This Week in JPL History: The Women of the Archives

On March 26th, 1990 JPL Archivist Carol Katz wrote a paper on the women of the JPL-Archives. These women were Yiddish and English speaking personalities of Montreal who had contributed to the literary, social, cultural, and educational life of Montreal`s Jewish community. They included Ruth C. Rotman, Sarah E. Fisher, Chayele Grober, Rochel Korn, Ida Maze, Una Shecter, Ethel Stark, Dora Wasserman, and Irene Rachel Wolff. Since the publication the JPL-Archives has been fortunate to receive donations from two other important Montrealers : Lea Roback and Shulamis Yelin.

Ruth C. Rotman was born in Montreal and was a singer of operatic arias and folk songs. She was active in the Second World War effort and organized entertainment for the troops in Florida.

Sarah Fischer was a Montreal soprano who had developed her talent in night classes while working by day as a telephone operator. After winning a scholarship to attend London’s Royal College of Music, she enjoyed a successful career overseas. Returning to Montreal in 1918 she won over audiences with in her role in Carmen as Michaela at the Monument-National Theatre. In 1922, she again settled in Montreal and began teaching music. It was her continuing support for young musicians, particularly through her Sarah Fischer Concert Series, that cemented her reputation as an artist and benefactor.

Portrait of Sarah Fischer in Leo Delibes’s opera “Lakme,” Monument-National Theatre, Montreal, ca. 1918.

Chayele Grober was a well-known actress and writer who was born in Bialystock, Poland. During WWI she moved to Moscow, where she began acting and became a founding member of the Habimah theatre in Moscow. In 1928 she immigrated to Canada and spent the next 30 years in Montreal where she founded the Chayele Grober Habimah ensemble. In addition to her theatre work was a regular contributor to the Keneder Adler and other Jewish journals and also published two biographical works in Yiddish. In 1959 she moved to Israel but would periodically return to Canada for the rest of her life.

Rochel Korn was a Yiddish poet, essayist, and short story writer. She was born in Podliski, east Galicia and began writing in Polish at the age of 12. She did not start writing in Yiddish under after WWI and her first Yiddish work was published in 1928. She spent WWII living in the Soviet Union, after which she briefly immigrated to Sweden and then Canada in 1948. In all she published 11 volumes of poetry and short stories, most of her work after WWII focused on the Holocaust and the Jewish writers in the Soviet Union.

Ida Maze and Rochl Korn, possibly on Esplanade Street, Montreal, Quebec, ca195?

Ida Maze was born in Olgi, Russia and immigrated to Canada in 1902; first to Toronto and then Montreal. She first wrote lyric poems and most of her works were written for children. She also wrote essays and stories which appeared in journals and newspapers around the world. Maze was considered “the mother of Jewish writers“ because of her long-time support of those in need, especially Jewish writers.

Una Shecter was born in Montreal and taught at the Jewish People`s School from 1942-1966. In the 1970s she returned to JPS to help with the updating of its English curriculum.

Ethel Stark was a violinist, conductor, and teacher who was born in Montreal. She founded the Montreal Women`s Symphony in 1940 and was its conductor until the late 1960s. She was also the founding director of number of other musical groups and a guest conductor with many other Canadian and international symphonies. She was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1980.

Dora Wasserman was born in Zhitomer, Russia. She was an actress and theatre director and was trained at the Moscow drama school and the Kiev state theatre. She immigrated to Montreal in 1950. In 1956 under her leadership the Yiddish Drama Group was founded. The group, now known as the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre group continues to bring Yiddish theatre to Montreal to this day.

Irene Rachel Wolff was a writer and was born in Quebec City in 1885. She was active with a number of organizations including, the National Council of Jewish Women, Canadian Red Cross, Canadian Authors Association, and the Canadian Women’s Press Club. She contributed regularly to a number of Jewish periodicals in England.

Lea Roback was a prominent feminist and activist heavily involved in Montreal’s labour movement. She grew up in Beauport, Quebec and moved numerous times to various cities like Grenoble, New York, and Berlin, though eventually returned to Montreal. In 1937, Roback helped mobilize a largely female workforce made up of mostly Jews, French-Canadians and recent immigrants, to demand fair wages as part of the International Ladies Garment Workers strike. She was devoted to the struggle against injustice and fought for a number causes from anti-war campaigns to reproductive rights. Despite her passing, her work is continued on through the efforts of the Lea Roback Foundation.

Shulamis Yelin was a writer and longtime educator who taught at all levels, from nursery to university. In 1968 was named Master Teacher by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. In addition to her teaching she wrote and published essays, reviews, poems, short stories, and literary criticism, work which was recognized with a number of awards. She was involved in a number of organizations like the Canadian Authors Association, the Pioneer Women – Na-amat Organization and was a Judge of the J.I. Segal Literary Award.

The This Week in Jewish Public Library History blog series was made possible through the generous support of the Peter and Ellen Jacobs Virtual Archives Fund.

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