A Century in Western Canada

Jake and Family
Jake Izen and Family c.1891
December, 1985


Nathan (Naphtali) and Rebecca Katz, arrived as immigrants in Winnipeg in the early 188Os with a family which included a married daughter and her husband, a daughter of sixteen named Massey (nicknamed "Gaggy"), and three sons, Meyer, William and Ike. They all had fled from Odessa, where the infamous Russian pogroms were forcing thousands into exile.

A letter to Ruth (Gaggy's granddaughter, born 1911) from her Aunt Sarah (Gaggy's daughter, born Sarah Izen in 1890), dated Dec 15, 1974 from Los Angeles.

"My grandparents and children were living in Kiev, when the one of many pogroms started. Gaggy [Sarah's mum] was sixteen when the family arrived in Winnipeg - that must have been in and around 1881.

"[In Russia] A peasant took care of the family when the Russians raided and destroyed their homes. They hid in the basement and they could hear the soldiers tramping through the rooms overhead. My grandmother saved a few things like a beautiful Samovar of hers and two brass candlesticks.

"During the night after some of the ordeal, which went on for three nights, subsided, they were taken to the border, Germany I believe, put on a ship. Going to England because the English were helping them to get to Canada, furnishing them with free passage and each family a grant of 160 acres for them.

"They arrived in England after having a huge hole torn out of her hull from a collision with another ship. They made it to Liverpool with the boat tilted out of the water - to keep it from sinking. They were well-treated there, well taken care of in England.

"They arrived in Montreal and received the same kind treatment.

"In Winnipeg, Gaggy went to work in a bottle factory, her first job."

By mid-May 1884 the Katz family had become part of an unusual group that have been recorded by historians as being "the first Jewish farmers in Canada". One of twenty-seven families they settled on land later named "New Jerusalem" near the railway connection of Moosomin in Saskatchewan. The Katz homesteaders received 160 acres from the Canadian Government and $393.67 from the English Mansion House Fund, an organization which had been created to assist Jews who wished to become "economically independent upon the soil of a new and free land".

However, this particular group of Jews had no prior farming experience. They had been involved in trade in their native land and this, combined with droughts, hail storms, prairie fires and severe winters finally drove them to despair.

The single members of the Katz family left the farm to seek work elsewhere. The three brothers found jobs building the Canadian Pacific Railway, but there disaster struck. In a terrible accident Meyer lost his life, and William a leg.

Gaggy was more fortunate. She found work in a bottle factory in Winnipeg, and in the fall of 1886 found a husband as well. His name was Jacob Izen, a hardworking new immigrant like herself. Born "Izenhandler" in Yassi, Roumania on December 26, 1861, "Jake" as he was later called, arrived at Castle Garden (later Ellis Island), New York in 1882 with $1.00 in his pocket. He spent his first night sleeping in Central Park, a newspaper covering his head. The second night he tried sleeping in a room in the Bowery, but cockroaches kept him awake.

After a fruitless search for work Jake traveled by train through Buffalo, Toronto, Duluth, and Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) finally arriving at Logan in the Rockies where he worked with pick and shovel building the Canadian Pacific Railway for $2.00 a day. Paid only $17.00 for twenty-one days work he headed back towards Winnipeg where he got work on the Selkirk section of the line for a small sum per week.

lt was at this time that Jake swore allegiance to Queen Victoria in order to fight in the Lois Riel Rebellion, but whether he saw action isn't known.

Newly married Jake did everything to earn an honest living in the Manitoba capital - delivering meat, peddling vegetables, digging ditches, and bucking wood.

Jake and Family

On July 24, 1887 the Izen's first child Etta was born. That winter was so intensely cold that the new parents were afraid they'd find their daughter frozen in her crib. Jake woke each morning to find his beard frozen to his chest.

The horrible weather drove him West in the spring of 1888 in search of a new home for his family. Working his way via the CPR he used rags to cover his feet when his shoes wore out. At Banff, temporary relief came in the form of the famous hot springs where he and his co-workers delighted in a good bath. They were certain that they were the first to discover the springs.

Arriving at Port Moody, Jake walked into Vancouver. On his first day in town, he cleared land on Nelson Street between Howe and Hornby Streets for $1.75 for a ten hour day. He did this for two weeks moving from that job to become a member of the waterworks gang at $2.00 a day, laying a main on old Westminster Avenue, now Main Street. Work on Carrall Street followed and by summer he had enough money to send for Gaggy and the new baby.

The day she arrived it was raining and Jake was out of work. Knowing that he must have money to support his family he used his typical ingenuity and determination which would later make him a successful businessman.

