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Bygone Winnipeg: A fictitous story based on true events: University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine 1932-1944

David Topper

By DAVID TOPPER Call me a witness. I was there and heard almost everything that’s relevant to this story.
Yet, thinking deeper, I guess you could call me a spy – well, at least, some may say that, for there was an element of skulduggery in my employment situation. It was all because of my father, who changed my name when I was born. Of course, we’re all born with a surname, but―


Wait. Let’s first go back to my grandfather, Moshe Levinstein, who was born in Russia, and who as a young man experienced a small pogrom – small in terms of later ones – which was enough to convince him to emigrate as fast as he could. Several people were killed, a house was burned down, and there was a rape – that ‘small’ event drove him to leave Russia, forever. He never looked back, even when Winnipeg, Canada turned out not to be quite the paradise he expected. Because he quickly found that anti-Semitism was endemic.

My father, Solomon Levinstein, while growing up, saw the struggle his parents went through being Jews in a Christian country (with the English majority Protestant, and the minority French Catholic), and he wanted to protect me as best he could when I was born. He wanted me to fit into the social fabric more than he ever could. And since I turned out to be a girl, there were even more barriers on my horizon – ‘closed doors,’ he called it. He told us that he was thinking about all this when I was still in my mother’s womb. You see, he liked to ‘plan ahead,’ which was another of his favourite phrases.

Oh, speaking of being in the womb: my grandmother died when my mother was eight months pregnant with me, and so I was supposed to be named some variation of Minnie Levinstein, as is the Jewish tradition. But since my father was obsessed with my fitting in better than he did, and he also wanted me to get through some otherwise ‘closed doors’ – I was named Mildred Evans. He said Evans and ‘Levins’ rhyme, and so do Millie and Minnie. It was also a nice Aryan-sounding name, “as the Germans would say,” he said.

Mind you, while growing up as Mildred Evans, I nonetheless didn’t hide my Jewishness. Indeed, I often went to synagogue on Saturday/Sabbath. But then, I also often went to church on Sunday and―
Um, I guess I need to explain that. You see, my best friend was Mary O’Brian, which tells you that she was probably Irish Catholic, which she was. Now, here’s my perspective in all of this. I was very precocious and very smart and I read a lot. I liked languages. On weekends I enjoyed Hebrew in the Synagogue and Latin in the Church. Two ancient languages, one dead except for the Christian Mass, and the other kept alive in prayer and Torah study. Plus, you must remember that Latin was still taught in schools at this time; it was part of a Liberal Arts education in the first half of the 20th century. Many universities required High School Latin for entrance to their freshman classes. As well, to me, the Mass was like an opera, with singing and those glorious organ pipes vibrating and echoing throughout the church. Mary and I, by-the-by, went to the beautiful Cathedral in St. Boniface, with the astonishing and huge Rose window. You see, there were no organs in any synagogue. And so, it was not so strange for this Jew to enjoy the Catholic Mass as a musical event. Think of Bach, a devout Lutheran, who wrote his wonderful Mass in B-minor.

Anyway, to me the Mass was a show, and it was free – well not completely free, since the church always passed around a collection basket near the end of the service – a sort of pay-what-may type thing, you could say. I remember that Mary, when I took her to her first synagogue service, was surprised that there was no collection at the end, especially since after the service there was an oneg in the social hall, with food galore. But I digress.

The service of the Mass, to me, was not entirely unfamiliar, since there were many prayers and texts that borrowed passages from what they called The Old Testament: many of the sayings of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. “But what about the stuff on Jesus?” you may be asking, eh? Well, you see, I read a lot of history, as I told Mary – and I must say she was shocked when I first told her this; although eventually she (well, sort of) agreed with me – well, I told her that Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew named Yeshua, and he always was; ‘Jesus’ was the later Latinized name. He had some differences with the Jewish hierarchy at the time, along with problems with the Romans who occupied the Holy Land, so much so that they (the Romans) crucified him. It was after his death that Christianity was born, due in large part to the preaching and writing of a Jew name Saul, whose name was later Latinized to ‘Paul’ after he had a vision of the resurrected Yeshua/Jesus. Saul/Paul made a strong case for rejecting many Jewish practices (such as circumcision), so much so that his sect broke free from its Jewish root. They became known as ‘Christians,’ since Paul preached that Yeshua was the real messiah (or ‘anointed one’), which in Greek is ‘Kristos,’ later Latinized to ‘Christus.’

