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The immigration story of Max Weinstein (Ukrainian Immigrant)

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Tales from the Trailer
Max Weinstein, my Dad

My Father, Max Weinstein, was born on May 1 in Mogilev, the Ukraine. His Father was Benjamin and his Mother was Ethel. He had several bothers and sisters, but only one, Lilly, survived birth.

They were poor. My Mom was always bugged my Father by telling him his family was so poor they had a dirt floor in their house. They lived in the Jewish ghetto and survived from day to day. My Father told us he never went to a school.

When my Father was about five-years old his Father and Sister left Mogilev to find their fortune in the “New World”. My Grandfather promised that as soon as he got settled and was making his fortune, he would send money back to his wife and bring them to Canada. He never sent them even a letter or a penny. When my Grandfather left Mogilev, my Father and his Mom were on their own.
Somehow, they survived for another 4 years in Mogilev before they gave up waiting for a letter and decided to try life elsewhere. They left Mogilev and walked south, to the warmth.

In each new town, my Grandmother would find a Synagogue and ask for a place to sleep and food for her and her son. She would be taken in and both she and my Dad would look for work. Often they stayed in a town for days, rarely more than a year. They did this for 8 years, going as far south as Bucharest in Rumania.

There my Father got a job as a box maker in a chocolate factory. He was told he could eat as much chocolate as he wanted while he was inside the factory. However, if he were found trying to take any chocolate out of the factory he would be fired and arrested. The first day he ate as much chocolate as he could push into his mouth. Naturally, that night he was sick. He claims he never ate any chocolate after that, although he was always ready to have “something sweet” for dessert.

He worked at that factory for a year, and finally my Grandmother made the decision that it was time to leave and go north. Her objective was Gdansk, where they would take a ship to the “New World” themselves. Apparently my Dad had saved a lot of money while making boxes.

They used the same method to move north, although during this journey they had some money and so could occasionally take a train.

When they reached Gdansk, they immediately proceeded to the port and the nearest ship’s agent. By this time my Dad had acquired excellent language skills. He and his Mom walked up to the agent. My Grandmother took out almost all the money they had, put it down on the desk and told the agent they wanted to get on the next ship. It didn’t matter to her where they were going, as long as it was “to the New World, to America, the land where the streets were paved in gold and any fool could make a fortune”.

The next ship was bound for Montreal, via Halifax and Pier 21.

The ship was small and they bought the cheapest tickets they could get. My Grandmother stayed below deck the entire journey, sick. My Dad explored the ship, trying to learn everything he could, including English. Unfortunately there were very few people who could speak English and so he arrived in Canada speaking only Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian and Rumanian. He was also able to get by in German and Polish. His reading and writing skills were limited and he always had problems spelling. He was a wizard at math, being able to add and multiply numbers in his head faster than most people could write them down on paper.

When they arrived in Halifax they were told to immediately board the train for Montreal. There they arrived at the Bonaventure train station. When they got off the train they had 2 Russian rubles left (I still have one of them). When they got off the train, a man who spoke Yiddish approached them. He asked if they were Jewish, spoke English and if they had any money. He offered them one night of free lodging in a boarding house, plus supper and breakfast the next morning. After that they would have to leave. He told my Father that there were many jobs available in the city for a strong young man. All he had to do was look around and the jobs were there!

Finally they slept in a bed that was not moving. Finally they had a good, kosher meal. This was surely the land with the streets paved in gold.

The next morning, while my Grandmother stayed at the rooming house trying to get another free night, my Dad went out to find work. He walked up and down the streets, looking at the buildings, the few cars, the horse-drawn carts and the people. He spoke to as many people as he could, always asking the same question, “where can I find work”. Finally, at the old Montreal Stock Exchange building he met a man who was selling newspapers on the front steps. The man spoke Yiddish and Russian, as well as English and French. He had come to Canada a few years earlier from Russia. He told my Dad that he had to go somewhere for a few hours, and if my Dad stayed there and sold enough newspapers, he would pay him. He also promised that if he did a good job, and if he came back the next day, he would give my Dad some papers and allow him to sell them further down the street.

This was the beginning of a “career” that lasted 52 years. My Dad and his Mom moved into another boarding house that same day. They stayed there for a while and my Dad sold newspapers for the man at the stock exchange. He did that for about 6 months. My Grandmother stayed home and did odd jobs for the people in the area.
One day, my Dad met a man who had a newspaper stand and was trying to sell it. Actually it was just a metal box that opened during the day and allowed all the newspapers and magazines that were on sale to be displayed. The stand was located on Guy, just north of St Catherine. It was a prime location, especially given the streetcar lines in the area that brought people downtown in the morning and took them home at night. I have no idea where my Dad got the money to buy the stand, but he was soon the proud owner of a City license to sell newspapers, a metal newsstand, and a spot under the Princess Theater to store his unsold newspapers and magazines.

