By RON CSILLAG
As an artist herself, Yvonne Singer can well appreciate the esthetic merits of the open-air monument to Swedish Second World War hero Raoul Wallenberg that was unveiled over the summer at Churchill Park in Hamilton, Ont.
Though she had not, as of this writing, personally viewed the installation, dubbed “Be:longings,” Singer spoke admiringly of the 10 bronze-cast suitcases dispersed along a gravel path adjacent to the Hamilton aviary. She knows Simon Frank, one of the project’s three creators, and is aware that suitcases have been a potent symbol of the Holocaust.
“I like the fact that the suitcases are scattered,” Singer, a well-established visual artist and teacher in Toronto, said in an interview over lemon tea in her sun-drenched kitchen. “I think the imagery and symbolism are very effective in conveying the idea of displacement and emigration.” The old-timey valises evoke not just Wallenberg, Singer noted, but all victims and survivors of that terror-stricken era.
The outdoor project is also “minimal, which I like. I don’t like public sculptures that scream at you or are clichéd.”
Singer connects to the installation on a whole other level. The 78-year-old resident of Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood is Wallenberg’s goddaughter. She was born on his bed.
It’s a Hollywood-worthy tale that evolved over time, in a series of eye-popping twists, turns and coincidences—all amid Singer’s own personal voyage of self-discovery.
The backstory is its own blockbuster: The non-Jewish scion of a wealthy Swedish industrial and banking family, Wallenberg, then just 32, was recruited by the U.S. War Refugee Board and dispatched to Budapest to assist and rescue as many Jews in the Nazi-occupied Hungarian capital as possible. He arrived in July 1944, just as the Nazis had shipped some 440,000 Jews from the countryside to Auschwitz. They now set their sights on the Jews of Budapest.
Accorded diplomatic status, Wallenberg famously set off on a frenetic pace. He designed, printed and distributed thousands of the famous “Schutzpass”—an official-looking document that placed the holder under the protection of the neutral Swedish Crown. He also scoured the city for buildings to rent, finding 32, and crammed in as many souls as possible. The “safe houses” flew the yellow-and-blue Swedish flag and were declared protected by diplomatic immunity.
Known for his bluster and bravado, his greatest coup came when he persuaded Nazi commanders to call off the liquidation of Budapest’s Jewish ghetto, with its 70,000 inhabitants. The number of Jews Wallenberg is said to have rescued peaks at 100,000. In any event, he is credited with saving more Jewish lives during the war than any single government.
By January 1945, the Red Army was laying siege to Budapest, and Wallenberg was taken into custody, supposedly on suspicion of being a U.S. spy. He promptly vanished into the gulag. A Soviet report in 1956 stated he had died in July 1947 of a heart attack in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison, but supposed eyewitness sightings and stories of contact with him from former inmates continued well into the 1970s.
In 2012, the diaries of a former head of the KGB, discovered in the walls of his Moscow home, stated there was “no doubt” that Wallenberg was “liquidated” in 1947.
But back to Singer.
On the night of Nov. 3, 1944, a desperate Tibor Vandor, who worked for Wallenberg as a courier and liaison to the underground, needed help for his wife, Agnes. She was in labour and had been turned away from Budapest’s hospitals, which barred Jews. Wallenberg allowed the couple to use his own room, while he slept in the corridor.
The next morning, he was called in to see a newborn girl. Asked by the grateful parents to name her, Wallenberg chose Nina Maria Ava (Nina was his half-sister’s name, Maria his mother’s). The couple changed the first name to Yvonne, and Wallenberg agreed to be the child’s godfather.
Singer knew nothing of this until she was 34 years old.
It was October 1979 when she read an article, reprinted from a U.S. newspaper, in the Toronto Star about Wallenberg’s plight. The story included a reference to Singer’s unusual birth taken from a Hungarian book on the Swedish hero written after the war. The baby with the Toronto connection, the parents, the godfather—were all there, mentioned by name.
When she read the piece, “I burst out crying,” she told the Star after contacting the paper. Her story spilled forth a week later in a large Saturday Star article headlined “Swedish hero saved my life: Metro woman.”
Singer is still struck by “the incredible coincidence of it all. Here I am in Toronto in 1979, reading the paper… it boggles the mind. I could have easily gone through life not knowing the story. Suddenly, I had a connection to this man, who sounds like he was fascinating.”