The steamer "Batavia" was in from China. Jake went down to the waterfront and without consulting anyone went to work. Halfway through the day the foreman approached him. Who put him to work he wanted to know. No one. Why was he there. He had to have work.

"You're all right. Keep on," said the foreman. It was the elder Mr. Charleson well known on the waterfront of early Vancouver.

When Gaggy arrived with the baby that day in the fall of 1888, it was the Jewish New Year and Jake had just enough money to rent two rooms and buy a loaf of bread and some grapes.

A burglar broke in on them that night and Gaggy always remembered the humiliation of there being absolutely nothing for him to take. However, she was happy for the mild weather, the absence of either the extreme heat or cold that she had known in Winnipeg.

Jake kept on working all that week unloading the Batavia fifteen hours a day, working at night Friday and Saturday until 6am. He slept straight through until Monday morning and found another job handling bricks at Smithe and Granville Streets at 30 cents an hour, big pay then.

Jake always said he owed much of his success to his wife's ambition for him. She insisted that he should give up working by day and go into business for himself. So in the spring of 1889, he opened a little fruit store, which also carried tobacco and candy, at the corner of CarraIl and Cordova Streets. The last of the family savings went to pay a carpenter to build some shelves and a counter. But there was no stock to put out nor money to buy it with.

Despairing, Jake turned to his wife, "Gaggy, I haven't got any money. How can I go into business? "You don't have to have any money", she insisted. "You are an honest man and they're going to trust you."

So Jake went to Vancouver's early wholesale merchants, the Oppenheimers, McLennans, and McFeeleys, and, because they knew of his good character, they told him not to worry about paying them back at first until he was able. Jake kept these fine people for friends all his life and made sure that he paid off all his obligations promptly. He was forever grateful to them for giving him such a wonderful opportunity to make a livelihood and future success.

It was on Carrall Street where the family lived behind the fruit store that a son Meyer was born in 1889. The apple of his father's eye he was to die tragically two years later. The Vancouver Daily World of June 3, 1891 tells the sad story.

"Little Issac (Meyer) Izens, two years and three months old, son of Michael (Jake) Izens who keeps a fruit store on Cordova Street, was drowned at the Inlet at the end of Carrall Street last evening. The body of the boy was found floating near the jetty below the railway track where it crosses Carrall Street. The police were at once notified and officer Harris was dispatched to attend to the case. With a pole he managed to reach the body and bring it to shore. Dr. McGwigan was summoned but when he arrived life was extinct. The first intimation of the sad event the parents had was when Officer Harris carried to them the remains of their son in his arms.

Children, scarcely of so young an age, are frequently seen playing along the waterfront, paddling on boards and rafts, and wonder is often expressed that more fatal accidents have not occurred. Last evening a party saw a child fall through the beams of the railway track near Carrall Street, but luckily its fall was broken by some of the lower timbers, otherwise another drowning might have to be chronicled."

Happily, three more children were born to the Izens, - Sarah, Birdie and Rose. These girls and their older sister Etta grew up with the children of other Vancouver pioneers and saw all the earliest changes of a new city emerging from an ancient rain forest.

After five yeas in the fruit business Jake had saved $1,000. He used this to make his first real estate deal buying a shack in the 100 block Seymour Street. But collecting the rent was not so easy, only the Chinese laundry which occupied it for a time was prompt.

At the same time he opened a new store on Cordova Street selling new and used furniture, as well as shovels, stoves and assorted hardware. This business took off as miners rushed to get supplies for the Klondike strike. Daughter Sarah remembered the excitement of those days seventy years later.

Jake Izen

Vancouver Directories

1889 Izen J, fruits, 107 and 113 Carroll
1890 Izen Jacob, fruits and confectionary, 53 Carroll
1892 Izen, Jacob, tobacco, cigars and fruits, 53 Cordova
1893 Izen, Jacob, 'bds', 53 Cordova
1894 Izen, Jacob, fruits and tobac. res. Store
1895 Izen, Jacob, second hand goods, 226 Abbott, res. 21 Pender
1896 same as above
1897-98 Izen, J, second hand dealer, 227 Abbott
1899-1900 Izen, J, second hand dealer, Cordova, corner Abbott, 21 Pender
1901 Izen, J, second hand dealer, 77 Cordova, h. 571 Howe
1902 same
1903 same
1904 same
1905 same
1906 Izen, J, second hand dealer, 242 Abbott, h. 571 Howe
1907 Izen, J, second hand dealer, 87 Cordova, h. 1143 Haro
1908 same
1909 Izen, J, second hand dealer, 87 Cordova W., h. 1143 Haro
1910 same
1911 Izen, Jacob, trav. 428 Cordova, h. 1143 Haro
1912 same

Birdie also remembers her Uncle Ike returning from the North each year with gold nuggets in a pouch. It was this same Uncle Ike who, after the failure of the farm colony "New Jerusalem", took his parents, the elder Katzs, to Israel to live out their remaining years.

