By Bee Schindler
As the nominator for a prestigious honor in Quebec, Franklin Toker is a star grandchild. His grandmother, Berthe Herzberg Serchuk, however, is the real star.
Serchuk, whose grandson is a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, was included in a series of plaques commissioned by the Canadian city’s government honoring the “memory of men and women who have distinguished themselves in various fields of activities or contributed to the reputation of the city,” according to a statement from Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications. “These epigraphs now mark the place where they lived in Quebec and remember, for all generations, the role they played in our society.”
Serchuk moved to Canada in 1895 at the age of 13. Escaping from an anti-Semitic Romania, she made Quebec a safe space for so many Jewish people before her death in 1929, Toker said.
“I was the nominator for my grandmother, who died 15 years before I was born, but [she] was a woman who left a huge legacy of communal work,” said Toker, a French-Canadian who is a professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and now lives in Pittsburgh.
Since the 1960s, said Toker, Jews living in the province have felt “a huge anti-Jewish prejudice of the old sort [and then] a sort of leftist sentiment that Jews were parasites.”
A historian, Toker is the author of about a dozen books ranging from Pittsburgh history to architecture to a story about Fallingwater and the Kaufmann family, a Jewish clan “who created the most famous private house in the world” to the soon-to-be-released book about his family, “A Family of Decent Folk: The Serchuks and Herzbergs of Fin-de-Siecle Quebec.”
Despite a culture that held Quebec’s Jewish population with suspicion, Toker said his grandmother was involved in many charitable enterprises.
“At Tadoussac, [a small Quebec village on the water] where related Jewish families spent their summers between 1900 and 1925, she ran a summer camp for Jewish children,” the city said in its citation of Serchuk. “She was also active in the Quebec Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, whose mission was to help Jewish immigrants by giving them some money, their first Shabbat meal, blankets, and a place to stay.”
In June 1914, Serchuk paid for the funeral of nine Jewish victims who died in Canada’s icy waters in May of that year following a tragic accident involving their ship, the Empress of Ireland, which collided with another ship and sunk to the ocean floor within 14 minutes of impact.
“As she spoke French, English, German, and Yiddish, she was able to host Zionist speakers from all over Europe, preparing for their tours across Canada,” the city added. “She put up several of them in her house in boulevard Saint-Cyrille, which was described at the time at the center of Zionist efforts in Quebec.”
The plaque, which was presented on Oct. 23, was installed on the family’s house in Quebec.
Serchuk was one of 125 honorees who were highlighted for their dedication to the city’s advancement. Only two others were Jewish, said Toker, “a merchant and the man who brought electricity to Quebec City around 1875.”
So, why nominate his grandmother now?
“My motivation, and what the young generation can learn from this in Pittsburgh [or] anywhere in the world, is that we have to be proactive and creative,” Toker said. “I was born in French-Canada [and] return there yearly to see my family; in 2012, I saw the first of these plaques and thought, I need to get one for the Jewish community.”
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.