As Canada gets ready to welcome Syrian refugees, it’s time to remember one of the most successful members of an earlier group of immigrants to Canada. Those newcomers, the Jews who arrived before World War 1, would dramatically shape SoHo’s future – none more than Max Lerner.
Between 1881 and 1921, Jewish immigration to Canada – and to the Forest City – skyrocketed. The reason was the terrible Russian pogroms. When Czar Alexander II was assassinated, blame for his death was placed “on the Jews” – in fact, the assassins were atheists. But the false suspicion led to a systematic backlash against Jews throughout Russia’s empire. Jews were murdered or tortured – others had their homes burned and their family members terrorized. Many of the families were peasants who resided in “stetls” or villages. When they immigrated to Canada, they again tended to settle together – in Ward 3, which included SoHo. Since the newcomers did not speak English, they gained a foothold in their adopted home by working as laborers or as pack pedlars, selling merchandise door-to-door. Others started off making a subsistence living as rag pickers and junk dealers – proponents of recycling everything.
One such family was that of Moses Lerner. The Lerners emigrated from Bessarabia, an area on the border of Russia and Roumania. Twelve-year-old Max came with his father to London, and soon learned that the streets of London were paved with junk – not gold. He worked for four years as a junk dealer, collecting scrap metal. Then, when he had saved enough money, he invested in teams of horses. Max then started transporting gravel for government projects, definitely a more profitable enterprise than selling scrap!
In 1906, after some time in London, Moses Lerner, more radical in his politics, with his younger wife and their children, moved to sunnier climes, joining the Home Colony in California. He established a squab farm there that he operated until his death.
Max, however, had fallen in love with Minnie Rosenthal, daughter of the family with whom he had been boarding. Mr. Rosenthal was a Hebrew scholar and scroll writer – his daughter Minnie had attended Simcoe Street Public School. With their marriage, Max’s bride also became his aunt since Moses Lerner, his father, had married Minnie’s older sister.
In 1912, Max Lerner came to public attention when he visited Toronto on a Lawson & Jones excursion. Lerner was sitting on a friend’s verandah in the city, when he heard cries coming from the water. He spotted two young boys in trouble, and throwing off his clothes, jumped into the water. The smaller boy was going down for the third time when Max reached him. The other boy grabbed hold of Lerner as well, threatening to pull his rescuer under. Lerner managed to reach the raft where the boys had been playing, and pushed the boys back up on the platform. After 20 minutes, rescuers arrived with a rope and all three swimmers made it safely to shore. The boys and Max Lerner both recovered from the unwanted adventure.
After a stint in the retail trade in Woodstock, Max and Minnie returned to London, settling at 502 Hill Street. The couple had two sons who would eventually both become lawyers. The family settled at 502 Hill Street, beside the railway tracks (not the home found there now). The always ambitious Max opened a coal business beside the tracks. In an interview many years later, his son Samuel would recall, “We were never rich but we were never poor.”
In 1915, Max ran for London city council, becoming London’s first Jewish alderman. He also sometimes stood in as deputy mayor. This was a remarkable accomplishment considering the anti-Semitism that still existed. It wasn’t until 1968, for example, that the prestigious London Club admitted its first Jewish member.
During his time as alderman, Max Lerner fought for municipal ownership of all public utilities. He also supported a resolution urging the federal government to encourage immigrants by granting them 75 acres of tillable land and offering 30-year loans of up to $3,000 to establish a farm. Lerner’s lobbying finally came to the attention of federal politicians – but Lerner and others were bitterly disappointed when the assistance was only extended to British subjects. Nonetheless, Lerner campaigned for the rest of his life for more open immigration into the county.
Although he was an atheist, Max Lerner always took part in Jewish community groups that bettered the community. In 1921, he was elected first president of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. He raised funds for European relief efforts during and after the First World War. Minnie Lerner, equally community-oriented, joined the Women’s Christian Association board, serving for 50 years. That group operated the McCormick Home and Parkwood Hospital. She was also active in Mother’s Club activities at Aberdeen Public School and London’s Hadassah group was formed in the Lerner home.
In 1925, Max Lerner left the coal industry and returned to the retail trade. The last years of career were spent in the real estate industry. The Lerners celebrated 60 years of marriage before Max Lerner’s death in 1969. One other SoHo connection – for many years their son, lawyer Samuel Lerner, a World War II veteran, was honorary president of the Duchess of Kent branch of the Royal Canadian Legion – located just across Hill Street from the family’s former home.
For more on the Lerner family and other Jewish families who originally settled in SoHo, building three synagogues here, read A History of the Jewish Community of London Ontario by Bill Gladstone (published 2011).