In the earliest days the Vancouver Jewish community was very small and every family looked to each other for help. Jake was well known and trusted. Anybody in trouble would call him knowing that in him they had a friend.

One rainy night a man was arrested for selling liquor illegally. He called Jake at midnight asking him for bail. Gaggy was not sympathetic saying "Let him suffer for what he did", and she hid her husband's shoes so he couldn't go out. Regardless, Jake left the house and bailed the man out. "God was good to me", he always said and it was with that feeling of gratitude that he went about helping his fellow man.

His daughter Sarah remembers him as "a very modest man, and also very reticent, for in his opinion it was a cardinal sin to be boastful and brag."

"The first time I can remember when he could be drawn out to talk about himself", she recalled, "I was about sixteen, and we had company. I can recall clearly how surprised and proud I was of my father. Suddenly I realized what a big and great man my father had grown in my eyes. As he went into the details of his experiences, I felt respect grow and this feeling has never left me."

"Here was this man, without friends, no money and a language barrier, and look what he had accomplished. He had become a self-made man, highly respected for his integrity and honesty who was looked up to in the community." She remembered that it was considered a compliment in those days when gentiles said about her father "the whitest Jew in town - Jake Izen."

According to his daughter Birdie, her father was the first man to bring the Safer Torah to Vancouver and organize the congregation for the High Holidays. Though he had been given an Orthodox training in his youth, he associated with the Conservative-Reform tradition in Canada and did not keep a kosher house.

A man of few words, his business credo was to the point. "Make a dollar -spend fifty cents. Make $10.00 - spend $5.00. Pay your bills - get them discounted by prompt payment - and save something for a rainy day."

It was the buying and selling of property that enabled Jake to retire comfortably in later years. In 1904 he bought 26 feet from the CPR where the Vancouver Club is now situated for $1250, a discount from the true price of $1500 by paying cash. Six months later he sold it to the Mayor, Mr. Douglas for $3000. He bought the corner where the Europe Hotel stands today for $5500 and sold it for $9500. At one time he owned 320 acres on Grouse Mountain.

He never believed in holding out for long and sold his properties after making a modest profit. Jake told his daughters that he wanted the next fellow to make something too.

These modest profits added up and by the turn of the century, Jake was approaching semi-retirement. He was spending all his free time watching the nickelodeons and one-reelers. One night at dinner, Gaggy, knowing her husband's passion for movies said "For heaven's sake Jake, why don't you buy a picture show."

And so in 1906 he bought the National Theater at 58 Hastings Street West. This was one of the earliest movie theaters in Western Canada. Jake proudly took his seat in the box office and welcomed Vancouverites to his "tee-atre". Out front on the entrance sidewalk hundreds of nickels were stuck in the white tiles to form a giant "5 cents", the cost of admission.

The original Mr. Woodwards, an old friend of Jakes, would stroll down Hastings Street every Wednesday the day the stores closed in those days and stop at the box office of the National for a chat. After a brief conversation Jake would always say to Mr. Woodwards, "Oh go on in - for free."

Jake's granddaughter Ruth remembers being taken to the pictures every Saturday when she was three or four years old to see the silent Westerns. "The pianist was playing blood and thunder and the Indians were scalping the Whites in close-up. I was horrified but my parents thought they were giving me a treat."

As Jake's business ventures prospered he was able to move his family into better and better residences. From the back of the fruit store in Gastown they moved to 21 Pender Street in 1895, followed in 1901 by a move to their first house at 571 Howe Street. Finally in 1907 the family left the downtown area for the home they had all dreamed about at 1143 Haro Street in the West End. The building still stands today, though in a very run-down condition, one of the few remaining houses from a bygone era when the West End was "the" residential area to live in.

A now forgotten affluent Jewish community lived there. They associated with one another, not because they were forced to by society but because of their common heritage. They had no proper synagogue then nor did they have a Rabbi. When the High Holidays came, the small community rented the old Odd Fellows Hall on Pender Street, found chairs, decorated the room with flowers, brought the Torah scrolls from someone's house and hired a Rabbi from out of town.

In 1907 Rabbi Friedlander of Victoria came over to marry Jake's eldest daughter Etta. She wed a traveling jewelry salesman from the East named Maurice "Moe" Koenigsberg. He was born in St. Paul, Minneapolis, October 3, 1873, and was raised without Jewish instruction by an Irish family because his mother died shortly after his birth.