Mary laughed when I said that therefore you might call the birth of Christianity a Jewish conspiracy. “Oh Millie,” she said. “You’re so smart it sometimes scares me. What is going to happen to you?”
Good question.
So, what did happen to me? Well it helped being smart, that’s for sure. Very smart, indeed. But not pushy. No, not pushy or impudent in any way. Not at all. You see, I was (and still am) happy with less – a lot less than I probably could have had. Yes, I lived (and still live) parsimoniously.

Well, I got a university education with excellent grades (as you might expect) but I didn’t go any further, although I could have, and was encouraged to do so. But I saw the university system as a barrier to women. And I was not inclined to fight the system. As I said, I was satisfied with less. While still a student at the University of Manitoba, I got part-time secretarial jobs, since I was a fabulous typist and proof reader. Even before I graduated, I was offered a full-time position as a secretary in the English Department, since their long-time-serving woman was thinking of retiring. And in the end, after graduation, I got the job.

It was the best decision of my life, looking back on it. You see, in this job I could go home at 5pm to my modest house not far from the university and forget about the job until the next morning. In the warmer weather I could walk to and fro; although in the dead of winter I took the short bus ride. After all, it was Winnipeg. And at home I could read whatever I wanted. Play the piano. Do my art work: drawing (pencil and/or pen & ink) and painting (only watercolour). Listen to the radio. And I read as much as I wanted: lots of books, magazines, and newspapers. I got the New York Times Sunday edition in the mail every week; it was a bit late, of course, but there were so many articles of interest that it was a source of almost endless reading throughout the week. For example, I recently came across this quote from the famous Albert Einstein in an article about him: “Perhaps it is due to anti-Semitism that we can preserve ourselves as a race; at least, this is what I believe.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this, especially in light of what I am going to tell you later. Incidentally, when I was a student, there were no Jewish professors on the faculty. Even as late as the mid-1940s, there were still only four Jewish professors.

In contrast to my life, my boss’s home life was filled with lectures to prepare, and even on weekends there were papers to mark, exams to compose and later to mark. And so it went. He often told me I was fortunate to be able to start a book and just read it at my leisure, right through if I wished. He confided in me that he seldom had time to read half of what he wanted to. I believe he liked talking to me, since I was smart. He often asked my advice regarding even the content of the texts that I was typing for him. We got along swimmingly, as you might surmise. We had a very good rela―

Okay, before you start fantasizing further, let me stop you. There was nothing beyond our professional relationship. Nothing at all. Throughout the university, in all my jobs – nothing. No flirting, never. I had no affairs in those years in various secretarial positions, if that’s what you’re thinking. And here’s why: I am not attractive. I knew this in High School, and was satisfied with it. Remember, I like a simple life, and I discovered that this unattractive state makes life uncomplicated – or, at least, less complicated than it otherwise might be. I could see among my classmates in school that the (let’s call them) ‘attractive’ girls had a life that was a roller-coaster ride. Up, happy, being gleeful; down, way down, when a guy dumped them. Yes, I saw some girls get really down; had to take pills; some even admitted to hospital. I thought: who needs this crap? I don’t want those ups and downs; I want a straight ride, flat. “Yes, just flat,” as I told Mary. She laughed, “Well that’s not the only thing that’s flat for you, huh”? We both had a good laugh at that. Remember we were best friends, and each could take a joke.

So, I tell you: my so-called ‘unattractiveness’ was a gift. Which I took and ran with, you might say. Today, you see: I wear no make-up, have a simple straight hair-do extending below my ears but not touching my shoulders, wear loose and non-flashy blouses, have only skirts far below my knees, and I wear sensible shoes – namely, flats (oh, that word again). All this ensured that my relationships with the men under whom I worked at the university would remain strictly professional. Let’s put it this way. I always had a good night’s solo sleep, if you know what I mean.

