Veteran, 91, sells poppies with pride

Morris Polansky pins a poppy on a Toronto commuter. [Frances Kraft photo]

TORONTO — This month is significant for Morris Polansky in two ways.

With Remembrance Day approaching on Nov. 11, the personable 91-year-old Canadian army veteran has been spending much of his time distributing poppies to Toronto schools and subway commuters. He is first vice-president and poppy campaign chair of the Royal Canadian Legion’s General Wingate Branch 256, its only Jewish branch.

“We want people to wear this poppy with pride, because this is the poppy that’s used to remember all those people who gave their lives for our country and for freedom,” he told The CJN.

As well, this month, Polansky is celebrating an adult bar mitzvah, reading a Haftorah for the first time. Growing up on a farm in Oxbow, Sask., about 180 miles from Regina, he had no formal Jewish education, nor did he have a bar mitzvah.

He and his brothers were the only Jewish children their age, although there were four other Jewish families in town. Polansky got along well with his non-Jewish peers, he said, but recalls antisemitism on the part of adults.

A retired electrical engineer, he said he could easily have become a farmer, but he disliked farming “with a vengeance.”

Polansky’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Ukraine in 1892, and homesteaded in Saskatchewan, where Polansky’s father grew up and became a farmer, too.

As a teenager during the Depression, Polansky would leave home in the summer to work in prairie harvest fields, threshing grain, milking cows and driving a team of horses.

In 1940, after finishing high school, he left for Winnipeg and joined the Canadian Army.

“I was in Canada a little more than a year for basic training,” he said.

Because he had expressed an interest in becoming an electrician, he learned to work on military vehicles before being posted to England. He also served in Italy, France and Belgium, arriving in Holland by the time the war was over. He returned home Dec. 31, 1945.

After the war, Polansky attended the University of Manitoba, graduating as an electrical engineer.

His mother, who had immigrated from Russia to Brandon, Man., at age 14, was instrumental in setting him up with his late wife, Bea. Living in Winnipeg during the war, Polansky’s mother became “chummy” with a young Jewish woman, who was working at a department store.

Bea agreed to her future mother-in-law’s request to write to Polansky. He proposed six months after returning to Canada. As one of many veterans who returned to school, Polansky found that jobs were scarce when he graduated in 1950. “I tramped the streets… It was most discouraging.”

His first job was a non-engineering position at Ontario Hydro, and he was happy to get it, he said. By this time, he and Bea had a young child, the first of their two daughters.

Before long, he had a new job at the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), where he worked for almost 35 years before retiring in 1986.

The Polanskys raised their children in a house near then-fledgling Congregation Beth Am on Keele Street between Sheppard and Wilson avenues, which later became part of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue.

Bea, who had a more traditional Jewish background than her husband, encouraged him to become involved in synagogue life. He eventually became president of the congregation. Polansky credits his mother for bringing Judaism into his childhood home.  “She insisted on kosher meat… and [tried] to keep a kosher home to the best of her ability.”

When the cold weather came, several Jewish families would arrange to bring the shochet down from the Jewish colony of Hirsch, Sask., 25 miles away, to kill their chickens, he said.

Polansky’s youth on the farm may have contributed to his vigour as a nonagenarian – he is a golfer and walks regularly – but he “put[s] it down to being lucky.”

“Being active is my choice, I guess… I enjoy it.”