Born in Bukovina (part of Romania) in 1876, Hirsch Hershman immigrated to Montreal in 1902, quickly becoming a fixture of the Jewish political, cultural, and literary scene. Hershman was a committed anarchist. When he arrived via New York, he quickly sought out others who shared his political views. He was shocked to find that the city lacked an organized Yiddish cultural centre. From his salary as a shop worker, he started a small Jewish bookstore in his home, with materials procured from a trip to New York City in 1903. After a successful fundraiser, Hershman’s bookstore shared a storefront on St. Lawrence Boulevard with a shoemaker; Hershman’s wife served as the day manager. The facility was a place to gather, debate, attend lectures, and engage with the political issues and ideologies of the day. By 1905, a Jewish immigration boom enabled the bookstore to acquire a venue with a meeting room and a library, on the Main near Ontario Street.
Hershman’s impact on Yiddish culture was not limited to his bookstore, which was a precursor to the Jewish Public Library. His publishing career began in 1905 with three issues of Der Telegraf (The Telegraph). Though his own newspaper was short-lived, Hershman was also a regular contributor to Keneder Adler. Additionally, he was responsible for the Yiddish poet Chava Rosenfarb’s immigration to Canada in 1950, publishing her first collection of poems in Canada the same year. He was also a co-founder in 1907 of the Workmen’s Circle, the radical Yiddish cultural organization and mutual aid society.
Hershman played a major role in the 1920 War Orphans’ Relief Project. Spearheaded by Ottawa’s Lillian Freiman, Hershman was recruited to staff the project in his capacity as manager of the People’s Relief Committee (a post he held from 1915 to 1920). Along with Dr. Joseph Leavitt, he spent some months in volatile, pogrom-ridden Polish Ukraine after World War I, preparing 146 orphans for their departure from an orphanage in Rovno. Some 8,000 orphans were assessed, and most were not healthy enough to make the trip to Canada. Upon their arrival in Canada, Hershman was described as a “one-man follow-up committee,” corresponding with many of the orphans – who were all placed in Jewish homes – until his death in 1957.
Hershman was involved in some of the most important projects of his era. He helped create the Canadian Jewish Congress and the National Radical School, and was a delegate to the 1920 World Relief Conference in Carlsbad. In addition, Hershman was heavily involved in labour activism, most notably the 1912 Montreal tailors’ strike.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf.
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*Images courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and the Jewish Public Library Archives.