How I Found in Canada My Land of Opportunity

No. III: From Immigrant Boy to Merchant Prince

SAM BERGER May 15 1925

How I Found in Canada My Land of Opportunity

No. III: From Immigrant Boy to Merchant Prince

SAM BERGER May 15 1925

How I Found in Canada My Land of Opportunity

No. III: From Immigrant Boy to Merchant Prince


IN THE summer of 1907, there drifted into Montreal a piece of flotsam, swept thither by the waves of chance. The sea of life had cast it there, high and dry, with not a friend, nor a definite purpose. But being human, and being possessed of life, it dared to hope. Presently this hope synchronized with conscious and directed effort, and becoming spurred on by ambition, accomplished some rather unusual things. So that this flotsam, immigrant, alien, foreigner, call it what you will, became a citizen of this great Dominion and was still another manifestation of the principle that rugged character, vision and application can find a niche for itself in this Canada of ours.

To-day this man is the owner of huge factories and offices and retail stores in the large cities of the Dominion and has large realty holdings. He is a prominent figure in Canadian Jewry for he belongs to that race. His name is known throughout the Canadian business world.

A friend remarked to him one day:

“How thankful you should be. Canada made you rich.” “No,” was the response, “I made myself rich in Canada.”

The difference is distinct, although not always recognized by the unthinking. People see only the surface.

“Grit, perseverance, thrift, courage in ad, 4-

versity, determination to grow—these are ad£■% v

mirable qualities,” said he, when first we talked of himself. “Important magazines devote pages to télling of how the great men of ||^

the country formed the steps upon which they climbed to success; but are such qualities less admirable because demonstrated by an alien who comes into the country penniless, friendless, a stranger, and borne down by handicaps with which the native has not to contend, such as imperfect knowledge of the language and prejudice against his race? Cold, hunger, bitter toil, incessant study—all these I experienced in my climb from the black pit of old world hopelessness and bigotry to the place I hold to-day.

“Some Canadians say that prosperity and a future lie outside of their own country and on the soil of a Southern neighbor. Let me, a foreigner and a Jew, bear witness how, crushed and disheartened, I came into Canada from that Southern land of opportunity and found at the foot of my tarnished rainbow a pot of gold.”

And so the speaker, without color or embellishment of any kind, told me his life-story. And since truth is stranger than fiction, I propose to allow him to tell his story in his own words:

The Immigrant’s Story

SELECT your line and stick to it,” is a good maxim, (commenced he,) but it is not always possible. Circumstances govern individuals to some extent and that is why before I found my line, I was successively a cobbler messenger, - tea blender and trader, matchbox-factory hand, silk merchant, cattle dealer, milliner and manufacturer. For a proper understanding of my later life it is necessary to know something of my early background and environment.

I was born in Petrograd forty-seven years ago. The basement in which my family lived, due to their straitened circumstances, was nothing more than a hole in the ground. Literally. It was fronted by a long courtyard and the back of an apartment house where the people of the apartment hung out their clothes to dry, and where they received their coal and wood.

Because of disrepair the stairs which led down into the basement had worn and then rotted' away, so that one had to jump down into the front-room, living room, kitchen and bed room combined. Or if the day was rainy, slide down, a distance of seven feet. When one had gained entrance into our “home” one found oneself in a small room about ten feet square. There were no windows, no doors. There was a partition which divided up the “apartment” into three rooms, and the other rooms were occupied by a shoemaker who plied his trade there, and by a widow who sold fowl on the market square. The woman kept her fowl in her home.

Our Family Home

ALL day long the kerosene lamp smoked and gave forth a dour light and a greasy odor. The lamp cast up shadows on the walls and made grotesque figures. Leading from a corner of the room was the community oven.

Here the three families, representing a communityTof eleven people, cooked their meals. The stove, madeïof bricks, stretched for several feet and because it was flat on top and sufficiently long to allow a person to lie on it comfortably, was a much sought-after bed at night. Every night there was a fight as to who should sleep on it. The coveted position was often gained only after a pitched battle or heated argumentation. On Friday, when the Sabbath meal was cooked, it was generally the scene once again of a fight. Each tenant contributed a certain amount of kindling. Came the question, naturally, how much wood should each donate? The answer provoked many a battle which sometimes continued long into the Sabbath.