Of course, this is not to say that I never had an intimate relationship with anyone, but rather that it was not with any of my bosses – and I will leave it at that, for this has gone far beyond the original topic. But – and I emphasize this – all this is not a digression, for I very much want you to know about me and my life at the University of Manitoba, so as to put this story into context and to show how and why what I am going to tell you should not only be believed, but also taken seriously.

Further, to set the stage: I got along well with my fellow all-female secretaries and other staff at the university. My plainness was interpreted as a sort of prissiness, which is not true, but they didn’t know that. As Mildred Evans, I was asked what church I went to, and I told them St. Boniface Cathedral, since I did go to it when my friend Mary and I were kids, so strictly speaking my answer was no lie. Although I know their question had a different meaning. (Incidentally, Mary is now married and living in Toronto, raising her four kids.) They then asked why I go all the way to the other city to attend church and I told them it was about the music and the organ. They understood, and asked no more.

Also, due to my modest behaviour, they questioned why I was not a nun, and it led to them jokingly calling me Sister Millie. I said there was no such St. Mildred, although this may not be true, but then what do Protestants know about saints? – since Luther, Calvin, and the others eschewed them, along with the Virgin Mary, from their theology. And speaking of joking: being ‘Sister Millie’ among these Protestants, I was in an opportune position to reprimand them when they occasionally told anti-Semitic jokes or made similar remarks. And I did. As an art-lover, I also took the occasions to lecture them on the destruction of so much art by the Protestants during the Reformation: defacing and burning paintings, smashing statues, destroying stained-glass windows, and more. They knew none of this; it was a shock to them. They were not taught such things in Sunday-school, they said.

And that brings me to the reason for telling you all this in the first place. For, as I began, I said I was a witness, or even a spy. But for what? Well, for what may be called the backroom conversations. The secret disc―
Wait, I’m getting ahead. Uh, let’s start here: After many years with the English Department, I was promoted to being secretary for the new Dean of Medicine, Dr. Warren Matthews. It began for me at end of term in late May 1932. Although the Dean’s term began in September, he occasionally came around during the summer months to bring things (books, files, and such) so that his office was ready in the fall. He got to know me a bit and seemed very pleased and comfortable with me. His wife, Eleanor, even came with him one summer day – I believe, to check me out. She was nicely dressed, looking very Anglo-Saxonish prim and proper, if there is such a thing. When she saw me, she first looked me straight in my eyes and, while she was saying some pleasantries, she panned down my body to my feet and back up to my face, and ended with a self-assured smile on her face. I passed, since I was clearly no threat to her sexuality, whatever there was of it.

I spent the summer getting adjusted to the new office, going through the files and sometimes reorganizing them my way, and changing some things around in the physical space of the office. For one thing, I preferred keeping my office door to the university closed, but with a COME IN sign, when I was there. I didn’t like the constant background noise and chatter, as well as obtrusive eyes walking past an open door. That summer, I also had lots of typing to do both for the new Dean and for others in the Department of Medicine.

By the fall, when the Dean came in for the new term, we could get right to work. And we did. We quickly developed a good working relationship. He was obviously comfortable with me, for he shortly said that I should just call him ‘Warren.’ Interestingly, he liked me keeping my door closed, since he preferred keeping his door open. He said he was a bit claustrophobic, plus he liked to hear my typing – it had a musical rhythm that he found restful. Importantly, this meant that I was privy to confidential remarks by the Dean and those who ran the administration of the university when they were in his office. In short, I was able to eavesdrop. And eavesdrop I did! And that’s why I’m telling you this.

