration, for example — will detach the cemeteries “from the community that may have buried the people in this area,” she says.

If new communities maintain the burial sites, she says, they retell new stories of the site’s origins, “so they gain new meaning as history goes on.”

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