Yarmouth Immigrant Isaac Smofsky: A Fascinating Story!
By Peter Eldridge (February 2009)
While browsing through the archives of our Museum a couple of years ago, I came across the typed manuscript of the fascinating story of early Yarmouth Jewish resident and pedlar, Isaac Smofsky -- My Life Story. Dictated in Hebrew by Isaac, the account had been translated by his cousin A. I. Cohen in 1945, and published in book form in 2005, by Clint Silverman of Huntington Beach, California, great nephew of Isaac.
Isaac was born near Minsk, Russia in 1871, settled in Yarmouth in 1892, and 30 years later, in 1922, emigrated to his heart's "promised land" of "Palestine" (present day Israel). Isaac's story recounts his growing-up years in Russia, the difficult living and working conditions of his family, and his father's efforts to have the boy acquire the rudiments of education and religious instruction in synagogue school. Because of repressive discrimination and hardship, at the time many Jews and other minorities were immigrating to an anticipated life of freedom in North America. Isaac recounts how, in disillusionment and frustration following his father's death, he left behind his mother and family to travel alone across Europe, where he boarded a ship for New York in 1891.
For anyone interested in history, and the history of (Jewish) immigrants in particular, the story is a unique account, a classic historical narrative of the life of an early immigrant to Canada -- and to the Yarmouth area!
Like any struggling solo immigrant, when Isaac arrived in New York he made contact with relatives and friends who had earlier settled in North America and who made suggestions for employment, (often saying, "peddle merchandise door-to-door!", and "move to where there is possible business!"). Following such advice, after a short while Isaac moved on to Portland, Maine, then crossed the border north to Saint John, N.B., and across the Bay of Fundy to the Annapolis Valley and overland to Bridgewater and the Nova Scotia south shore. Ultimately he found himself in Yarmouth.
Some excerpts from the book:
.... (When I left New York and went to Portland), My uncle there told me that last summer he had peddled in Canada and found that country a profitable field for business .... a brother-in-law of Uncle's would pay my traveling expenses to Nova Scotia, also five dollars a week salary. In return I would devote my time to the peddling of merchandise .... We took the train to Saint John .... and we proceeded to Annapolis, Nova Scotia. There, we arranged a large bundle to be carried on the back of each one of us with a smaller telescope bag in front suspended from a strap on the large bundle .... I was unable to converse in English but learned the names of the articles and also the prices .... The five dollars I earned I immediately sent home to my mother. Ten rubles, I realized was a small sum, but it was all I had, and it represented the first money I earned in Canada. (68)
.... One (winter) day, I left in the morning with my pack. When it suddenly began to snow, I trudged on for a while. The storm increased and became a blinding blizzard ..... I went to a farmhouse .... An elderly man opened the door and when he saw me with my load covered with snow, he opened the door wide .... I wanted to continue, but neither he nor his wife would hear of it. I was made to remain there the whole day and night .... in Nova Scotia I found that kindness and hospitality among all classes of inhabitants is highly developed. May God reward and bless them. (70)
.... In Yarmouth, there lived a man named Whitehouse. Originally he came from Portland, Maine .... Finally he came to Yarmouth in quest of a chance to make a living. Here he stayed and prospered. The Jews who followed him called him Columbus because he was the first to discover a large territory where Jews were practically unknown. When I first came there, I met people who literally never saw a Jew before.
.... In the spring of 1902, I left Yarmouth in my small rickety wagon and my venerable feeble horse. .... I continued on until we reached Woods Harbour .... From a man there I learned that there was a possibility to establish a small business and earn a livelihood .... I rented a store that was vacant, divided it in two parts, one as a store, the other as a dwelling house .... Every morning I went out with my horse and wagon calling on neighbouring homes to try to sell some merchandise. Each week I ordered a small quantity of merchandise, leaving a portion in the store for (my wife) Leah to sell; the balance I took on the wagon.
An obviously enterprising individual, Isaac soon progressed from Woods Harbour to partnership in a store in Clark's Harbour, and as time passed, to partnership in a grocery store in Yarmouth. (108)
.... The social life of the Jews residing in Yarmouth was on a very high plane. At this time (1921) there were about 35 Jewish families living in peace and harmony among themselves and on cordial and friendly relations with their non-Jewish neighbours .... I can now remember the many evenings when every room in the house (#1 Sycamore St.) was illuminated, the whole house resounding to laughter and song. Those were truly happy days! I may say the happiest days in our life! With the young people, I was (considered) uncle and Leah was aunt to every Jewish child in town .... My dear never-to-be-forgotten Yarmouth! (Leaving you was) one of the very important sacrifices we brought on the altar of our fatherland Palestine. (114)
.... the day of our departure arrived. We were to take passage for Boston ..... We came aboard and the ship was slowly moving away from the dock and as the dear ones on the shore kept waving their last farewell, I thought, "Shalom dear friends, Shalom dear Yarmouth, Shalom noble Canada. May the blessings of heaven rest upon all of you even as I found peace and blessings in your midst". Our gaze followed the ever-diminishing group of people until it disappeared behind the horizon and we could see our friends no more, friends who were dear as life to us. We could not see them with our eyes but in our minds we saw them constantly and never forgot them." (118)
During 2008, we made contact with the editor of the book, Californian Clint Silverman, when he and Claudia visited Yarmouth. In December 2008, while visiting Israel after reading Isaac's story, Yarmouth university student Jacob Matz (not of Smofsky family) was able to locate descendants of Isaac, who "seemed very happy that someone was taking interest in the family story"!
Our museum gift shop currently has copies of the book for purchase.