As a young man he moved to Winnipeg and became a salesman for an old jewelry firm named Meyers. Moe sold for them all over Western Canada at the turn of the century traveling by horse, sleigh and boat. When he finally visited Vancouver he decided that there was no way he was going to live anywhere else. After a life on the Prairies this was heaven.

In time, he opened his own store, "Koenigsberg's" on Cordova at the foot of Granville Street. When World War I broke out the German name provoked some people to hurl stones and break the store's windows. So Moe renamed his business Western Wholesale Jewelers and moved to larger premises at the north-west corner of Cordova and Cambie.

Western Wholesale Jewelers
Western Wholesale Jewelers 1935. Photo by Leonard Frank.

Besides Moe, the store employed a manager Al Carathurs, a chief shipper Alfred Reid who stayed forty years, an assistant shipper, a bookkeeper, a messenger boy, and three or four salesmen who traveled as far East as Winnipeg.

In the l920s when business was thriving and even shoeshine boys were said to earn $50,000 a year, Moe traveled by train across Canada and by cabin boat to Europe each year to buy exotic merchandise for his Vancouver customers. Statuary from Italy, silver from Manchester, diamonds and watches from Prague, bronzes from Austria, and from Paris beautiful dresses for his family.

Like Jake and Gaggy, Moe and Etta lived in the West End where they could enjoy a game of lawn bowling after dinner in Stanley Park. Their home at 1728 Comox Street was the site of many social gatherings. Saturday nights were reserved for cards and men and women would gather together around a special round table in the den to play poker.

Mrs. Cary Rothstein, a good friend of Etta's was from an old San Francisco family. Her son became Vancouver s first dentist.

Mrs. Sarah Goldstein who lived on Pendrell Street was from New Zealand. Her husband built the still standing Sylvia Court on English Bay naming it after their eldest daughter.

Mr. A.C. Cohen, an American by birth, opened a knitting mill in the city which was called the Jantzen Knitting Company. He later sold it to a larger company which became known for its world famous Jantzen swim wear.

Flo Ripstein (nee Goldbloom) was a childhood friend of Etta's. She and her sister Flo and mother Rachel lived for many years in the West End. Father, William "Buffalo Bill" Goldbloom owned a successful fur trading company in Prince Rupert.

The Jacoby family were of German descent and owned a large manufacturing jewelry business. One of the five sons, Henry, married Sarah Izen and they produced two children Norman and Regene.

The Lazarus family lived over on Robson Street. Mr. Lazarus ran the prestigious tobacco and gift shop in the old Vancouver Hotel. His wife "Lady" Lazarus was a sister of Mrs. Gintzburger whose husband Samuel was the Swiss Consul.

Samuel Gintzburger, always seen with an orchid in his buttonhole, was perhaps the most prominent member of that early Vancouver Jewish Community. He and his charming wife Rosina, lived in a large estate overlooking English Bay. President of S. Gintzburger Ltd., "Real Estate, Insurance and Financial Agents", and a man with a good education, he helped Jake and many of the early pioneers in matters that they couldn't manage due to their lack of education.

His daughter Pauline studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, was winner of the Governor General's Gold Award, and received her MA at UBC in 1919, the first Jewish woman to do so. She tutored Etta's daughter Ruth in French which in turn helped Ruth graduate from UBC in 1933.

Many of these early West End families later left Vancouver for the warmth of California. Gaggy chose Los Angeles for her health and daughters Sarah and Rose followed.

Birdie, a fine singer, moved to New York to become a Vaudeville artist. She got to know Walter Winchell and toured the country with a partner as the team of "Bert and Birdie". After a year or so in the business she joined her mother, met and married Phillip Barbanell and produced two children, Neil and Lois.

Black Joe
Location of Jake's National Theatre shaded in on an old insurance map by historian Cyril Leonoff.

Jake stayed on in Vancouver with Moe and Etta and ran his theater, but in later years he too moved to California. He spent his last years strolling down the busy streets of Hollywood greeting merchants with a cheerful "How's business".

The West End Jews were very active in raising money and providing help for the newly arriving Jewish immigrants because in those days there was no welfare nor were there extensive government social services. Both Moe and Etta sat on the board of the Vancouver Jewish Community Chest, and Etta ran "charity camps" for Jewish boys and girls in the summertime. Carefully allotted portions of food were given to each child and weigh-ins before and after the camp were carefully noted. Improved health through diet and exercise was the goal.

The Koenigsbergs also took part in the founding of the Conservative Synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, Etta serving as first President of the Women 's Auxiliary.

