The earliest known ancestors of Vancouver's Nemetz family were Avrum and Surah Nemetz. The name is the Russian word for "German". When the pogroms came through, the Russians heard the Jews speaking Yiddish which they thought was German, so they called them “Germans.” In the 19th Century when surnames became mandatory, the family apparently used "Nemetz" and "Deutsch" (Yiddish for "German") interchangeably.
It is not known where the family originated, but by the 1800s, a small village near Odessa, called Svatatroiske (formerly Volochonsk and now Troickoe), was their home. Their community was a Jewish "shtetl". Avrum and Surah may have had at least two children.
Schmiel (1821-1916), the oldest brother settled in Bogopaul, had eight sons, five daughters who came to America. Only the story of “Dudie Deutsch” or David Nemetz (1830-1892) David Nemetz is known. David and his wife Leah, had eight children, five daughters and three sons, the youngest of whom is Abraham (Avrum) Nemetz (1865-1927). He married Toby (Tuba) Pollock (1870-1942), and they had nine children: Charlie (1888-1973), Samuel (1891-1952), Sarah (1892-1957), David (1894-1981), Harry (1897-1991), Chava (1900-1988), William (Bill) (1903-1992), Leo (1906-1985), and Esther (1909-2006).* Note: For the biographies of the nine children, see below.
Often referred to as Avrum "Kostuf" or Avrum the butcher, Abraham was well respected and delivered meat to a nearby hospital. He was also a merchant who traded in wheat. Abraham and Tuba lived a comfortable life in Svatatroiske, belonging to the upper class merchants' shul. They lived in a beautiful home with lilac and fruit trees, they had a housekeeper and kept farm animals, pheasants and peacocks. The Rabbi and Schohet lived next door and life was good - until 1917.
The pogroms began - stampeding horses, broken windows, people being dragged through the streets. With violence increasing and a shortage of food, they felt unprotected and afraid. The oldest sons had already left the village and had emigrated to Canada, but many family members remained. Toby Nemetz became ill and the family moved to the neighbours across the street. A gypsy fortune teller came one day and said to the youngest child, Nadia (Esther), "If you give me a piece of bread, I will tell your fortune." So Nadia took her across the street to see her mother. The Gypsy woman told Toby Nemetz they were going to leave. A blonde man would come to get them and they would go across water. Toby felt she would not live to see America but the Gypsy woman insisted she would recover well enough to travel, although her husband Abraham would not live long after he arrived.
Several months later a blonde man, acting as an agent, arrived saying he had come to take them to Poland where a family member would be waiting to take them across the ocean. They arrived in Canada September 3, 1922 aboard the RMS Antonia, docking at Halifax.
Making their way to Vancouver they joined the other members of the family where they remained until their death. Abraham died in 1927, five years after he arrived in Canada, leaving Toby as the matriarch of one of the most interesting families of early Vancouver.
Charlie Nemetz (1888-1973)
Because of pressure to become a revolutionist, Charlie, the oldest of nine siblings, was the first to leave the village of Svatatroiske. In 1912, at the age of 24, he boarded a cattle boat for Buenos Aires to begin the first of many adventures. A year and a half later Charlie returned to Russia to do military duty for his brother Sam, so Sam would not have to quite engineering school in Odessa. After serving four years in the frozen wastelands of Siberia, Charlie left for Canada to join Sam, who had emigrated during that time to Winnipeg.
Charlie’s life was full of ups and downs. His high-flying adventures led him to fur and fish trading, the grocery business, speculative real estate and automobile dealerships. He left Vancouver in 1933, his ventures taking him to Mexico, India and back to Argentina. He lived in Nevada and in Oregon, where he bought the Pendleton Hotel. Later he moved to Los Angeles, finally returning to Vancouver in 1969.
Charlie remained flamboyant throughout his life and had a million stories to tell. When he could, he spread his generosity around. He had a soft spot for his younger sister Esther, whom he showered with gowns and furs sent from wherever life’s journeys took him. He was an elegant man, “dressed to the nines.” Supported by the other brothers for most of his life, he always looked good, maintaining his affiliations with the Elks, Masons and Shriners.
He and his wife Annie (née Levson) had three sons: Harry who lived in Tacoma with his wife Lee; Hymie who lived in San Jose, California, with his wife Edith; and Dr. Arnold Nemetz, who lived in Vancouver with his wife Faye (née Gordon).
