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The Jewish origins of the poppy

Poppy field

While all the shouting about who was or wasn’t wearing a poppy this year on Nov. 11 continues, there is a softer, kinder – and Jewish – backstory to the red flower we wear on Remembrance Day. It’s the story of Lillian Freiman, a Jewish-Canadian shero, who became known as the “Poppy Lady” to all Canadians.

It all began when the First World War broke out in 1914. Freiman, already a hard-working community volunteer, opened her spacious Ottawa home to help the war effort. She set up 30 sewing machines so that her sewing circle could make blankets and clothes for Canadian soldiers. Later, after reading John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow …”), Freiman was propelled to make the poppy a symbol of remembrance.

In 1921, after the war, her sewing circle began producing poppies. Its initial sole purpose was to remember those soldiers who died in the First World War, so the rest of Canada could enjoy a life of peace and security. And she was well aware of the immense pride that existed then among all Canadians in all the service people who fought in such bloody battles as Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. With the help of the Royal Canadian Legion, of which she was one of the founders and the first female honorary life member, poppies took off. To this day, they stand as the symbol of all Canadian soldiers who gave their lives to keep Canada free and safe.

Quickly, poppies became a very pragmatic and direct link to returning soldiers, as well. With the force of her indomitable will, Frieman also created the Vetcraft Shops in 1919. These places employed returning veterans to make such things as furniture and toys. It gave the veterans some income and an after-the-war purpose in life. In 1923, poppy making moved from Freiman’s living room to Vetcraft Shops, which eventually morphed into the Royal Canadian Legion. To this day, the Legion is legally the sole producer of poppies. That income still goes to fund all things dealing with veterans.

While her poppies were gaining ground in Canada, Europe was still smouldering from the horrific losses and turmoil of the First World War. That led Frieman, in 1921, to help bring about 150 Jewish war orphans from Ukraine to Canada. Her efforts in this area became very personal: one orphan, 12-year-old Gladys Rozovsky, was adopted by Freiman and her businessman husband, A.J. Freiman, joining the couple’s three birth children.

In addition to her military contribution, Lillian Freiman made time to found Canadian Hadassah WIZO (the women’s arm of the World International Zionist Organization), along with her Toronto friend Ida Siegel. Freiman became the group’s first Canadian president in 1919 and remained president until her death in 1940.

She plunged into this new position with the same fervour as she did producing poppies, crisscrossing the country and visiting nearly every community where Jewish-Canadians lived. With her tenacious zeal and personal persuasive powers, by 1925, Canadian Hadassah WIZO had 4,500 women in 68 chapters, all throwing tenacious support behind a Jewish state for the increasing numbers of displaced Jews across Europe.

Freiman, the fifth of 11 children, followed in the footsteps of her father. Moses Bilsky fled the pogroms in Lithuania for Canada in 1845 and eventually married Pauline Reich. He was a noted philanthropist and supporter of a Jewish homeland. At one point, Freiman’s childhood home in Ottawa was also used as a synagogue, until her father re-established the Adath Jeshurun congregation in a building of its own. He even travelled to New York to acquire a Torah for the congregation.

If that wasn’t enough for the Poppy Lady, Frieman also gave her powerful support to such organizations as Big Sisters, Salvation Army, Protestant Infants’ Home, Amputations Association of Great War Veterans of Canada, Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, Joan of Arc Society and Girl Guides Association. For her volunteerism to Canada, Freiman was awarded the Order of the British Empire by King George V in 1934. She was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 2008 by the Canadian government for being “a gifted organizer and philanthropist who worked to improve the health and welfare of her fellow citizens.”

Quite a Canadian. Quite a shero. Quite a Jew.

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