Georgetown and Acton, two former towns in the picturesque Halton Hills region west of Toronto, were once home to the Canadian Jewish Farm School, an ambitious plan by an entrepreneurial farmer-humanitarian named Morris Saxe to give young Jewish orphans from Poland a better life in Canada.
Through earnest and persistent entreaty in the 1920s and 1930s, Saxe won permission from the federal government to import some 79 Jewish orphans of both sexes from Miezryc, Poland and train them for farmwork in Canada. The history of his farm school, now largely forgotten, is told in an array of letters, government documents, newspaper clippings and photographs housed at the Ontario Jewish Archives Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre in north Toronto.
Thanks to Saxe’s heroic efforts, 38 orphans arrived in 1927 with other groups following in 1929 and the early 1930s. The orphans, most of whom were teenagers, went through Saxe’s school and worked in the Georgetown Creamery and other enterprises that he established. Many had already worked on farms in the old country; all they needed, Saxe believed, was to learn some English and be given some basic training in how to handle horses and modern agricultural methods. He and his wife, Dora, looked after them as if they were their own children.
Born on a Jewish agricultural colony in Ukraine, he was an adherent of the Jewish back-to-the-land movement. “His family had always been farmers,” the Toronto Star Weekly reported in a feature story on him in 1926. “His father had a little tract of land near Odessa [actually Kiev] and there he learned the old country methods of cultivation.
“When he arrived here, he did not wish to follow the pursuits of his city brothers. The business of peddling, of buying rags, the usual first step on the Jewish ladder to fame in Canada, did not appeal to him.” Instead, he enrolled at the Ontario Agricultural College and developed what was widely considered one of the best farming enterprises in the Georgetown area.
Saxe’s grandson, David Fleishman, produced a 20-minute documentary film about Saxe’s farming school, A Man of Conscience, which was shown on the CBC. The film, in which someone reverentially describes Saxe as “a Canadian Schindler,” is now also among the holdings of the Ontario Jewish Archives.
“Without his intervention these orphans, like so many other European Jews, would have perished in the Nazi concentration camps,” said Fleishman, who has since written a treatment for a six-episode mini-series about his grandfather’s farm-school enterprise.
Unfortunately, the school collapsed in the mid-1930s after it emerged that an underhanded associate of Saxe’s, unknown to him, had been soliciting bribes in Poland. As a result, Saxe’s subsequent pleas to government bureaucrats in 1946 to bring over more Jewish orphans fell on deaf ears. “I feel the distress of our people is now so great, anything we here may be able to do will be worthwhile, if only to help out a few,” he wrote, as he outlined his well organized, well funded plan. But immigration officials would have none of it.
While few of the farm-school immigrants remained in agriculture, Saxe claimed that some were still productively tilling in 1946. “At Leamington we have a successful farmer, Sam Kernow,” he wrote to the government. “Off Yonge Street, Toronto, we have two boys who settled there, Frankel and Silverstein, who now own 100 acres of the most valuable land in the vicinity. Max Fogel owns 200 acres near Galt, Ont. One settled near Pontypool. We have a number who settled between Georgetown and Toronto.” He also made sure federal government officials knew that 14 had served in the Canadian Armed Forces, including three who had been seriously injured and one who had been killed.
The Ontario Jewish Archives also holds materials related to a group of Jewish immigrants who began farming in the Hamilton area in the late 1930s. The preserved papers of the Canadian Jewish Congress Committee for Refugees, a postwar organization helping to settle Jewish war refugees, provides details of similar endeavours in the late 1940s and 1950s.
This is the sixth in a series of articles to be published periodically about local Jewish institutions and history, funded by the J. B. & Dora Salsberg Fund at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. This series is in partnership with the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre and draws on their collections: www.ontariojewisharchives.org