By BERNIE BELLAN In September 2020 I wrote a story about a long-ago Jewish club that went by the name “The Rollickers”. That story was prompted by my reading the minute book of the club, which had been in the hands of Rona Perlov, whose father, Eli Weinberg, was a founding member of the club. (By the way you can read that story on this website. Simply enter the name “The Rollickers” in our search engine.)
While reading that minute book certainly evinced a few laughs – those young guys spent more time debating about who should be punished for violating arcane rules about what constituted unacceptable behavior than anything else, I noted in my story that there was never any reference in the minutes to sports.
I wondered about that. While the YMHA on Albert Street didn’t open until 1936, there have been many stories written about great Jewish athletes from Winnipeg in the early part of the 20th century. Were they organized, I wondered? Did they have clubs?
My questions were partly answered a few weeks ago when I received a call from someone by the name of Murray Atnikov. It turned out that Atnikov was a former Winnipegger, now living in Vancouver, who had a story he wanted to share with me, but which he wanted to tell me in person. He would be coming to Winnipeg in August, he told me, and asked whether we could meet when he got here.
“Sure,” I told him. I was intrigued to find out what his story was.
Subsequently, Atnikov (who I learned, after talking to him on the phone when he called me again) is better known as Dr. Murray Atnikov, an anaesthesiologist who had left Winnipeg many years ago, came over to my house one beautiful summer day, complete with a folder which he didn’t open until we were well into our conversation.
When he was a teen in the 1930s, Atnikov told me, he belonged to a north end Jewish sports club known as “The Demons”. There was only one other surviving member of that club: Nathan Isaacs (née Isaacovitch), now a resident of Toronto (and a longtime subscriber to this paper, I might add.)
There was at least one other Jewish sports club of that era, Atnikov recalled, known as “The Eagles”. Members of both clubs played hockey, softball, and football, and their competition came from non-Jewish clubs in the area. When I asked Atnikov whether any of the boys curled, he said that was something older men did, but interestingly he told me that there was actually a football field located behind what was the Maple Leaf Curling Club on Machray, which was where the Demons and the Eagles played their games.
But why did Atnikov want to see me in person, I wondered? It turns out that in his folder he had some photographs, including one of him and Nathan Isaacs when they both served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but also one of the two of them wearing replica sweaters emblazoned with the letter “D” for Demons.
As Atnikov explained to me, a son of one of their late colleagues had been going through his father’s belongings after his father had passed away when he came across an original “Demons” sweater from the 1930s.
Knowing that Atnikov and Isaacs were the two surviving members of the Demons, this fellow had the replica sweaters made up and shipped to Atnikov and Isaacs. Recently the two old friends had a chance to visit with one another – thus the photo you at the beginning of this story.
So, where did Murray Atnikov end up after the war, I wondered? As he sat with me on my front step, regaling me with one fascinating story after another, he explained how he ended up in Vancouver.
In 1945 Atnikov was one of a group of three friends who had applied to enter medical school here in Winnipeg. Although the quota on Jewish students had just been lifted, thanks to a legal battle entered into by such individuals as Percy Barsky and Hyman Sokolov (which has been well documented both in this paper and numerous other sources), it was still no easy matter for Jewish students to get into medicine here.
As a result, Atnikov said, he and his two friends boarded a train for Chicago, where they intended to apply to the University of Chicago’s medical school. While all three were accepted, Atnikov explained, they were told that there were two different streams within the medical school. In one stream, once you graduated, you would be allowed to practice medicine anywhere in the U.S. Within the other stream, however, you would be allowed to practice medicine only in Illinois. (For how long you’d have to remain in Illinois I’m not sure. I also didn’t ask Atnikov whether he knew the answer.)
Not wanting to be forced to remain in Illinois, however, Atnikov said he decided to return to Winnipeg and see whether there was any chance he might still be able to get into medical school here. Upon returning home and contacting the medical school yet again though, he was disappointed to learn that his name was still not on the list of entrants to the new year of school.
Although disappointed, you can imagine Atnikov’s elation when he received a follow-up call from the same person who told him his name was not on the list of medical school entrants to say that a mistake had been made. Apparently when the three young men had gone to Chicago and had all been accepted into medical school there, one of the other two guys phoned the medical school here to say that they could remove their names from the list of applicants to school in Winnipeg because they had all been accepted in Chicago.
It turns out that, while Atnikov was not immediately accepted into medical school, he was number two on the wait list and, pending two other students dropping out of school, he would get in – which he did.
Upon graduating from medicine in 1950, however, Atnikov left Winnipeg to advance his medical education at the University of Minnesota. One of his colleagues there was Norman Shumway, he told me, who later became an early pioneer of heart transplant surgery. (According to Atnikov, Christian Barnaard, who performed the first-ever heart transplant on a human, learned his technique from Shumway when they were both colleagues at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s.)
Atnikov went on to have an illustrious career as an anesthesiologist, in New York, California, and ultimately, Vancouver, which is where he eventually retired from practicing.
Still, after all these years, with all that he has accomplished, Murray Atnikov was most interested in talking about the Demons and what great times they had together.
Those boyhood memories – and girlhood ones too: They never cease to fade and reliving some of those experiences is what keeps so many of us going.