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Solomon, the Early Years

Posted: 10 March 1997

This story was contributed by David Golden and Connie Putterman.

The following stories describe in part the history of Shneer Zalman Epstein (Cohen). To his relatives and friends, he was known as Zalman, although he used Solomon in the secular business world. The source for these stories is our grandfather, Joe Emerson (Uncle Joe to most of the readers), who has been re-telling these events to us over the last couple of weeks. His own knowledge of Zalman's early history comes from a shabbat tradition of young Joe and his father taking walks together after dinner on Friday nights (along Ottawa's Rideau St. to Banks St. and back home). Joe, being the oldest of the boys in the family and was asked by his father to keep him company on these shabbat evening strolls. Zalman loved to talk about his youth and his many adventures and experiences in far-away places (Lithuania, South Africa, England...). Joe loved the stories and thanks to his keen memory, he is now repeating them for our collective benefits.

The Old Country

The family originated in the Oscwa province of Lithuania. Since Zalman referred to his hometown only as Oscwa 'province', we assume that the actual shtetl was extremely small. Zalman was one of four children, Shmuel (the oldest), Kasriel, Zalman and Chaya Gita. Zalman's father, Joseph Cohen, died under unusual circumstances before the family emigrated to Canada. Joseph had developed blindness as a relatively young man and was being taken by his son, Kasriel, to a neighboring town to see a doctor. According to the story, on the way, he was knocked down and killed by two horses pulling a wagon.

Although Zalman left the 'old country' as a teenager, we do have some basic information about his childhood. We know that Zalman never had an opportunity to study in a formal Yeshiva, however his knowledge of Hebrew, Tanach, and Talmud was extensive. When asked how he had acquired this knowledge without having attended a proper Yeshiva, Zalman explained that as a young boy, he had been sent to live with his uncle (his mother's brother), Mr. Dobkin, in Petrograd (St. Petersburg).

Dobkin was quite learned and assumed the job of tutoring his young nephew. Mr. Dobkin not only was learned in the Torah and the Talmud, but was also highly successful in business, operating a large sugar refinery. Although generally, Jews were not permitted to live in Petrograd, the Czar's capital city, under certain circumstances, Jews were granted special permission by the government to reside there. Mr. Dobkin and his family had such permission as a result of the refinery business. We believe that Zalman had been sent to live with his uncle as means of helping the Cohen family survive. With not enough money to support the whole family, sending children to live with other relatives helped ease the burden. In fact, Zalman lived with his uncle until he left the old country at the age of seventeen. He would return home to Oscwa for special occasions and simchas, one such occasion being the wedding of his older brother Kasriel.

What motivated the Cohen family to leave Lithuania for Canada? Certainly, the primary motivation was to improve their difficult lives. But there were other reasons too. At the time, all young men, including Jews were drafted into the Czar's army. Many of the Jewish boys never returned. By the late 1800's, Kasriel and Zalman were at risk. The family consulted a Chasidic Rebbe, descibed in the story as a "wise" man, on how to protect the boys from the draft.

This was an unusual step for the Cohen family to take since they did not typically consult with Chasidic communal leaders or Rebbes for advice. Although the family had roots in the chabad movement, as evidenced by Shneer Zalman's own name, the family was firmly in the mitnagdim camp. The city of Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania dominated the area and was at the time a major centre of the mitnagdim and a great centre of classical Jewish learning. While Zalman never directly identified with the Chabad movement, one of the other clues to the family's Chasidic background is the fact that Zalman davened according to the nusach Ari tradition- a definite Chasidic nusach. To this day, Joe still davens nusach Ari!

Now back to the story. As a strategy to protect Kasriel, the family was considering cutting off the tip of one of his index fingers leaving him maimed and therefore exempt from military service. Apparently this was a common practice. But the Rebbe advised against it. He was confident that Kasriel would avoid the draft without having to take such drastic action. However, Zalman was urged to leave the country before he reached draft age. He was only 17 years old at the time. The family decision was that Zalman would have to leave. The name change from Cohen to Epstein came about specifically as part of Zalman's efforts to leave Lithuania. It was typical for forged travel documents to be obtained for an escape.