Her parents had not told her the story. And there was another missing piece of the puzzle: their Jewishness.
At war’s end, the Vandors went to Switzerland and Holland before settling in Montreal in 1949, where the parents shed their Jewish identities, doubtless seeking to forget. Tibor Vandor even became an elder in the United Church.
“I always pressed them for more information, and they always refused,” even following the revelations in the Toronto Star, Singer recalled. “They told me very, very little.” Her parents never revealed being Jews. Their silence encompassed “anything to do with the war. They were just not forthcoming.”
Singer graduated from McGill University and went on to teach English and French at local high schools. She converted to Judaism to marry her husband, Ron Singer, a theatre director and educator, in 1966. A few years later, a cousin in England recalled being a flower-girl at Yvonne’s parents’ wedding, which she said took place in a synagogue. The parents denied it but their daughter believed it.
Singer’s feelings of alienation as an immigrant child would evaporate on discovering that she had been born Jewish, whether the knowledge came from a cousin or the Toronto Star. “I felt like I’d come home, part of a history that goes back thousands of years. I no longer felt rootless.”
The Singers moved to Toronto in 1971, where Yvonne later began a prolific art career in various media and teaching visual arts at York University. Raising three daughters and a busy life meant there was little time to get involved in the Wallenberg file (though she was pleased when he became Canada’s first Honorary Citizen in 1985 and when Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating Wallenberg a decade ago).
It’s little surprise that Singer’s art has explored themes of identity, history and memory. The outsider status she felt in her early life “is what made me think about ways of expressing that, either through language or visual imagery. So you go to what you know when you’re an artist.”
In 2016, the Swedish government declared Wallenberg officially dead, but to Singer, that offered no finality. “From what I learned, the Swedish government is not exempt from blame for trying to get Wallenberg out. I cannot reconcile the fact that [Wallenberg’s family] could not exert any kind of leverage over the Russians to find out what happened to him.”
In Judaism, being a godparent carries little or no religious obligation. Singer considers the godfather connection to Wallenberg an honour, “but I’m also very sad that I never met him. I think he would have been a fascinating person to talk to. The story is just very, very tragic.”
The grandmother of nine sighed. Over the decades, the story for her was obviously very personal, “and I was still processing it. Maybe I’m still processing it, for a long, long time.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Hamilton Jewish News. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.
Ron Telpner: the adman and his music
By GERRY POSNER Now this is a story. Talk about someone who has had the full package in life and you are talking about Ron Telpner. For those readers too young to remember the Telpner name, Google Gene and Fritzi Telpner (née Shuckett). Gene was a featured columnist for the the Winnipeg Tribune, the Winnipeg Free Press, and The Jewish Post & News. Anyone over 60 would likely have been aware of that.Ron is one of three Telpner offspring, a former resident of the north end, and a graduate of United College and the University of Manitoba, where he acquired degrees in English Literature and Psychology. In 1973 Ron earned a journalism degree from Carleton University in Ottawa. This was but the beginning of a long career followed by challenges far more daunting than his work.
Upon graduating, Ron took his first real job as an information officer with the Province of Manitoba. At the age of only 26 he became the Director of Promotion and Information for the Province of Manitoba. That job proved frustrating for Ron as a result of the slowness of bureaucratic goverment decision making and he soon joined the prestigious McKim Advertising firm in Winnipeg, in 1978.
One year later, he was the manager of McKim. During that time the firm was dominant in the Winnipeg adverting world. Ron created campaigns for the then Premier of Manitoba, as well as Canada’s Finance Minister, during their respective election battles. In 1989, Ron, still with McKim, by then the largest ad agency in Canada, made the big move to Toronto. The direction was clearly set for Ron Telpner.
In 1992, Telpner boldly started his own advertising agency in Toronto, known as the BrainStorm Group. Ron even brought into the partnership his senior creative director and senior account director from Winnipeg. The agency was successful to such a degree that offices were opened up in Denver – in 2003, and Dubai, in 2007. Telpner and his company worked with such leading brands as Canon, Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, Molson USA, Baxter’s of Scotland, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and ADP, in various countries. BrainStorm had as its main objective to be focused on inspired, integrated thinking.
All went very well until 2010 when Ron, then 60, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which changed his life dramatically. The energy which Ron had so expended on his career was now channelled into dealing with cancer. Of course, he had the total support of his wife Patsy (Katz), also a former Winnipegger, along with his two children.