There was no wooden flooring to the cellar so that when it rained the floor became transformed into thick mud. The rain came in through the opening by which we entered and the water seeped in through the walls. That we did not become ill was no doubt due to the fact that we had all become hardened. The rent we paid for this magnificent abode was three rubles a year.

The Young Outcast

MY MOTHER died when I was six years old, and the stepmother who was installed as mistress of this miserable hovel a month after my mother’s death denied me even this shelter. She speedily drove me to the streets. It was bitter cold—in mid-January—and I was barely seven years old. We were then living in the city of Dvinsk, having been forced out of Petrograd, as Jews were not allowed to live there.

I wandered about the icy streets for hours, then took refuge in a synagogue, where I slept in a box under a seat until morning. Soon after day-break worshippers came in for the morning service. I accosted one, a benevolentappearing old man.

“What do you want, boy?” he asked.

I explained my plight. He looked keenly at me for a minute, then he nodded. “You look like a good boy. I will help you,” he said.

As a result of his efforts I was admitted to a Hebrew school, which gave me a room, meals and clothes. I was a keen student and worked assiduously at my books, thereby earning favor with my teachers, for Jews love a scholar. I stayed here until I was thirteen years old; I was then considered to be a man and had to leave and earn my living. I was placed with a shoemaker to learn the trade, but he was a surly task-master. I was his

scullion—a servant—running messages and doing housework, and half-starving on bread and kvass, a sort of cider. Ah, is there anything so delightful as bread and cold kvass, on a hot summer’s day, when you are absolutely starved? I was given nothing else; I was learning nothing; so I ran away.

A Narrow Escape

FROM then on my life was a queer medley of ups and downs. My ambition was continually curbed and thwarted by the regulation that Jews might not live in certain of the large Russian commercial centres. Because of my evasion of that law, I once narrowly escaped exile and imprisonment in Siberia. I was in Riga at the time, and in comparative safety until a police sergeant noticed the frequency of my appearance in the neighborhood in which I was hiding. He followed me to the house one day and observed where I entered. At midnight the house was surrounded by a corps of policemen and a detachment of cavalry. They knocked peremptorily on the door and demanded to search in the name of the Emperor. They sought a young •man, a Jew, who they suspected had no right to live there without a permit. Discovery meant dire punishment to my employer and his family, and imprisonment and possibly exile to Siberia for me. I thought quickly.

The month was October, with cool days and colder nights. The Jews had just completed celebrating the Feast of Huts. For this festival they had constructed little huts covered with branches of pine as a roof, and in these huts during the festival they ate their meals. My employer being a devout Jew had observed the holiday in the strictest sense. He had contracted a hut. There it stood now directly under my window. It was three stories from my window to the ground and two stories to the roof of the hut. I decided to risk all. Better be taken dead than alive. I leaped from the window and landed on the pine roof. It sagged but did not yield. I lay panting there, half hidden in the green branches. I could hear the soldiers conducting a thorough search. They ransacked the house. They hunted high and low from cellar to garret. They even ripped up the flooring in some places. But it did not occur to them to look on the roof of the little hut. I was safe for the moment.

To detail my further life in Russia would take too much space, but after a series of disappointments and reverses in which racial hatred and prejudice played their part I emigrated with my wife to the United States. I had a little capital—not much—and with it I opened a small store. After a temporary period of prosperity ill luck again stalked me and I found myself almost penniless. There is a Hebrew saying—“Change place, change luck. ” I would change places again.

Off to the Unknown

THE sale of our furniture and belongings gave us a small sum. I took fifty dollars, giving the balance to my wife. “You must live on that until I send for you,” I told her.

“Where are you going?” she asked. I did not know.

All I knew was that I wanted to go away—somewhere —anywhere. So I wandered about the Grand Central Station in New York rather aimlessly and not a little forlorn. Somewhere I heard Canada mentioned. “I’ve got it,” I said to myself. “I shall go to Canada.” And forthwith I approached the wicket.