Adventures in Africa

A steamship ticket to Australia was purchased for Zalman Epstein. The route to Australia included a three day stop-over in Capetown, South Africa. It took 30 days to reach Cape Town from Europe. By then, Zalman had had enough of sailing. The ship carried on to Australia and he stayed behind.

In order to survive, he started peddling, like many other Jews who had arrived in the late 1800's in South Africa. Zalman used Capetown as a base from which he ventured out into the countryside to trade with both the Boer settlers and the native Africans. Shortly after his arrival, Zalman was able to purchase two oxen and a wagon which extended his trading farther into the countryside. (A brief fact about the ox cart: At the time, bamboo rods were used to prod the oxen. Zalman vividly recalled paying one British pound-a huge sum at the time-for a bamboo rod. On arrival in Ottawa, years later, he was shocked to see bamboo sticks on sale for 10 cents. It stuck in his mind - an early example of Epstein entrepreneurial thinking!)

Thousands of native Africans were being put to work at the time developing South Africa's mining industry. These workers, who were all living far away from their home villages were Zalman's main customers. By then, Zalman was selling a range of dry goods and clothing. Eventually, he was able to move up from the ox cart to a proper dry goods store in Capetown. Apparently his business also took him to Durban. Zalman was in Africa for a total of approximately ten years (1889-1899).

When asked why he never married in South Africa, Zalman explained that since very few Jewish women ever arrived in South Africa, it became the custom for Jewish men to marry local (Boer) women who converted to Judaism at the time of marriage. One of Zalman's Jewish acquaintances had married in this fashion and had two children. When the husband died prematurely, his widow reverted back to Christianity - along with the two children. The incident obviously had a powerful impact on Zalman and may have explained part of his reason for leaving South Africa at the age of approximately 28.

Over the years, various members of the Epstein family have been involved in every kind of business imaginable. Some of these business ventures were more successful than others. Zalman Epstein was certainly keen to try new business ventures too. After already operating his Capetown store successfully, he was approached by another business man with a proposition to make money through cattle export.

The plan was that Zalman would put up capital to purchase a herd of cows which would be resold for export at a sizable profit. Although Zalman put up his share of the money and the animals were delivered, they turned out to be worthless oxen, inappropriate for export. Zalman's savings were lost and he was on the verge of losing his store to his creditors. It was a German Jew from Capetown, an acquaintance of Zalman's, who helped rescue him from this predicament.

The acquaintance called a meeting of all of Zalman's creditors and instructed Zalman to follow his lead exactly. By this time, Zalman had already been threatened with jail. The business acquaintance made a proposition to Zalman's creditors that they accept a reduced payback on Zalman's debt or they could simply take the store. The creditors opted to take the cash in exchange for a legal receipt extinguishing the full amount of the debts. In front of all the creditors, the German Jew then tore up the receipts and relayed to the creditors the story of how Zalman had been swindled in the cattle export investment. He then asked the creditors to extend Zalman further credit so he could continue his business. A promise was made that over time, they would all get their money back, in full. The tactic of extracting the receipts and then tearing them up worked. Each and every one of Zalman's creditors agreed to help re-finance his business and extended further credit.

Although Zalman was back on his feet in business, the Boer War was looming in Southern Africa. Zalman decided it was a good time to leave South Africa and he headed for London England, with his savings. But before we leave South Africa, the story of the lottery must be told.

Much like today, lotteries, or "sweepstakes" were extremely popular. On one particular occasion Zalman bought a sweepstakes ticket. However, in order to increase his luck, he bought the ticket in the name of Mr. Barnie Barnato, an English Jew who had arrived penniless in South Africa with his brother in the late 1800's.