Ron decided to sell his ad agency. In the same way that he brought the best talent he could get find into his BrainStorm team, he made a plan and enlisted a team of support to deal with his cancer. He spoke with many doctors, Googled many sites, listened to different opinions and, as he puts it, “was almost overwhelmed by the information.”
That effort, together with his work in charitable areas, as well as taking an active role in men’s heath issues, combined to bring him a measure of success in his fight to deal and live with cancer. He ultimately made a major decision to have a prostatectomy. That big step seemed to have helped him.
Ron has been on many television programs , has written for various magazines and has been an MC for a variety of fund raising events. Significantly, when Ron learned that his lungs had also been adversely affected, he was told that what would help him was singing.
Now, Ron had some definite talents, but singing was a whole new challenge. Not to be deterred, he bought his very first ukulele, a Kala Travel Tenor, and taught himself to play. For several years now, Ron Telpner has both been playing the ukulele and singing along – and not just to himself. He has his own account on Instagram and anyone can both see and hear him. He is passionate about Rock & Roll, Blues, and Country and Western, so you do get a mix when you tune into Telpner. He has a large following and he says that the ukulele and singing have added years to his life. He also continues to give back every “Movember” and the 4 Doane School of Music. He is as well the co-founder of the Annual Flashmob for Peace.
Of course with all of this, you would be hard pressed to miss Ron Telpner in a crowd, as he is an admitted fashion plate with a penchant for vivid colours. So, here is my best suggestion for you to lift up your day: Search out Ron Telpner on Instagram, watch him perform in what is sure to be an outfit resplendent in multi colours. As he has done all his life, Telpner is charting a new path – and with enthusiasm.
Jerry Seinfeld may be one of the world’s most famous comedians now, but in 1987 he didn’t win over an audience at the Rosh Pina
By BERNIE BELLAN Jerry Seinfeld played at the Canada Life Centre to a large crowd on Friday evening, September 22 – and was generally well received, although I noted that there was no mention of his being here in the Free Press – either before or after his appearance.
By now we’re all quite familiar with Seinfeld’s style of “observational humour,” in which he talks about everyday matters, but notes the actual weirdness in so much of what passes for normal.
His delivery was flawless – never once stumbling over a line even as he was on stage for almost a full hour.
And, as a stand-up comic who refuses to resort to using the “f” word, which seems almost mandatory among so many comics these days, Seinfeld relies upon his ability to articulate rather than punctuate.
Still, as much as Jerry Seinfeld may be a “bit shot” these days, as Frank Costanza would have referred to him, in 1987 Seinfeld received a decidedly cool reception when he played to a mostly older audience at a Hadassah event held at the Rosh Pina.
Following is my late brother Matt’s account of Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance at a May 1987 event:
Comedian Gets Cool Response at Hadassah Event
May 14, 1987
By MATT BELLAN
Winnipeg Hadassah-WIZO raised more money for its network of Israeli children’s villages through the 46th annual Men’s Youth Aliyah Dinner at Rosh Pina Synagogue May 6.
But comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the featured entertainer, got a generally cool reception from the several hundred dinnergoers.
Seinfeld, 33, has appeared on the Johnny Carson and David Letterman shows, and has a gift for a certain kind of off-the-wall humor.
“Weird” material about cows running away so they won’t be turned into hamburgers for McDonald’s Restaurants, or clothes twisting together in a kinky way in the washing machine might go over with a college age audience watching a late-night TV talk show. But they didn’t work for Seinfeld at the Rosh Pina where many in the audience were decades older than 20.
He tried to tune in to the Rosh Pina crowd with a few jokes about elderly people: “My parents moved to Florida this year. They didn’t want to, but they’re in their 60s, and that’s the law.”
Seinfeld cracked another joke about his parents feeling “the thermostat is their area. I didn’t dare to touch a thermostat until I was 28 years old. “
HEAVY NEW YORK ACCENT
But some in the audience muttered that they couldn’t understand his stage patter because of his heavy New York accent, and the way he slurred his words and talked quickly.
The most laughs came when somebody backstage dimmed the auditorium lights.
“Oh, we’re going show business,” Seinfeld said, sarcastically.
