Lewis and Grunia Ferman closed their clothing store and moved from St. John’s, N.L., to Toronto in 1988.
Yet when the store’s sign – Lewis Ferman and Co. – was uncovered during a renovation of the Subway restaurant on the site 30 years later, memories of the couple, their giving nature and the ambience of their business flooded back to scores of friends and acquaintances.
Lewis Ferman and Co. was an iconic store, but the couple who ran it were even better known for the struggle they overcame as Holocaust survivors, Polish immigrants and former freedom fighters who arrived in Newfoundland with a small child and little more than the clothing on their backs in 1947.
Lewis and Grunia Ferman met while they were living in the Naliboki Forest in modern-day Belarus, in one of the organized camps of Jewish resistance fighters led by leader Tuvia Bielski. Those camps eventually became home to 1,200 Jews who were seeking refuge from the Nazis.
But this story really begins in Newfoundland. Family members helped the Fermans come to Gander from a refugee camp in Rome. They had little money, a two-year-old daughter, Leah, and little understanding of English, but were fluent in eight languages and had a strong desire to create a new life.
“My father bought a truck, had ‘Lewis Ferman and Co.’ painted on the side and travelled to small outposts on the island, selling his wares,” said their son, Alan Ferman, a Thornhill, Ont., resident who spent his youth in Newfoundland. “In 1952, the year I was born, he opened his store on Water Street in St. John’s.”
Fast forward to last October, when a crew that was refurbishing a Subway restaurant on the old Lewis Ferman and Co. site uncovered the clothing store’s iconic sign. When the store closed in 1988 so the Fermans could move to Toronto to be closer to their children and grandchildren, the sign was buried under the food chain’s signage.
“Within hours,” said Alan Ferman, “CBC TV and radio were doing stories, talking to people about the old store and about my folks. Since then, I’ve been in contact – through phone, email, Facebook and Twitter – with hundreds of people who have fond memories of shopping there, doing business with my dad, stopping in for conversation with my mother and being helped by them in so many ways.”
Lewis Ferman was a well-respected man who was very involved in the St. John’s Jewish community. He ran Shabbat services, read the Torah and led Kol Nidrei services with his booming voice chanting the iconic melody that opens each Yom Kippur evening service.
He was also among the first to do Holocaust memorial programs in North America, according to his son.
“First, he funded the program for a small Jewish community in the 1960s, organizing speakers and entertainment. It gained renown and Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood suggested my father publicize it to the general population,” Alan Ferman recalled.
“Smallwood attended and stressed people should never forget what happened (in the Holocaust). The program grew from there.”
Lewis Ferman placed family and Yiddishkeit first, Alan Ferman said. “Then came his business and the synagogue. He was all about people, building relationships and treating people right.”
Halifax resident Zack Rubin remembers traveling to Newfoundland as a clothing representative for firms in Montreal and Toronto.
“The Fermans were welcoming people, very friendly. They invited me for Shabbat many times when I was in town. I enjoyed Lewis’ stories about how he worked with fishermen from other countries, helping them with translation,” he said.
Shalom Auerbach, a Torontonian who lived his early years in St. John’s before moving away, said Lewis Ferman’s “interpreting job was his favourite, more than the store. He’d be called at all hours of the day or night to help a foreign seaman, particularly in health-related situations.”
Alan Ferman said that, “My dad had his own reserved parking spot at the hospital. He probably saved countless lives because he could tell doctors what the seamen were going through.
“My mother, too, with nine languages, would be an interpreter in all kinds of circumstances. She later received an honorary degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland for her community work.”
Auerbach remembers his father, a close friend of Lewis Ferman’s, stopping to see him at the downtown store. “It was a wonderful meeting place. Lewis was always so energetic, even as an older man. He was always warm to me as a kid. He loved to tell stories and I loved to hear them,” said Auerbach.
“He was such a happy and positive man. His staff loved him and was very loyal. You could see they were like family to him, similar to a lot of Jewish businesses on Water Street.”
Those are the types of stories Alan Ferman has been receiving from people all over the continent. He’s also received pictures of the old store and of his parents.
The Lewis Ferman and Co. sign was torn apart when the Subway renovations were taking place, but is now being restored. It will be displayed next year, along with other mementos and artefacts, in an exhibit on the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador that’s being prepared at the Rooms museum in St. John’s.
Claire Frankel-Salama, a very active member of the St. John’s Jewish community for more than 30 years, remembered a party for Lewis Ferman’s 80th birthday, which was held shortly before the couple moved to Toronto.
“Even when he was 80, if he shook your hand, your hand felt it for a little while afterwards,” she said. “He was a very strong man in all ways. In his character, in his beliefs, physically.”
Lewis Ferman died in 1989 and his wife passed away in 2004. Their daughter died a year ago.
Alan Ferman has so many memories of his family, the store and the people who visited it.
“When they came to St. John’s, they felt like Newfoundland was the greatest place in the world and, you know, people just really went out of their way to be kind and nice to them, and my parents gave it back in droves to people,” he said.
“The store was like a melting pot. People from all over the Avalon (Peninsula) would come there and talk and my father used to say, ‘Every one of the customers are really our friends.’ “