Barnato quickly established himself as one of the country's biggest diamond mine entrepreneurs (see entry in encyclopedia Judaica- vol.IV ). Barnato amalgamated his huge mining company with DeBeers, a company which is still the largest producer of diamonds in the world. According to Zalman, Barnato sold out to DeBeers in exchange for a commitment to get him elected to the Colonial Legislature. In fact, he was later elected to the South African Assembly. According to Zalman, when Barnato died under suspicious circumstances, the stock market crashed. Even Queen Victoria attended his memorial service in London.

Back to the story. Wouldn't you know -Zalman's ticket won! The prize was approximately 500 pounds , but not easy to retrieve with Mr. Barnato's name on the ticket. Apparently, it took six months to sort out the problem. With the prize money in hand, Zalman purchased a 22k gold "Repeater" watch for 100 pounds. It became a favourite possession. The watch could be set to chime on the hour, the half hour and the quarter hour. (The watch can be seen in Zalman's pocket in the famous picture of him taken in South Africa. Note: this photo will be added to the web site).

On to London England for Zalman. Zalman only stayed three to four months in England. While in London, he invested his entire savings in an electric business. In just a few months, the money was gone and he left for Canada to join the rest of the family. The year was 1899.

On to Canada

Zalman's mother, his oldest brother Shmuel, and Shmuel's wife landed in Ottawa long before Zalman. Zalman's sister Chaya Gita and other brother, Kasriel, had also arrived in Ottawa with his wife long before Zalman's arrival. In fact, within a short time after Zalman's arrival, Chaya Gita married Hershel Segalowitz. Zalman attended their wedding.

Once in Ottawa, Zalman asked what work was there to do in his new city. He was told that new arrivals often worked for the Ottawa railway company shoveling snow off the streetcar tracks. Zalman followed the advice. He lasted one day as an Ottawa railway company employee. Shovelling snow was not for him.

Zalman quickly reverted to his former job as a trader/entrepreneur. He soon opened a store approximately 20 miles outside of Ottawa. Within a year of arriving in Ottawa, Zalman had met Sarah (Sadie) Rosenfeld. Zalman was 28 years old and Sadie was 18. They married in 1900.

Sadie accompanied her husband to live at the store, which Zalman continued to run. But it wasn't long before Sadie was back in Ottawa. You see Chaya Gita came out one day for a visit. In the evening, she was using a candle to help get down the stairs when the drapes caught fire. The store went up in flames and burned to the ground.

Zalman and Sadie moved back to Ottawa and Zalman started earning a living selling real estate. This gave him an opportunity to begin acquiring property too. Slowly but surely, Zalman was building a portfolio of investment properties. Here's an example of Zalman's entrepreneurial thinking. He knew from personal experience that in South Africa, butter was almost unavailable. He therefore devised a method for shipping butter from Canada to South Africa in sealed steel wash basins. Although the butter melted in transit, in South Africa, the melted butter was re-frozen and sold in blocks. In exchange for the butter, Zalman's South African business contacts shipped back ostrich feathers, which at the time, were in high demand as a ladies fashion accessory.

Initially, the young Epstein family lived on Clarence St. in Ottawa's lower town, adjacent to the market area. At the turn of the century, almost all of Ottawa's Jews lived in this area, including Sadie's parents. However, when the first Epstein children were still quite young, Zalman moved the family up to Stewart St. in Ottawa's wealthier Sandy Hill neighborhood. The family lived first at #16 Stewart and later #160. The move to Sandy Hill was radical at the time. There were virtually no other Jews living in that immediate area. Zalman apparantly wanted to get his children away from the bad examples being set by non-observant kids in the more heavily Jewish lower town. One day, young Joe asked his father why he wasn't allowed to buy an ice cream on shabbat when he had seen a Rabbi's son buying one!

Not too long after, the Epsteins were living on Stewart St. Zalman believed that Sandy Hill would be a superior environment for his family. Eventually, many other Jews agreed. As the Jewish community prospered, more and more families moved to Sandy Hill.

To be continued...