By the time it became important to me, it was too late to ask the questions that needed to be answered. All of the people with first-hand knowledge of my paternal grandfather had long since departed this world, leaving me only the collective and somewhat faded recollections of younger generations.
My mother was an English war bride who married a Canadian artillery officer and dutifully accompanied him back to Vancouver, where I was born. For various reasons, they decided that they would return to England. It meant that the last time I saw Zayda (the Jewish term for grandfather), Sam, I was three years old. We never met again, and I have no cognitive memory of him or my short time in Canada.
The journey to find out more about Samuel Wall was indirectly instigated by my maternal grandfather, the family tree’s creator and recorder. Bearing in mind that it was a mission of passion, started long before Google and home computing was ever thought of, it was a very simple affair, manifesting itself as a hand-drawn document comprised of two A4 sheets of paper, sellotaped together. About thirty names were carefully entered in Stevens blue ink onto the somewhat erratic lines representing the family connections. Supporting documents, such as handwritten letters and replies, were meticulously filed in date sequence, rather than by name, in an old box that had once held a pair of his brogue leather shoes. Together with a few other small articles from his ancient Chinese writing desk, the entire bundle had been my inheritance after his death. Why me? Because I was probably the only person who had ever expressed any interest in it when he was alive.
The pressures of family living meant that the cardboard box, which still carried his familiar scent, was filed away for many years. It was not until a move to a new home prompted a general clear out that it re-emerged and, what was supposed to be a quick assessment for keep or not keep, turned into an afternoon and evening of spellbound rapture. The supporting letters that had not seen the light of day for decades revealed names, places, dates and events that brought my more immediate ancestry to life. As I meticulously read each line and traced the author back to the names on the A4 sheets, it started a personal journey that, over the next twenty years, and with the help of modern technology, turned the original thirty names into a matrix of over three thousand. Dates and anecdotes were stretching back beyond the Tudor era. Every branch of the tree was subdivided into complex lines of interwoven histories. That was every branch, except one. The Russian connection, spear-headed by my paternal grandfather, Samuel Wall. Apart from the fact that I had been informed by my parents that he was born in Kyiv and that Wall was not his original name, there was nothing in the vast depths of my computer data records that could shed additional light on either his birth or his family background. It was a black hole.
That was until a family holiday was arranged to visit my cousins in Canada, when, after several late-night conversations and a few beers, a large number of old photographs were rescued from the back of an old cabinet. I was immediately launched into another round of investigations. Identifying some people was relatively easy; others were more of a challenge. While most photographs had notations on the back, they were often in family code. Lippy, Hymie, Soly, Abe, and Berty.
Of course, there were also the family legends handed down to each generation, which were polished and embellished with every retelling. Stories of Sam arriving in Canada as a young Jewish immigrant in the early 1900s and working for the Hudson Bay Co. as a fur trapper, and the tales of him becoming the owner of a trading post in the wilds of the northern territories and losing it in a game of cards. They are all very romantic and were an excellent basis for extending late-night chats into the early hours, but they are without any tangible evidence to support them. Further discussions about the origins of the family name also proved to be a fruitless journey of speculation.
It was wonderful to return to England with many new photographs and additional stories from my cousins. However, the real breakthrough came a few days later when a document was emailed to me from another distant relative who had heard of my interest in the family history. It was fifteen pages of family names and dates that had been researched and recorded, showing the links and backgrounds not only to the Wall family, but also to most of its sub branches. It was my Rosetta Stone.
The family name was listed as Rofwalsky and prompted a rush to the immigration records, which, after extensive investigation, proved equally fruitless. There was no record of Samuel Rofwalsky or any similar derivative. Sam’s arrival in Canada remained a mystery. However, the Rosetta document enabled the branches of the Canadian tree to be extended and opened new avenues to explore. Rofwalsky, Rusofsky, Lifschitz, Ehrman, Lipson and many others fell into place. Even Samuel’s parents, Eliyohu and Chantzie, emerged in the records and photographs, but nothing linked him back to his homeland.
Sam’s Canadian life seemed to start with the 1911 Canadian census in which he declared his arrival date as 1904 and that he was born in Russia in 1889. The link between Wall and Rofwalsky was initially assumed as a convenient abbreviation made by an overworked immigration officer, too tired to try and understand the broad guttural accents of the arriving immigrants. Subsequent investigations proved that this was wrong. Sam officially changed the name to Wall to better suit his business needs. Nobody could spell, let alone pronounce Rofwalsky.