But the room grew dimmer and dimmer, leaving even the comedian in shadow. And he impatiently shouted offstage:
“Just leave the lights alone.”
Remembrance of Rupertsland Avenue – 1950 to 1975
By BRIAN M. GILFIX Cote Saint-Luc, Quebec September 18, 2023 I have read with interest in various past issues of the JP&N (Sept. 16 and 20, 2019, Sept. 30, 2020, and Nov. 10, 2021) descriptions of streets or blocks where all or most of the houses were occupied by Jewish families. (Ed. note: All those stories – about McAdam Avenue and Bredin Drive, can be found on this website. Simply go to “Search archive” and enter the name of either street. The entire issue in which the story about that street appeared will show in the search results.)
This was not all that unique in the 1950s and 60s, especially with the Jewish population of Winnipeg peaking close to 20,000 individuals during that time. During the immediate post-war years, individuals and families were leaving the Magnus and Flora Avenues with their wooden shuls and moving more northward to the then developing West Kildonan and later developing Garden City areas. This was reflected in the establishment of shuls (Rosh Pina, 1952; Bnay Abraham, 1958; Chevra Mishnayes, 1965) and schools (Talmud Torah, 1952) in the area.
Rupertsland Avenue was a new street developed in 1950 by Edward Rosenblatt. The street name obviously echoes the name given to the territory draining into Hudson’s Bay , which was called Rupert’s Land. Looking at the actual mortgage documents, houses cost about $8450 for a bungalow (1 storey) while a cottage (2 storey) cost about $2000 more. By the mid-2010s the value of a bungalow style house had increased thirty-fold in value. The street changed appearance somewhat over the years with some upgrades – paving of the back lane (1950s) and planting trees on the front boulevards (1960s).
I grew up on Rupertsland Avenue in the 1950s and 60s. Then, in the block stretching from McGregor St. to Parr St. and comprising about 50 houses, over a third of the houses were occupied by Jewish families. Most were tradespeople or small business owners. None of that generation were professionals. Then, your neighbours were also your friends with whom you socialized. For example, my parents belonged to a bridge club on the street, comprising amongst others the Stollers, Brasses, Bogaches, and Jacobsons. As few trees were planted, we, the neighbourhood children, played across the front lawns of neighbouring houses, effectively making one long field.
The children (including myself) walked to the local schools regardless of the weather: Victory, what was then known as Jefferson Junior High School, Garden City Collegiate, and Talmud Torah – affecting the school demographics such that on major Jewish holidays the public schools “shut down.”
We had deliveries from the milkman and bread man. The street was visited by vendors selling eggs and, on one occasion early on, vegetables from a horse drawn wagon.
From my memory, I have provided a list of the Jewish families that lived on the street during this period. I have also given a few short vignettes of some families as I remember it from my then youthful perspective aided by information gleaned from the JP&N and Google. I apologize for any errors in advance. I should note that of the families listed here, with rare exception, the parents have passed away. In some instances, I have noted the year of passing.
565 Rupertsland – Stoller. He was an accountant or bookkeeper. He and his wife had a son & daughter, Elaine (?).
517 Rupertsland – Name unknown.
513 Rupertsland – Kesten. Their son Cyril currently resides in Vancouver.
509 Rupertsland – Tennenhouse – Sam (d.2001) and Gertie (d.2014).
They had four children: Karen, Ronnie, Marsha, and Kenny. He farmed with his brothers during the summer and had a small machine shop in the basement in winter where he made house numbers. They were long time friends of my parents. They had a “bogey man” is their basement, actually an old coal style furnace. The oldest daughter would bang on it to make the “monster” noise to frighten the kids. They were perhaps the first family to leave Ruperstland for the then new Garden City. I believe some family members still live in Winnipeg, but the son Ronnie lives in Toronto.
505 Rupertsland – Gilfix (us) – We were Joseph (d.2014), Betty (d.2021), Debbie (Edmonton) and myself (Montreal). My parents moved to a new home on Rupertsland in 1950 from the Carmen Apartments on Burrows, which is still standing, leaving behind a walk up and ice boxes. The years saw a transition for heating the house with coal to oil to gas. My sister left for Edmonton to attend university, later married there, and has lived there since. My journey was more peripatetic, moving in 1975 to London, Ontario to pursue my PhD, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and finally returning to Canada and McGill University to pursue my MD degree and specialty training. I married in Montreal and have been on staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal since 1993. Due to age and infirmity, my parents finally left Rupertsland in 2014. I believe my parents were the last Jewish family on the block and street when they finally left.
