By BERNIE BELLAN Now 99, Saul Cherniack is still sharp and engaging. Long considered a true gentleman throughout his lengthy political and legal career, his eyes still sparkle as he tells one story after another of his varied and fascinating life.
While he still mourns the loss of his wife, Sybil, Saul remains a cheerful individual who serves as a living link to a time of great upheaval – for Jews and non-Jews alike, but which paved the way for the relatively progressive society in which we now live in Winnipeg.
In the first part of our story about Saul and Mindel Cherniack (in our Sept. 14 issue) we told of the upbringing the two of them enjoyed in the Joseph and Fanny Chernicak household, first on College Ave, later on St. Johns Avenue.
We pick up with Saul describing his father, the famed lawyer (J. A.) Joseph Cherniack, who was 87 when he died. When he came to Canada (in 1905) he didn’t speak a word of English, Saul notes.
Myra Wolch says that she wants to clarify something about J. A. Cherniack that had to do with his association with communists before the Second World War. “Your father was violently anti-communist,” she says to Saul, who is sitting across the dining room table from Myra as I conduct my interview.
Saul Cherniack explains: “At the time that the Nazis were rising to prominence, my father was active in the Canadian Jewish Congress. He couldn’t get the Congress to react to what was happening, so he left the Congress and went to work with the communists in Winnipeg in an anti-Fascist league.”
I ask him whether his father was ever accused of being a communist himself, but he says no.
I ask Saul how he met his late wife, Sybil. Sybil Zeal came from Blaine Lake in Saskatchewan, where her parents operated a store to attend university, Saul explains. He adds that his parents couldn’t afford to send him to university so he entered Grade 12 at St. Johns Tech (as the high school was known in those days), which was an alternative to attending first year university.
As Saul tells it, it was in 1936 that some of his friends went to a party where Sybil happened to be attending. His friends told him about her.
“On one occasion I was standing on the corner of Main and St. Johns. You know where Oscar’s is? I was standing there and Muni Averbach – he was a dentist, drove up and Sybil was in the car with him. Muni got out and introduced us.”
Myrna picks up the story: “The other side of the story is Sybil said he was wearing white flannel pants and a tennis sweater – and he was gorgeous.
Myra explains that she became friends with Sybil years after Sybil and Saul were married. “We used to go for lunch – and cry on each other’s shoulders. (At the time, Myra explains, she was having marital difficulties.) “Sybil’s problems were different. They had nothing to do with Saul. He was perfect and sometimes she’d tell me how perfect he was and I’d gag and say ‘Nobody can be that perfect.’ But you know what? He is. I’ve been with him a lot of years and he is.”
Myra goes on to note that Sybil didn’t speak one word of Yiddish when she met Saul. Eventually when they married and moved in with his parents – who didn’t speak anything but Yiddish…” she learned Yiddish,” according to Myra.
“She even gave speeches in Yiddish,” Saul adds.
Sybil died in 1997 after a lengthy illness.
Upon entering the army during World War II, Saul was sent to British Columbia where, interestingly enough, he learned Japanese. Here is how he explains how that came about: “When I was in the army I was sent to a mountain warfare course, which was up in B.C.” There was a notice posted asking for recruits who would be interested in learning Japanese and Saul asked to be part of that program.
“The army was getting in on messages being sent from Japan to other places. I went to Ottawa. There we would translate messages for others to use,” he explains.
Following the war, Saul returned to Winnipeg, where he joined his father in the practice of law. (If you would like to read an amusing story, written by Bill Marantz, describing what it was like to work in the law firm of Cherniack and Cherniack, enter this on your browser: http://bbellan.webfactional.com/features/1850-working-with-the-cherniacks-a-family-affair)
In 1950, Saul entered politics for the first time, following in his sister Sybil’s footsteps by being elected as a trustee on the Winnipeg School Board, where he remained for four years.
Subsequently, he says, “I was involved closely with the Jewish community – as president of the Jewish Welfare Fund (forerunner of the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council, later the Winnipeg Jewish Federation) and vice-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Then, in 1958 I was elected to City Council. For two years I was on Metro Council, then in ’62 I was elected to the Legislature.”
Saul Cherniack won five successive elections in the provincial riding of St. Johns, from 1962 – 1977, each time by a successively larger margin, before retiring in 1981. In 1969 he was appointed Minister of Finance in the Ed Schreyer government and, in 1970 he was also appointed Urban Affairs Minister, with the task of shepherding in the new legislation amalgamating Winnipeg with all of its suburbs.
“The first time I ever saw you speak was about Unicity,” I say to him. “I was a kid and you were doing a traveling road show explaining Unicity,” I add.
I ask Saul about the deep grudge that another brilliant former cabinet minister in the Schreyer government, Sid Green, bore toward him. During the course of our interview I say to him: “I’ve got to tell you something though: ‘Sid Green was my father’s first cousin.‘ “There’s no love lost between you and Sid Green, is there?”
“Not really,” Saul answers. “I don’t resent him, but he resents me. When there was a competition for the leadership of the party (the NDP), Herb Schultz (who was Ed Schreyer’s brother-in-law) phoned our house and spoke to my wife and she told him that I was supporting Schreyer. And he asked, ‘Why not Sid?’ She thought she was saying something nice (not realizing that Schultz was a great friend and supporter of Sid Green’s.)
Sybil said, ‘Well, for one thing, Saul doesn’t think Manitoba is prepared to elect a Jewish premier.’ Sid never forgave me for that.”
“Anyway, Sid’s a brilliant speaker – and he’s a clever guy, but he hasn’t forgiven me.”
After his retirement from politics in 1980, Saul Cherniack went on to serve as Chair of Manitoba Hydro, later as a member of the Security Intelligence Review Committee overseeing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He retired from his legal practice in 2000.
Yet, even though he is now fully retired, a descent into the basement of the home in which he now lives reveals a thoroughly modern office, immaculately organized. As Bill Marantz notes in his wonderful article about working in the same law firm as the Cherniacks, “Saul Cherniack is the most diplomatic and organized human being I have ever met. He would not leave the office, even if it was ten at night, until every item on his Brownline Calendar Pad had a line through it.”
I can see what Bill means as I scan the basement office – everything in place, all neatly organized to a t. It was my privilege to be able to sit down with Saul Cherniack and Myra Wolch for a few hours and hear stories that may not mean much to members of the younger generation, but for someone who grew up at a time when the NDP rose from a fringe group in the Manitoba legislature to become the dominant party in this province over the past half century, it was a treat meeting one of the three Jewish cabinet ministers in the first ever NDP government in this province (the others being Saul Miller and Sid Green).
What I wanted to do in these two brief articles was provide a small snapshot of Saul Cherniack’s life which, in so many respects, is so similar to the lives of others long gone, who grew up in the storied north end to become eminently successful in their chosen fields.
Saul Cherniack and others like him built not only the Jewish community of Winnipeg but, in many ways, this city and this province. To them we owe a huge debt.