The man who sold him the stand had also been an inspector for the Montreal Street and Light Company, who operated the streetcars. His job was to make sure the rails were free of ice and snow in the winter, plus debris in the summer. For this he was given a very warm fleece-lined coat, a vest and lined, very warm waterproof pants. From that day on my Dad was called “Spector, Guy and Ste Catherine”.

Six days a week, from the coldest day in the winter to the hottest day in the summer, my Dad was at his stand before 7 o’clock in the morning until just before 7 o’clock in the evening, meeting people on the street and selling his wares. He would go into Capes Drug Store to use the phone to call my Mom every day at Noon, and would eat his meager sandwich and thermos of coffee at the stand. Somehow he trained his body to only use the washroom at Noon. He would come home every evening tired and dirty. In the summer, his hands were black from the ink on the papers and the dirt on the money. In the winter, he wore gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off. This kept most of his hands clean, but he was always freezing the tips of his fingers. He would come home, soak his fingers in hot water and wait for feeling to return. The water was always black from the dirt and tingled in blood.

When my Dad came home the ritual was always the same. He would carry a shopping bag. In it were the last edition of the “Montreal Star”, some magazines for my Mom and us kids, plus for me, comics. I learnt how to read by reading comics. Also inside the shopping bag were his empty thermos and his money apron.

He kept all the change he collected during the day in the apron. It had three pockets. He would put quarters in the left-hand pocket, dimes in the middle and nickels and pennies in the right-hand pocket. When he came home he also had the paper money in the pockets; singles and $2 bills in the left-hand pockets, $5 bills in the middle pocket and anything bigger on the left. At first my Dad would roll the change and count the bills after he had finished his supper. When my Sister was old enough she inherited the task. Finally, when I was about 7 years old my Dad told me it was my job. I was old enough to count the money and my fingers were long enough to allow me to roll the coins into the “papers” supplied by the bank. I did this every evening while my Dad was eating his supper. It was a challenge to finish rolling and counting the money before he finished supper.

My Father had the ability to tell the denomination of a coin or a bill by feel, and he could tell the number of coins he was holding in his hand just by holding them. I challenged him on this skill many times, always doubting him. He never failed.

My Dad never went to school, yet he learnt to speak many languages. Every time there was an influx of new immigrants to the City he would learn enough of their language so that he could carry on a simple conversation. He learnt French, Chinese, Hungarian, Vietnamese Pilipino and many other languages. He could understand and speak each language, but he was never very good at writing and was an even worse speller.

My Dad was probably the largest seller of newspapers and magazines in the City. I recall going down to the stand on a Saturday with my Mom. They would go across the street to Murray’s Restaurant for cherry pie and coffee. I was left to man the stand. The first time this happened a delivery truck from the Montreal Star showed up and started unloading bundles of newspapers, plus inserts. I had been told to expect it, and that I should stack the bundles against the lamppost next to the stand, keeping the inserts separate from the papers. I hadn’t been told how many papers would arrive, how heavy a bundle was and how high I would have to stack them. When my Dad returned, he told me this was a normal delivery, and there would be another one around 5 o’clock.

He was one of the few ‘newsies’ who was allowed to return unsold newspapers and magazines. Every evening, as he was leaving the stand, he would take the returns down to the cellar under the theater. He would rip off the covers of the magazines, so they could not be sold, and put them in stacks. Every Thursday he would fill out a sheet, supplied by Benjamin News, the supplier of all magazines for all the news stands in the City, listing all the magazines he was returning. He would do the math in his head and bundle up all the returns. The next morning a truck would show up and take the returns and the list. He returned the newspapers to the first delivery truck every morning. When I was old enough to roll the change, I was always checking my Dad’s return form to make sure his math was correct. I never found a mistake. He never went to school.

My Dad never took a vacation. He was at the stand 6-days a week. When there was a “Montreal Standard” published late on Saturday night, he would go back to the stand for a few hours to sell those. The weather was not an issue. The pollution off the street was not an issue (even though in the end that is what killed him). He was dedicated, both to his customers and to his job. Actually, he was afraid that if his customers found other ways to get their newspapers and magazines; they would abandon him.

He used to hire someone to look after the stand on the High Holy days so he could attend services. That was three days a week.

Once, he suffered from a buzzing in his head that was so bad he had to be hospitalized. They did all sorts of tests, and finally told him it was just arthritis, and there was nothing that could be done. He was off for a week, his only time off due to health in 52 years.

Finally, when we were living in Edmonton and our Son Jeffrey was born, my Dad closed the stand for a week to come out west for the circumcision. He had never flown before, and had never been very far from Montreal. But for his only Son’s first Son, he closed the stand and flew.

While he was gone, my Sister called all his suppliers and told them he was retiring. After 52-years of selling newspapers at the corner of Guy and St. Catherine, my Dad retired.