Samuel Nemetz (1890-1952)
Samuel, the second oldest and a bright student, attended technical school in Odessa. When he emigrated to Canada in 1913, Sam was a graduate electrical engineer. While working at an electrical firm in Winnipeg, Sam met his wife, Rebecca (née Bardach – later became Burich), a highly intelligent and ambitious woman. In 1916, with their three year old Nathan, Sam and Rebecca moved to Watrous, Saskatchewan. Sam became a merchant, buying a small department store which he renamed McMillan Rivers and Nemetz. A second son, Herman was born three years later.
Joined by his brother David whom he had trained as an apprentice, and Charlie, the entrepreneur, they planned to bring electrical power to the small towns of Saskatchewan. Starting with the purchase of one abandoned and broken down generator, and eventually buying eight other generators, they brought power to 18-20 small communities. Selling their company to an American firm, Samuel Nemetz and his young family moved to Vancouver in 1923, and with his brother Charlie became the automobile dealers for Essex, Hudson and Overland. Losing their dealership in 1928, they then went into wholesale electrical supplies. After a brief partnership, Samuel went out on his own as an electrical contractor, founding Western Electric.
Nathan, greatly influenced by his mother’s love of learning, became a lawyer, later to be appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Course of British Columbia. Herman, following in his father’s footsteps, became an electrical engineer. Both of Sam’s grandchildren inherited the family’s love of education. Dr. Peter Nemetz (wife Romy) is an economist at the University of British Columbia and Dr. Georgia Nemetz (husband Sylvain Sinchein) is a psychologist.
Sarah Victor (née Nemetz) (1893-1957)
Sarah, the oldest daughter, arrived in Winnipeg with her brother Harry. At 21, Sarah (or Sonia as she was known in her family), secured a job as a sewing machine operator. A passionate idealist, Sarah quickly became a political activist organizing a union for garment workers. Married in 1917 to Bernard (Baryl) Victor, an apprentice newspaper pressman, they became active in Maccabees, a group of young Zionists.
With their two small daughters, Rose and Judith, they moved to Watrous in 1923. When Baryl was offered a job as a pressman at The Vancouver Province, they moved to Vancouver, where their son Maurice (Morris) was born. Sarah became involved in the Jewish Socialist movement, and a group called the Arbeiter Ring. Later Sarah and Baryl were instrumental in founding the Sholem Aleichem School, precursor to the Peretz School.
Sarah also had astute business skills. In 1929, she managed to buy a farm in White Rock. There she planted large gardens, made cheese, and in the tough years of the 1930s fed the entire Nemetz family every weekend. Sarah befriended the First Nations in White Rock, trading clothes she had made for their apples, blackberries, and eggs. She also taught the First Nations how to use many of the crops they raised. Under Rabbi Pastinsky’s guidance, Sarah took food parcels to the ill at Essondale and to the imprisoned at Oakalla.
Driving a car in 1926, she did volunteer work at T.B. clinics and started a lunch program at Charles Dickens school. In 1936 Sarah became a founder of the Jewish Welfare Bureau, which later became the Jewish Family Service Agency.
In the 1940s Sarah bought a deli on Robson and Thurlow and began a career in catering. For banquet of up to 500 people, 2000 potato knishes might be made in a day. She developed packaged cake mixes and had a hot food take-out service for those living in rooming houses. Family seders, done with her sister, Chava, were for over a hundred people. In the 1950s Sarah purchase a piece of property in the West End of Vancouver, which she and her brother-in-law Ben Dayson developed.
Never forgetting her labour idealism, Sarah was involved in the founding of the C.C.F. party in Canada (which later became the N.D.P.) and was close friends with Grace and Angus McInnis and J.S. Woodsworth. Sarah also became a personal friend of Golda Myerson (Golda Meir), the future Prime Minster of Israel, who stayed at the Victor home during a trip to Canada sponsored by Pioneer Women.
When Sarah Victor died at the age of 64, she was remembered at a funeral attended by 800 people as “the kindest woman in the Jewish community.” With most modest demeanor she taught her children the obligation of community service to people of all races, because, as Sarah said, “that is what you do.”
