Wartime – Letters Home

Rabbi Herman Abramowitz (1880-1947) was born in Russia in 1880 and came to America in 1890. He was educated at public schools, the College of the City of New York (from which he graduated in 1900 with a B.A. degree) and at the Jewish Theological Seminary. From 1900 to 1903, he took a post-graduate course in philosophy at Columbia University. In 1907 he received the degree of Doctor of Hebrew Literature from the Seminary, becoming the first graduate to receive this honour. In 1903 he accepted a call from the English, German and Polish Congregation, Montreal.  Active both locally and internationally, Dr. Abramowitz was a key leader in the building of Mount Sinai Sanatorium for tubercular patients as well as serving as the vice-president of the United Synagogues of America, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in Montreal and as a director of the United Talmud Torahs.  He was also named a lifetime governor of the Montreal General Hospital.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Rabbi Abramowitz was appointed Jewish Chaplain in the Canadian army with the rank of Captain. He was also active on the speakers’ team in all of the Victory Loan campaigns and relief drives held during the war.  Rabbi Abramowitz’s archival collection includes several letters from young men of  Montreal’s Jewish community who were serving overseas.  A letter from one soldier (final page missing) describes work with the army of occupation setting up a hospital in Germany in 1919.  Another letter written in 1917 from “Leo” tells Rabbi Abramowitz that he is hoping to get with a unit going to France because staying in England, “is not what [he] came here for.”  Perhaps the most poignant letter though comes from “Phil A.”, written from France in 1917.  Phil describes living in a chalk pit “some sixty or seventy feet down…”  as well as how cold the winter in France was that year.  He calls the cold, “ideal” for winter in Canada but not for warfare.  Phil also includes mention of all of the Montreal boys that he had seen or heard from while overseas: Leo Livingstone, Horace Cohen, Gordie Lipsey, Harold Leavitt, Edgar Goldstein and Marvie Workman.

Of the young men mentioned in Phil’s letter, all but Edgar Goldstein and Marvin J. Workman survived the war to return to Montreal.  Lieutenant Marvin J. Workman was killed on April 09, 1917, most likely during the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge, and is buried in Canadian Cemetery No. 2 Neuville St-Vaast.  Gunner Edgar Goldstein, 66th Battery, 2nd Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery, died on August 15, 1917 and is buried in France at the Maroc British Cemetery.

Rabbi Abramowitz was a vocal supporter of Jewish Canadian involvement in the war, for the benefit of the British Empire and the recognition of the contributions of Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.  He was of course by no means blind to the horrific toll of the First World War.  In an address to the Ottawa People’s Forum in December 1917, Rabbi Abramowitz expressed that, “The present war, the most stupendous in history, has only demonstrated the complete bankruptcy and failure of war to settle disputes.  Modern warfare only tends towards a deadlock and settles nothing.”  The letters in his archival collection are a moving example of how personal stories serve as memories and lessons for future generations.