Moe and Etta's first child Ruth was born only blocks away from home at a private nursing home called the Barclay Manor House at Nicola and Barclay. For a child growing up in the West End during the first quarter of this century, life was close to paradise. Only houses lined the streets then, no towering apartments, and everyone knew who lived behind each front door.

Ruth and the other children walked to Lord Roberts Elementary School, climbed trees in a big orchard at Bidwell and Comox, ate fish and chips at English Bay, and were taught to swim by "Old Black Joe" (Fortes) who'd also taught their mothers when they were children.

Black Joe
Joe Fortes, girl, and Rose Izen at English Bay

Madam Barbe taught ballet in French to young girls at the West End Dancing Academy, and the Sugarmans taught bible studies on Sunday to ten local Jewish children at a house at Thurlow and Robson. Though there was a streetcar on Denman Street then, everyone traveled by foot in the West End. When Ruth went to high school at the old King George school on Burrard, she and her friends thought nothing of walking out to Brockton Point in Stanley Park to play field hockey after school and then home again. Native Indians still lived in the park then and Ruth remembers one of them, Sam La Costa, as a classmate of hers at Lord Roberts.

During the late teens and l920s, Moe would take his family, which now included a son named Irving, to the Rainbow Lodge on Alta Lake for summer holidays. In those days before Whistler became a holiday retreat and merited a highway, the journey was a day long event, first by steamer to Squamish, then by rail to Alta Lake Station. There the Rainbow Lodge owners, the Phillips, would take them hiking and horseback riding.

Family in car
Little Ruth with Moe and Etta in Backseat in Stanley Park c.1914

Moe also loved to get away to the old Alice Hotel in Harrison Hot Springs to find some relief for his rheumatism. It was during one of these vacations in the early 1940s that daughter Ruth advanced from being store bookkeeper to traveling saleswoman, perhaps the first female traveling jeweler in Western Canada.

Minding the store in Vancouver for her father, she received a call one day from a Vernon jeweler who told her that he hadn't seen Moe's salesman for three or four days, and thought the man was holed up in a room with a bottle and all the samples.

Not wanting to disturb her father over such a sordid matter, Ruth called Bud Landau, then owner of a small airplane company (later to become Pacific Western), and asked him if he could fly her North. He replied that he had a Cessna on the ground. Ruth and the store's shipper rode the plane sitting on the floor and were let out in a field just outside Vernon.

After quite a search the shipper found the salesman out cold on the floor of the Queen Anne Hotel in Kelowna, diamonds and watches scattered everywhere. Ruth made a quick decision. She returned to Vancouver, got her car, and with the drunken salesman's sample case in her trunk began a new career selling to a territory that included North Battleford, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Whitehorse, and Vancouver Island. Because she sold and knew what her customers wanted, she decided that it would be good for business if she bought the merchandise as well, and so she traveled to Montreal and New York for that purpose.

Moe never gave his formal approval to Ruth's somewhat dangerous solitary work, but knowing that his daughter had the same perseverance as her grandfather Jake, he let her continue.

In 1948 at the 30th Annual convention of the Canadian Jewellers Association held in Vancouver, an "all-ladies session" of speakers was held for the first time. Ruth Koenigsberg was one of four women who spoke under the title: "Experiences of a travelling salesman".

From the Association Bulletin:

Her father has been for many years the proprietor of a Vancouver wholesale company doing business in the West, and after finishing school, University, etc., Miss Koenigsburg went into the business.

A couple of years ago (much against her father's best advice) she took over a job as a traveller. By rail and car she has travelled over B.C. and Alberta calling on the jewellery trade, and her story of what she has seen was of wide interest.

She told the Convention of some new ideas she has seen, new methods of display - new light coloured interiors. She has seen herself how the clean and fresh shop could forge ahead - how the public naturally was attracted to the fresh and bright display.

In the spring of 1948, during Passover, Ruth like her mother before her succumbed to the charms of a dashing Eastern jeweler. Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Levenston, M.B.E., President of Baumgold Bothers, a wholesale jewelry firm in Toronto, was in Vancouver for the trade's annual convention. On Thursday, he walked into Moe's store, set eyes on daughter Ruth, and married her the following Wednesday.

"Leaving her poor dad with the sample cases on the floor", Ruth made her new home in Toronto where she raised three children, Frederick, Michael and Anne.

The second son Michael returned to make Vancouver his home in 1976. In 1985, a full century after his ancestors came to Western Canada, a child was born to Michael and his wife, the sixth generation to reside in Vancouver.


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Gerald Levenston, born 1914, Toronto, Canada


updated Nov 20, 2016