CALGARY — An early childhood memory after my family immigrated in 1979 to Calgary from Kharkov, Ukraine (then in the former Soviet Union), is of a little old lady and her husband coming over to our government-subsidized apartment.
The patriarch, Wolf Baer Scwajcer (1847-1924) circa 1920. [Photo courtesy the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta]
My parents were amused by this feisty lady, always “Mrs. Switzer,” who had a very tall husband, Mendle. They also had four large sons (Israel, Albert and twins Henry and Jack). I can still see old Mendle reaching over to give me a quarter after I found the afikoman at a seder in 1980.
When I grew up, I learned that the Switzers were members of a large, extended family that has touched the lives of many.
The seeds of this family were planted in Poland with the birth of Wolf Baer Scwajcer in 1847. He had nine children – Mendel, Mindell, Faiga, Rifka, Sarah, Jacob, Jessie, Bella and Myer – with his first wife, Chaya Leeba, who died in 1884. He then remarried and had two children – Noma and Gershon – with Miriam Rzeczynski who outlived him by six years. She died in 1930.
The same fate would have befallen the Switzers that befell most other Jews who remained in Poland during World War II. But they understood that the escalating anti-Semitism would not end well, and Wolf Baer’s daughter, Bella Singer, and her husband, Abraham, left Poland in 1907.
For a couple of years, they struggled as pedlars in Toronto, and then defeated, returned to Poland. But Bella saw the hopelessness in Poland and convinced her husband to return to Canada, this time settling in booming Calgary in the summer of 1910. This final move triggered a chain migration.
Bella and Abraham Singer began cleaning rooming houses. They had four children – Hymie, Diane, Jack and Rosalie – and still managed to save enough money to bring over the first of their relatives, 14-year-old Charlie Switzer.
Myer’s granddaughter, Darlene Switzer-Foster, explains: “Every family member Bella would bring over would pay her back and she would use the money to bring over the next person. Every person would then start to save money to bring over their immediate family.”
Using this system, Bella Singer is credited with having brought 300 family members to Canada.
Those early years were filled with hard work. Mostly illiterate, Mendle Switzer, Jacob’s son, was a pedlar, then a cattle dealer, and eventually he and his wife, Rifka (our “Mrs. Switzer”), sold kosher chickens.
At age five, Sam Switzer, Myer’s son, began contributing to his family’s income by selling ice he scavenged from under the trains at the CPR tracks.
By the early 1930s, the Canadian government had adopted a policy that virtually banned immigration of Jews.
R.B. Bennett who had spoken at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the original House of Jacob in Calgary in 1911, was prime minister from 1930 to 1935 and Opposition leader from 1935 to 1938, but he refused to help the Jewish community.
Only a handful of those who were left in Poland after 1930 survived.
In 1942, Abraham died. Bella lived 42 years more and died at 103. After World War II, she was finally able to bring over her great-nephew, Sucher Cyngiser, Faiga’s grandson.
Bella’s youngest son, Jack, went on to buy Hollywood Center Studios, and his name graces Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall. The little boy who once sold ice, Sam Switzer, went on to build the Elbow River Casino. Jack Switzer has almost single-handedly written the Jewish history of southern Alberta. Edmontonian Daryl Katz (great-grandson of Jessie), assembled a network of pharmacies making him one of the richest people in Canada. He recently bought the Edmonton Oilers.
Today, the Switzer family includes names like Aizenman, Barron, Belzberg, Bronfman, Cohen, Fishman, Groner, Hector, Mendelman, Zysblat and others. At more than 1,700 members, it is believed to be the largest family in Canada.
The family website lists “City Liaisons” in Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, the United Kingdom and Israel.
Switzer family reunions began in 1990. The next reunion will be held in Calgary on Sunday, July 4. If you are a Switzer, you can register at www.switzer.ca.