David Nemetz (1894-1981)
David, named for his grandfather, left Russia in 1912 at the age of 18. With a suit, a pillow, a change of clothing and some bread and jam, he took the train to Luba, boarded a cattle boat for Hull and then The Lake Erie for Quebec City. From there he began the journey to Winnipeg, with only 50 cents and some food given him by the Jewish Immigration Aid Society.
Sitting on the handlebars of his brother Sam’s bicycle, David rose to his first job: wrapping hams for 9 ½ cents an hour at Swift Canadian. When asked to work on Yom Kippur, he quit and became Sam’s assistant. After working for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and later the C.P.R., Dave got a better job in Port Arthur, Ontario, doing electrical work on mine sweepers. He became very skilled at everything mechanical and electrical.
Fascinated by the charismatic personality of Theodore Herzl, David became active in the Young Zionists, organizing Young Judaea in Winnipeg in 1917 and attending the first Zionist Convention in Canada. In 1921, in Regina, Dave met Chaim Weitzmann, who had a major impact on his life.
While visiting his brother Sam in Watrous, they negotiated the purchase of an abandoned generator to bring power to this small town. However, at this time Dave agreed to return to Europe to bring out the remaining Nemetz family members, and could not stay to complete the project. Financed by his brothers, he went to Poland but soon found the $7,000 he had brought was not enough to carry out his plan. His sister Chava was married, and there were cousins, and more cousins, who also wanted to come. Borrowing money, Dave Nemetz paid out over $10,000 – sometimes putting two on a passport – saying they were twins! Hiring an agent to go to the family’s village, moving them through the countryside at night and sleeping in haystacks, he was able to bring out 30 people including his parents and siblings.
Back in Watrous, David met Rose Baru, a school teacher, and he proposed to her shortly thereafter. With $5,000 they moved to Vancouver and bought an old store, Standard Furniture, renaming it Standard Electric. Dave ran Standard Electric for 25 years, and for a short time also operated a 139-acre dairy and cattle farm in Pitt Meadows. In the 1950s Dave began to develop property, and founded the Greater Vancouver Apartment Owners Association.
Dave Nemetz devoted his life to Zionism, raising money for Palestine and motivating youth. He founded Young Judaea in Vancouver, and seeing the need for a Zionist youth camp, started Camp Hatikvah at Crescent Beach under the auspices of the Zionist Organization of Canada. He was also responsible for moving the camp to its present location in Oyama, BC. One of Canada’s best known supporters of the Jewish National Fund, Dave’s name was for many years synonymous with Vancouver’s for those in Israel. In 1947 Dave and Rose secretly helped to train a group of youngsters, including his nephew Sonny Wosk, to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. In 1949 Dave made his first trip to Israel, and repeated this trip almost every year until his passing in 1981.
Dave and Rose Nemetz travelled all over the world during their lives. They had no children, and Dave loved to find relatives in the places they went, later entertaining the family with stories about those he discovered. Recording the story of his life, Dave said, “I never was, or wanted to be, very rich. I only wanted to be comfortable and be able to help others in the world.”
Harry Nemetz (1897-1991)
At the age of 16, Harry boarded a freighter with his sister Sarah. His brothers Charlie, Sam and David were already in Canada and Harry did not want to miss out. Harry joined Dave in Port Arthur, Ontario where he became his assistant doing electrical work for C.D. Howe. Moving back to Winnipeg, the Nemetz brothers all relocated to Watrous, Saskatchewan. Harry’s strength was as a merchant and he moved to Zelma, Saskatchewan, where he bought a store and also became Postmaster for the town. Soon he bought a second store in Watrous.
Harry married Ann Karasov. They lived above the store with their two small children, Milton and Phyliss, until they decided to move to Spokane, Washington, to go into the jewelry business with Ann’s brother. In 1925 Harry and Ann moved back to Vancouver, and, with the Nemetz brothers’ aptitude for electrical work, opened a small business called Dominion Electric, which later became Domino Refrigeration. Their youngest son Alvin was born. They lived at the very fashionable Ferrara Court on East Hastings, the residence of many young Jewish couples, including the family of David Marks, whose daughter Mary was to become the wife of comedian Jack Benny.
Harry was very active in B’nai B’rith and, together with Ann, became District Leaders. Harry remained active in B’nai B’rith for 62 years. In the 1940s Harry started buying downtown real estate and by the time of his death in 1991, he had amassed a large portfolio of property on Hornby, Homer and Richards streets.