“I want a ticket for Canada,” I told the clerk. “Whereabouts in Canada?” he asked.

“I do not know,” I answered, puzzled.


“Yes—Montreal,” I replied, indifferently. One place was as good as another.

Upon arrival at Montreal I engaged in a long hunt for work, and finally secured a job as clerk in a departmental store at ten dollars a week. I got board and lodging for four dollars a week and sent the balance to my wife and three children in New York. After two weeks my salary was raised to twelve dollars. After several weeks I sent for my wife and family, and installed them in a flat on Guilbault street for which we paid fourteen dollars a month rent. Our sole furniture was four kitchen chairs, a table and one bed. To provide a bed for my children I lifted the shutters from the windows at night, and reContinued on page 65

How I Found in Canada My Land of Opportunity

Continued from page 18

placed them early in the morning so the landlord would not see.

At first my wife wept bitterly. That we should come to such a pass.

But I said to her as cheerfully as I could, “We are no worse off than many others. We made no agreement with God that we should be better treated. One thing only I ask of you. Administer our funds so that we can put away one dollar a week.” She did so, and in this way we saved a trifle every week.

A Penniless Croesus

WHEN we had accumulated thirtyone dollars in as many weeks, I came to the conclusion that it was time to send our oldest child to the Hebrew school and with that in view I visited a school on St. Urbain street. Imagine my surprise when I found they were contemplating closing the school, due to lack of funds. After listening some time to the discussion I came to the conclusion that I ought to help to the utmost of my ability. I therefore offered them twenty-five dollars towards wiping out their indebtedness, if the other gentlemen would give a like amount, and agree to raise the funds in one way or another. At that time twenty-five dollars was much more valuable than it is to-day. The gentlemen on the board regarded me quizzically. Who was this new Croesus that suddenly loomed on the horizon? And how was it they had never heard of me before? They imagined that I was surely a man of wealth. Spurred by the example, however, the money was raised and the school saved.

Some days later the treasurer came to bring me a receipt. He knocked at the door of my home and my wife answered. Hè looked in and saw the poverty in the house and felt certain that he had made a mistake. He excused himself without even asking the name. But he proceeded immediately to the house next door where my landlord lived and asked of him if he knew where I lived, mentioning me by name. “Yes,” he was told, “he livesright next door.” The treasurer was puzzled. My landlord volunteered, “Very strange people. They pay cash for everything they buy. But they buy so little. The rent too is paid on the dot.”

After working for several months longer I managed to save sixteen dollars, but all this time I knew that I was progressing too slowly, and I had an increasing desire to go into business for myself. But that required capital, which I did not have. In Russia I had gained an expert knowledge of tea blending. The brand most in favor among Jews in Russia was Popoff’s tea, and I wondered whether transplantation to Canada had changed their tastes in this respect. I bought a small quantity of tea, blended it and set forth to sell it. The first week I made thirty-five dollars; in a few months I had accumulated $300. That was the end of the tea business, however, for I had stocked up the Jewish community for many months to come.

A Business Venture

T COMMENCED drifting again. But I had gained confidence in my ability and I felt convinced that sooner or later I would find something worth while.

One day I met a chance acquaintance. “Will you go into partnership with me?” he said. “I have an idea but I need someone with a little capital.”

“What is your idea?” I asked.

“We will go into the cattle game,” he replied. “We will buy cattle from the farmers and sell to the city dealers.”

After some deliberation I agreed. We went to Toronto together, bought a carload of cattle and shipped it to Montreal. We sold the carload—and our total profit was fifteen dollars net; seven-fifty each. That evening my partner said he did not wish to continue in the cattle game. I did not urge him, but thought I would try it again myself.

Instead of doing as before, however, I scoured the countryside and bought the

finest cattle I could get. When I brought them to market the dealers stared in amazement. They had never had such an opportunity before. I cleared over $1,500 on the deal.

My former associate was chagrined.

“Who is your partner?” he demanded.

“Almighty is my partner,” I replied.

I remained at this trade for some time, making fairly good money, but could not repeat my first success. We moved into a better home and bought some furniture. We had meat four times a week, now. There was no future for me in the cattle game, though, for I did not know enough about it to work it in a big way, and I was afraid to venture what I had gained in cattle speculation. So I waited.