The same census records identified Sam’s older brother and sister, Hyman (Hymie) and Sarah, who arrived in Canada in the same year but not necessarily together. We can only guess what induced these three children to leave Russia and make the perilous journey across Europe. However, assuming Kyiv was part of their background, historical records for the early 1900s showed that the anti-Jewish Pogroms were becoming more frequent and violent in that area. Maybe there was no option but to flee and try the promised land.
In 1911, Sam was twenty-two and listed himself as single, employed as a merchant, and living at a boarding house in Dominion Street, Winnipeg. We have no details about his work, but we believe that he was employed in a general store. Later that year, he married Bessie Ehrman. It alleged that she was found for him by the local Synagogue matchmaker, and it seems that it was a close call as to whether she married Sam or his brother Hyman. One can only hope that it was a matter of true love instead of the toss of a coin. From my family records, I know that their first-born son, Joseph, my father, arrived the following year and that the place of birth was Stonewall, a small town about 16 miles north of Winnipeg.
The next record of Sam’s journey was picked up in the 1916 Census, which shows that he had moved to another small town called Lestock, nearly 350 miles west of Winnipeg and situated in the Canadian open farmlands near a place called Last Mountain. He was again listed as working in a general store, but more importantly, there is a second son called Moses (uncle Mo). He is just under one year old. Sam is now indeed a family man and, according to the continuing story, he was running a general store in association with the Hudson Bay Company. During this period, pictures of Last Mountain show a small settlement in the middle of an open prairie that consists of several log cabins, one of which is a trading post and is probably typical of the store that Sam managed. It is bleak and desolate and adds visual believability to the family stories of gambling and drinking that allegedly took place about this time in Sam’s life. Maybe some of the stories are true?
By the time we reach the 1921 census, Sam is thirty-two and has moved again. This time, he manages a general trading store in another small town called Bruno, 135 miles northwest of Lestock and further into the wilderness. It consists of several small wooden buildings centred around two roads that disappear into distant horizons. Small lakes and open desolate wilderness surround Sam, but, more importantly, the census tells us that his family has grown again. There are two more sons. Jacob (uncle Jack), who is three and Bernard, (uncle Bert), who is one.
At last, there is a family picture that links to the location. It is a black and white faded image of Sam’s wife, Bessie, with Mo and Jack playing on a flat bedded wooden cart used to haul timber from the local timber yard known as the Bruno Lumber Co. Bessie is dressed in a pale long-sleeved dress with a high neck and white shoes with small heels that seem in contrast with the rutted dirt road. Both of the children are wearing smart-looking jackets, neat short pants, and shoes recently polished. The cart is old and drawn by two sleek black horses that look well fed and groomed. Standing next to the horses, with his hands casually holding the reigns, is the owner. I have been told that he is Mr Zimmerman. He is dressed in tight trousers that seem out of place in a working environment and wearing a crisp white shirt and dark tie. Most extraordinarily, he is also wearing a pale straw boater, cocked at a jaunty angle. The cart is empty, apart from the children, and there is a holiday atmosphere that only misses the bands and bunting. It is obviously not a typical working day. There is no sign of Sam or my father, and I assume they are the picture takers. Deeper research reveals that the yard and its buildings are still recognisable from the picture taken over one hundred years ago.
Another picture linked to this period shows Sam sitting in an open field of wheat. He is with my father, aged about eight, looking suitably unimpressed. There is also a curly-haired Mo, aged about four and a young smiling Jack. There is also a woman in the group, and the family cannot be sure if it is Bessie. It is clear that whoever she is, they are sitting in the middle of nowhere. It is isolated, and their faces are deeply wind-tanned.
Five years later, Sam, aged thirty-seven, has given up the wilderness and moved his family back into Winnipeg. There is no other information on the 1926 census to indicate why. Maybe it has something to do with a game of cards!
At this time, Sam has given up being a merchant and has branched out into the garment manufacturing business. How do we know this? Because there is a Winnipeg newspaper cutting from the 30 April 1927 stating that:
“the garment manufacturing company of Wall, Matoff and Stone Ltd., will be opening shortly, on the fifth floor of the Daylight Building at 296 McDermot Ave.”