Harry’s daughter Phyliss married Dr. Irving Snider, travelling the world as a journalist and travel agent. Harry’s oldest son, Milton, and wife Frances (née Ratner) died tragically in a car accident, leaving two teenage daughters. Alvin received his MBA, pursued a career in banking and married Sheila.
Chava Wosk (née Nemetz) (1900-1988)
Young Chava Nemetz was a beautiful woman. Stories are told that when she had to leave the house during the pogroms, her mother put soot on her face so the soldiers wouldn’t bother her. Arriving in Watrous, Saskatchewan, in 1922 with her husband Abrasha Wosk and their baby daughter Esther, life was fraught with problems. Esther had become ill in Poland en route to Canada and had become deaf. A trip to the Mayo clinic financed by Chava’s brother Dave confirmed that Esther would remain deaf.
After two difficult years in Watrous, Chava and Abrasha moved to Vancouver to join her brothers Sam, Dave and Bill. Abrasha’s brothers-in-law purchased a broom factory for the young couple, which Abrasha ran. Later they bought a butcher shop on Main and Hastings. Chava had two more children, Saul (Sonny) and Rosalie. Living in a rented home on Parker Street, everyone, including the children, worked long hours. Later Grandmother Tuba Nemetz lived with them.
In 1948 they gave up the butcher shop. Sonny went to fight in the War of Independence in Israel, Esther went to California to meet a young deaf boy named Hyman Aheroni, and Rosalie, at the age of 17, married Joe Segal, whom Abrasha quickly and wisely trained in community service. In the 50s they purchased an apartment block on 16th at Cypress. Her step-mother-in-law, Hinda, continued to live with them, creating exquisite handmade table cloths for each member of the family.
Chava Wosk was a perceptive and intuitive woman. She became the “glue” that held the family together. She was wise and knew the strengths and weaknesses of everyone. She was the negotiator, the arbitrator, the judge and the jury. If one was smart, one knew never to cross her. A woman of astute business skills, Chava once told Abrasha “Go, let me run the business, you go build the community!” And he did. Abrasha together with Chava became involved in most of the organizations serving the growing needs of the Vancouver Jewish community. Active in the Schara Tzedeck on Heatley Street, and spearheading the move to its current location, they remained community leaders for more than 50 years. They were the founders of the Jewish Home for the Aged on 13th Avenue, directing two subsequent moves culminated in the present Louis Brier Home and Hospital. Chava worked to establish the Ladies Auxiliary to Louis Brier, serving many terms as its president. Many other institutions had their origins in the Wosk home. The Achduth Lending Society, B’nai B’rith Women, the Muter Farein of Peretz Schul, the Chevra Kadisha, and the funeral chapel on Broadway. Talmud Torah and Jewish Family Service were the focus of dinner conversations for years in the Wosk home.
Abrasha was an outspoken advocate of community needs until he died at the age of 80; Chava the family matriarch for her entire life.
William (Bill) Nemetz (1903-1992)
Bill was the seventh of the nine children. Brought to Canada by his brother Dave, he travelled with his parents, brother Leo and sisters Esther and Chava. First settling in Watrous, Saskatchewan, and then Vancouver, he established Domino Electric with his brother Harry, later branching out on his own, retaining the name Domino Electric.
Married to Florence (née Toban) in 1927, Bill was widowed in 1946 and left with a young son Arnold. At a dinner party given by his sister-in-law, Annie Nemetz (Mrs. Charlie Nemetz), he was introduced to Sylvia Davis. Sylvia had come from Toronto with her two small daughters, Gloria and Deborah, and Annie instinctively knew this was a good match. They were married in 1947 and Bill adopted Sylvia’s children. Together they had Ted, who became a lawyer.
Bill continued throughout his life as an electrical contractor and apartment developer, retiring in his 60s. His son Arnold and grandson Steven followed in Bill’s footsteps and became electrical consulting engineers.
A life member of B’nai B’rith and the Schara Tzedeck, Bill was also a generous supporter of the Jewish National Fund. He enjoyed golf and bridge, but his family was the greatest importance to him. Yearly trips to Hawaii and to Israel with his wife Sylvia were highlights for him as were frequent trips to Los Angeles to stay with his god friend and closes brother, Leo.
Leo Nemetz (1906-1985)
The youngest of six brothers, Leo came to Watrous, Saskachewan, in 1923 with his parents, brothers Bill and Leo and sister Esther, moving to Vancouver several years later.