In the meantime I was looking about for a business which I could enter. I had figured that St. Catherine street was the coming business street of Montreal. At that time St. James street, Notre Dame street, and St. Lawrence street held the bulk of trade. On St. Catherine street the sites of the big stores of to-day were occupied by private homes. I planned to lease some of these homes, re-model them and rent them as stores. As houses they brought about forty dollars a month. As stores they should yield from one hundred to one hundred and fifty a month.

With this in mind I entered a real estate office to make enquiries and while waiting there picked up a copy of the Business Exchange. It contained an item that a milliner on St. Lawrence boulevard was willing to sell out at such a reasonable figure that I was attracted. I went to the store and said I wanted to buy it.

“It’s not for sale,” said the owner.

“I have just come from your agent and he tells me it is for sale,” I replied. It seemed that the notice was premature and that he had not definitely decided to sell. Finally he agreed to sell for $5,000 cash. I would not consider it, but returned to the agent and asked him to negotiate for me at fifty cents on the dollar; eventually we agreed on seventy-two cents on the dollar.

The next question was how to pay, for, after mustering all my funds I was short $500 of the purchase price, and the place needed alteration as well. I would have to borrow the money; but who would lend to me, a stranger? I decided I could win only by taking a long, lone chance.

Unusual Banking

I WENT to a Montreal bank, and there I made out a deposit slip for $500. The ledger keeper waited patiently while I filled out the blank with my signature and went through the other preliminaries required for making a deposit. “Where is the money?” he asked at length. “I haven’t got any,” I replied. His amazement was indescribable, and I did not lessen it any when I informed him that far from giving him any money I expected the bank to advance me the money filled out on the deposit slip. “What security have you?” he asked. I confessed I had none. ■ By this time the man was not quite certain that he ought not to inform the authorities that an insane man was walking the streets. Somewhat reluctantly though courteously enough he escorted me to the manager.

To the manager I told my story in brief. And in less than half an hour I had the $500. The manager said he would trust my personality as security. I asked for sixty days credit, and I am happy to say I returned the money within thirty days. That is how I embarked in the millinery business—the business in which I was to found my present success. I did so well that within a year I had branched out into other stores and within two years had three in successful operation, two of them on St. Catherine street where they are to this day.

But I felt that I had not yet exploited all my resources. The millinery business was too small a field, so I looked about again and decided that a big market could

be developed in ladies’ ready-to-wear garments. To begin with I bought half a dozen dresses, for which I paid four dollars each. I displayed them in the window at six dollars, ninety-five, and sold them all the same day. The next day I bought a dozen dresses. By evening I had sold them. The following day I bought three dozen, assorted, and different in price and size. I sold them. I had entered the ladies’ ready-to-wear business to stay.

In the basement of my store I opened a regular department and stocked it with an assortment of one hundred dresses. Continually I conceived and practised new ideas and continually I expanded. Last spring I bought a new store in the heart of the business section of Montreal and visited Europe to buy merchandise for it.

When I want credit at the bank these days I get it.. In 1921, when I went to Europe on a buying trip the bank manager who had staked me to my first $500 gave me a letter of credit for $100,000. When I got to Europe I noticed the market was about to collapse, but I invested $75,000 in merchandise. When I returned to Montreal I handed back to the bank manager his letter of credit unused.

“Did you not buy anything?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes,” I replied, “but the market was insecure. I was willing to gamble with my own money, but not with another’s.” -That has been my policy throughout.

The Summit Won

WITH that Mr. Darwin concluded and relit his cigar. He did not mention the other part of him, his generosity, which leads him to give most liberally to many Jewish organizations and which has constituted him an important figure in Zionist affairs. He had the courage and the vision to make good. Perhaps the review of his life will be helpful in exciting some sympathy towards those people so often regarded scornfully as mere “aliens.” As he said, “What was possible for a foreigner, friendless, penniless and hedged about with handicaps and prejudice should be doubly possible to a native, born, and living without restriction in Canada, Land of My Opportunity.”