Five years later, in 1932, another local newspaper reports that a very keen Samuel Wall pleads guilty to employing his cutters at Wall, Matoff and Stone, on the Lords Day, to handle a rush order. He is fined $5.
During 1934 there was major industrial unrest within the Canadian clothing industry over workers’ pay resulting in strikes. Tempers run high. Sam is in the newspapers again after being arrested for punching one of the strikers. Although he pleads self-defence, there is another fine. Clearly, Samuel is prepared to work hard and fight hard for his business.
There is another picture from my Canadian collection that defines the family. It is undated, but later research indicates that it was probably taken between 1930 – 1932. It’s is a typical formal photograph taken in a Winnipeg studio and shows four tiers of serious-looking people dressed to impress.
The bottom row includes an elderly white-bearded gentleman in a black knee-length jacket with matching trousers. The jacket lapels are rebated in silk, and the buttons are material covered. It sits over a waistcoat with just a glint of a pocket watch chain showing from a small pocket. He is also wearing a religious black cap, and his equally black, round-toed boots are polished to a high shine. A closer examination reveals thick, well-worn soles, lifting slightly at the front and a sense that they have been repaired several times. Sharp eyes peer through simple round glass lenses that are held inside a thin metal frame. It does not matter from what angle you look; the eyes follow you. This is a man of style but with a hint of being frugal. This man is my paternal great grandfather, and this is the only image I have of him. I am not sure if I should be proud or scared.
Sitting next to him is his wife, my great grandmother. From the expression on her face, she somebody not to cross swords with. There is self-assured confidence in her eyes which are framed in the same style of glasses as her husband. They look so alike that they may have been a special deal. She is wearing a long-sleeved full-length black dress with a patterned V neck edged with an embroidered border. Its pattern screams bright colours and hints that behind that stern face is a lady who likes the good things in life. This is endorsed by the fact that there is a small watch discreetly showing under the sleeve of her dress and a neat pearl necklace around her exposed neck. Both of my great grandparents sit bolt upright, legs slightly splayed, with the palms of their hands placed, almost awkwardly flat, on their knees. After all, this is a formal photograph.
Standing immediately behind my great grandfather in the second row is his son, my grandfather. He is in a dark, broad striped, three-piece suit, white shirt and striped tie. From this time forward, the three-piece suit is his trademark. I never see another photograph without him wearing one. How could a leader of fashion be dressed in anything else? His dark set eyes look out from a stern face that still retains a hint of tan from the wind and sun of the open prairies, and, from his position in the photograph and the look on his face, he is the man paying the photography bill. His hair is beginning to recede—another family trait.
To my grandfather’s right, is my grandmother, Bessie. Her hair is cut tight to her head and displays a waved patterned style. It frames her square cut jaw line and accentuates yet another stern face that definitely say she is a person to be taken very seriously. I am beginning to realise where the Wall family nature comes from. Around her neck is long gold and pearl necklace that holds two massive drop pearls. They are a matched pair and sit neatly in the deep cleft of the open neck of her floral dress. It is a tailored outfit and screams of fashion. Unlike her parents in law, she is comfortable in front of the camera and has one of her hands is placed supportively on the arm of her youngest son, Bert, who is wearing two-tone shoes, pantaloons, jacket, white shirt and tie, as befits his younger, pre-bar mitzvah years. It is also noted that Bessie’s prominent hand just happens to be displaying a huge diamond ring.
Standing behind Bessie are two more of her sons, Jack, with his tight curls and Moe, with a wave of light hair that stands out like a beacon. Like their father, both boys are dressed in hand-tailored suits, long collared white shirts and patterned ties. The suits, perhaps, designate their post-bar mitzvah status and help in dating the photograph.
Significant by his absence from the photograph is Bessie and Sam’s eldest son, Joe, my father. With two other absentees, his portrait has been glued manually in a fourth row, just above his brothers. We know that in 1932 he was at the University of Manitoba, completing his Degree and that later that year, he worked as a salesman in the Model Cloak Company. Another business opened by Sam. We can only speculate on the circumstances that kept him away from such a significant clan gathering. Maybe, it is why Sam looks so unhappy?
Despite the fines and the strikes, Sam’s ventures into the garment business are obviously doing well, and the whole family appear to be enjoying the benefits.
As the date marches closer to 1939, life for Sam and the Wall family is looking good.
What could possibly go wrong?