But this spying came later. The reason I am telling you this is because of an event that took place not long after he got settled into his new office. I can still remember the day. It was first thing in the morning, and after the “how are you” etc., he told me to look at the records of students admitted to the Medical School in terms of their ethnic origin, particularly noting how many of them were Jews. “We already have too many Jews, Millie,” he said. It was a jolt, and although I’m sure I showed no visible signs of my reaction, internally I was shaken. So much so that I almost blew my cover. Yes, even as Mildred Evans, Sister Millie, it―

Well, it’s hard to explain. I was tempted, of course, to ask why, … but, of course, I didn’t. “I’ll get to it right away, Warren,” was the best thing I could say at the time, and I turned away walking toward a filing cabinet, as any loyal Anglo-Saxon secretary would do, but with shaking hands that I hid from my boss.
I found that on the application form there was a line for ‘racial origin,’ and so I was able to do my job. I discovered that throughout the 1920s there were usually about 64 students per year admitted, with 18-25% being Jewish. Other ethnic groups also came – Ukrainian, Polish, German, and so forth, but in smaller percentages. Most, not surprisingly, were Anglo-Saxon – good English stock, according to Warren. When I presented my finding to him, I added another category, and I prefaced it by saying that I hoped he didn’t think I was being impudent in doing so. It was the number of women admitted, which was very low – often none, sometimes one or two. Warren smiled and said it was fine for me to be “conscious of my sex” and he blushed after he said it. I think hearing himself saying the word ‘sex’ out-loud to me, well, it jolted him – the way, on the previous day, his word ‘Jews’ jolted me.

Subsequently, my eavesdropping elicited more examples of anti-Semitism endemic to the faculty, as he chatted in his office with other administrators, keeping his door open. They all agreed. “Too many pushy Jews.” “Since they invariably get high grades in school, if we don’t put a lid on the enrolment, soon they will all be Jews.” “If we don’t do something now, well Jews will take over the faculty.” “First the Jews and then Ukrainians or Poles.” “At least the Frenchies have their own college in St. Boniface.” And so it went – a litany of bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice straight from the mouths of the administrative faculty to the ears of Mildred Evans. At most, a few made mild queries as to the efficacy of it, and the possibility of “aggressive Jewish lawyers” filing a legal case against the practice.

In the end there was a quota system initiated for all incoming classes, keeping the Jewish enrolment low. In 1936, for example, only nine got in. In later years even fewer. Out of 60 or more students, sometimes only four to six were Jewish. Of course, this meant that Anglo-Saxon students with far lower grades than Jewish students were admitted in place of them. And this was for a school to train physicians, dealing with life and death. “Just what we need – dumber doctors,” I told my Jewish friends. You see, I didn’t hide my clandestine information. I told anyone who would listen to me. Unfortunately, where it might make a difference, I got indifference, brought on by fear. Rabbis were afraid to do anything. They went along with the quota rule. “Don’t make waves, things could get worse,” was a standard response. Yes, they went along with the quota system. “Don’t look like a ‘pushy Jew,’ at least we get the ones that we get,” I was told. “Look, honey, be happy with four to six doctors a year,” I was told to my face by a rabbi’s wife. The same thing from the Jewish establishment. The B’nai Brith was afraid to do anything because it might backfire and only make matters worse. Similarly, for the Canadian Jewish Congress, which was reluctant to get involved in this Winnipeg issue. “What wimps,” I told my friends. I did the best I could. I didn’t blow my cover.

For me this thing came to a head in 1943, when the med school again turned down many Jewish and some other ‘ethnic’ students, so as to admit Anglo-Saxon students with (in this case) not only lower grades – but they also admitted some students who didn’t even pass their university exams and thus were required to go to summer school! To me, this was the last straw. The Jewish students’ Avakah Zionist Society got wind of this and began to bring all this out into the open. They eventually got the help of a Jewish lawyer and, yes, a fuss was raised and pressure was put on the Board of the University of Manitoba.

Finally, in 1944, after a dozen years of overt discrimination, the Medical School removed the racial and religious categories in their application. The quota rule finally ended. I celebrated with my Jewish friends. And, yes, Mildred “Prissy” Evans got a little tipsy.
Speaking of celebrating. In 1949, Dr. Warren Matthews was awarded an Honourary Doctor of Laws for his dedicated service to the University. I was invited to a private party for him, but I made up some excuse as to why I couldn’t make it. You see, I was afraid that if I did go, I would not be able to control myself, and proper Mildred Evans, aka Sister Millie, would perform the very unladylike act of making a scene by copiously spitting into the party’s punch bowl.

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