In Vancouver Leo met Bessie Perlman. Married in 1927, they remained in Vancouver until 1938 when they moved to California. Their young daughter Ada suffered from asthma and Leo and Bessie sensed that the warm weather of Los Angeles would be better for her. Leo and Bessie left the security of their family in Vancouver and moved south.
They established a grocery and liquor business. In the very rough neighbourhood of Watts, they worked long and dangerous hours. But Leo and Bessie led a good life. He loved to cook and have over friends and relatives who often drove from Vancouver to stay with them. He and Bessie also had two sons: Harold, who became a dentist; and Jerry, who although disabled, became a doctor then later a lawyer. Leo was a kind and generous man, adored by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who always came first with him.
Upon his retirement, and his wife’s death, Leo moved from Beverly Hills to a retirement village in Camarillo. Always maintaining his Shriner affiliation, he continued to march with them in their annual parade.
Leo was a character. With a great sense of humour he coped with the tragic illness that would take his life. In his last moments, his granddaughter Patrice asked him if he would consider reciting the “Shema”, a prayer often said before one’s passing. Leo managed to laugh as only Leo would, and said “Leave me alone…where I’m going they don’t say prayers, they play ‘Kaluki’!” That was Leo Nemetz.
Esther Dayson (née Nemetz) (1909-2006)
The youngest of nine, Esther didn’t know her older brothers, Charlie, Sam and Harry, nor her sister Sonia until she arrived in Canada in 1923. Travelling with her parents, brothers Bill and Leo, older sister Chava and her husband Abrasha and their baby, she met her brother Dave for the first time in Poland. He informed her that her name would be Esther, not “Nadia,” as she had been called at home. It was a bewildering experience for a little girl.
After staying in Watrous for a few years, Esther moved with her parents to Vancouver where they had a home on Inverness Street, later moving to 11th and Hemlock. Esther got a job at the Army and Navy as a cashier, leaving it after ten years to go into the clothing business. At an early age she volunteered to help newcomers to the city. Involved in Young Judaea, the Junior Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, and B’nai B’rith, Esther organized and chaired many events. Doted on by her brothers, particularly Charlie, she became a glamorous young woman. When she attended parties and events, she was well chaperoned by her brothers.
When Esther convened a Valentine’s Ball at The Commodore Ballroom, a childhood friend from Svatatroiske named “Boozie Deezik” – later known as Ben Dayson – saw her picture in the Vancouver Sun. At that time living in Myrnam, Alberta, Ben came to Vancouver and courted her. In 1936 they married, in a ceremony attended by 400 people at the old Jewish Community Centre on 11th and Oak Street. They were the first couple to be married at the old JCC.
Esther and Ben settled in Viscount, Saskatchewan, where Ben had purchased a general store. They lived there for 13 years. Life was good to them and Ben purchased a second store, Hawkins Meat Market, in Saskatoon. Lonely for Esther’s family, they moved to Vancouver in 1949 with their two young children, Philip and Shirley.
Ben opened the “Western Five and Ten” in Marpole and Esther created Shirley Anne Dolls. From the 50s until they passed away, Ben and Esther had been in property development, starting with a piece of land on the corner of Burnaby and Nicola, owned by Esther’s sister, Sarah Victor. In 1951, they built their first apartment building in the West End in downtown Vancouver.
Ben’s and Esther’s business acumen rewarded them generously and the community benefited from their devotion and philanthropy. Special interests in Jewish education, Jewish social services and the Jewish National Fund of Israel attracted their generosity. Esther’s activities in ORT and Hadassah are legendary, as is Ben’s involvement in B’nai B’rith.
Their children carry on their role as community workers: Shirley with the Jewish Family Service Agency, Hebrew Free Loan Association, and the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC (just to name a few); Philip (born 1936) with the Habonim Youth Movement and Camp Miriam. Shirley (born 1941) married Peter Barnett in 1967 and they have two sons: Jonathan (born 1969); and David (born 1972). Philip married Iris (née Fader) in 1964 and they have one son: James (born in 1978).
They also carry on the family business founded by Ben in 1956, Dayhu Group of Companies, a real estate investment, development and property management company. Today, Dayhu continues to build and grow its portfolio, now led by Jonathan Barnett, President and CEO, their third generation of family.