501 Rupertsland – Dutkevich – Ann Dutkevich (d.2000), husband Nick, daughter Sally and son Joe. She was affectionately known to us as “Mrs. D”. She was very kindly. Once, when my sister decided to “run away,” she packed her bags to move to Mrs. D. next door.
I believe the children still live in Winnipeg. Their house was later purchased by another Jewish family, the Greenholtzes (daughter Faye & son Joey). He was a tailor and both he and his wife worked in the garment factories. The parents later relocated to Toronto to be closer to their children.
493 Rupertsland – Gabor. They had a son, Brian.
489 Rupertsland – Name unknown.
485 Rupertsland – Bogach – Frank and Ann, her mother, and son Howard. Frank with his brothers ran Tasty Seeds located on Alfred that they had inherited from their father. Howard was recently profiled in the JP&N (August 16, 2023).
469 Rupertsland – Bogach – Maurice & Goldie Bogach and their daughters, Mindy and Evy. The parents played bridge with my parents and he owned Tasty Seeds with his brothers. I believed their children still reside in Winnipeg.
465 Rupertsland – Rodin. One of their two sons, Greg, is a lawyer in Calgary.
461 Rupertsland – Brass – Abe and Rose Brass and their children. Following his passing she moved to Vancouver to be closer to her children, where she later passed away.
516 Rupertsland – Plosker – Max and Bertha Plosker, daughter, and son Erron. The family owned Direct Home Furniture
512 Rupertslsand – Spiller – Jack and Ailenne and their children, Harley, Susan, Sari, and Deborah. I believe some of the children still reside in Winnipeg.
508 Rupertsland – Terhoch – Kurt & Pearl. He was an electrician. They had two sons, Leonard and Marvin, and a daughter, Cheryl. The oldest son, Marvin, was at one time a producer at CBC Winnipeg.
504 Rupertsland – Jacobson – Anne, Nat (d.2002), son Gary and daughter Arlene. Nat had a part job running the projector in movie theatres. At 106 (!), Ann is probably the last living individual of the generation that first moved onto Rupertsland Avenue. She currently resides at the Simkin Centre. Gary still lives in Winnipeg.
496 Rupertsland – Chodiker. One son, William (Bill), is an allergist, now retired, who lives in London, Ontario.
476 Rupertlsmand – Golubchuk – Samuel (d.2008) and Dora and children, Percy and Miriam. I believe they were the last Jewish family to move on to Rupertsland. Samuel was at the centre of a controversial legal battle dealing with the question of who has the right to make end-of-life decisions. This case was widely written about.
468 Rupertsland – Beloffs
Lastly, at the end of the street, there was a corner store (700 McGregor) run successively by Jewish owners, Mandel and later Slutsky.
Interestingly according to my late mother, Paul Snider of Dorothy Stratton murder fame, apparently lived on Rupertsland Avenue for a period of time.
Rupertsland was not a Jewish island in West Kildonan. Immediately behind my parents’ house across the back lane on Enniskillen Avenue, there were the:
Bokauts with sons, Barrie and Brad. I remember walking back home with Barrie and his father from the Bnay Abraham synagogue on Shabbat mornings. Barrie went on to work for Foreign Affairs Canada. I believe Brad still lives in Winnipeg,
Lezacks whose son, Jack, is a hematologist in Winnipeg, and
Este and Morris Katz. Their sons, David and Philip, tragically past away at early ages.
On Smithfield, there were other Jewish families such as the Senenskys and Gorewiches (my father’s brother-in law and sister).
Over the decades the ethnic and religious composition of Rupertsland Avenue changed as the original inhabitants aged and they and their children moved to other areas. Many of the children left Winnipeg – often to Calgary, Edmonton, or Toronto. Consequently, the demographics and character not only of the street but also of the local schools, institutions, and West Kildonan have changed. On Rupertsland at its peak, probably a third as many Jews lived there alone as compared the number of Jews now living in the entire West Kildonan area (205) according to the latest census. Consequently, many of the local Jewish institutions have moved, closed, or amalgamated. When my parents, being the last Jewish family on that block of Rupertsland Avenue, finally left in 2014, it marked the end of an era for the street.