Berl Miller

June 10, 2022

BERL MILLER (1886 – 1979)

On November 23, 1969, Nathan Arkin and Harry Gale interviewed Berl Miller at his home on 283 Burrows Avenue. The interview took place in the aftermath of the creation of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada to which Arkin, Gale and Miller played an important role. According to Arkin and Gale, Miller participated in more community affairs than anyone they had known. This is to say the least, a bold and striking statement, one which requires a healthy dose of skepticism – though the qualifying phrase is anyone they had known. The extent of an individual’s involvement is most assuredly difficult to quantify and compare with others. What is not in doubt is that Miller represented a generation of Jews who were indefatigable and passionate in their commitment to developing a communal framework representative of all Jews. In going through the photo and newspaper collection of the Jewish Heritage Centre one comes across Miller’s image and name on countless occasions and in various political, cultural, and educational settings.

Berl Miller was best known for establishing and managing the People’s Book Store (popularly known as Miller’s Book Store) on Main Street. For over 50 years (1910-1962) the People’s Book Store was a focal point for community activities. According to Faith Jones it constituted a social space where leisure, where the exchange of ideas took place that articulated and honed secular and religious values, where friendships were made and cultivated, where adherents to the rich linguistic traditions of Yiddish and Hebrew helped construct the definition of what it meant to be a Jew in a new world, and where the seeds of a rich and vibrant organizational life were planted in a soil that to this day nourishes Jewish life. In its various locations, 816 Main Street until 1918 when it burned down and then 822 and 824 ½ Main, the store became in the words of Miller, “the address of the Jewish community in Winnipeg”. The extensive collection of books and newspapers of various languages served as a connection to Jewish culture and a cosmopolitan ethos, introduced new and exciting ideas and as Jones has suggested became an instrument for “learning Canadianness”. Describing the 824 ½ location, Miller noted that “a newly – arrived Jewish immigrant would find their way to the bookstore where “he was assured of finding others like himself. In that cramped, small store the lonely immigrant could form relationships and find friendship”. The store served as a meeting place which led to the founding of institutions such as the I. L. Peretz and Arbeiter Ring Schools, the Jewish Public Library and where the idea of the Canadian Jewish Congress was hashed out. Miller was one of the western Canadian delegates at the Congress’s founding conference in 1919. The store also hosted a bevy of writers and philosophers such as Nachman Syrkin and Chaim Zhitlovsky. The Jewish Chess Club would meet there and during the second world war it served as headquarters for the Jewish Women’s Division of the Canadian Red Cross. Though Miller was a socialist in political orientation (specifically Socialist – Territorialist) and radicals of all stripes met at his bookstore, his was a cosmopolitan spirit which recognized diverse opinions and worldviews. An advertisement in the June 15,1917 issue of the Israelite Press aimed at participants at a large western Canadian Zionist convention, noted that at his bookstore “all classes of people meet” and there is accommodation “to the most religiously observant through the serving of kosher food, as well as to a variety of linguistic needs and intellectual interests”. (Faith Jones)

In 1910 the People’s Book Store became the meeting place for the Fedorenko Defense Committee. Savva Fedorenko was a Ukrainian immigrant who took refuge in Winnipeg from Czarist Russia. The Russian government which sought his extradition for murdering a police officer succeeded in pressuring the Canadian authorities in arresting Fedorenko. The Defense Committee, for which Miller served as secretary, raised funds, and circulated petitions and was successful in procuring Fedorenko’s release.

As Faith Jones noted the Defense Committee campaign “may have given this community a sense of its power and the importance of spaces such as People’s Book Store in making their voices heard”.

Miller and his wife Bertha, who played a key part in the day – to – day operations of the bookstore were involved in numerous community activities which reflected their broad interests, and commitment to the social betterment of Winnipeg Jewry. In 1914 they were among the founders of the I. L. Peretz School with Bertha playing a major role in the Muter Farein. She was involved with the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Welfare Fund. As indicated, Berl Miller was one of the founders of the Jewish Historical Society and played a part in the development of the Jewish Public Library and Jewish Dramatic Society. The Millers were also involved with the Hilfs Farband (an aid organization), ORT (an international Jewish education and re-training organization), the Jewish National Workers Alliance, the Zionist Pioneer Women group, and the Jewish Reading Circle Council.

The social, cultural and political activism of Berl and Bertha Miller rubbed off on their son Saul (1917 – 1993) who was an NDP MLA from 1966 to 1981 and held several cabinet portfolios under the Schreyer government including Minister of Urban Affairs, Health and Finance.

The final word on Berl Miller goes to his daughter Ruth Miller Levy who shone a light on an aspect of her father’s personality that resonated with family and friends and allows us to acquire a greater appreciation of his humanity and the vividness of his identity as a Jew and as a man of the people. Ruth noted: “I wonder sometimes whether my father was best known as the proprietor of the People’s Book Store, or as the Chasid who danced on the table. The dancing took place at the ‘Chasidim Ball’ an annual event in Winnipeg for some ten years, and Bernard Miller, doing the ‘Kozatchke’ on a table full of dishes or glasses was one of the highlights of the celebration”. (Faith Jones)

Suggested reading

Arkin, Nathan and Harry Gale. Interview of Berl Miller, November 23, 1969 (Jewish Heritage Centre Archives)

Jones, Faith. “Everybody Comes to the Store: People’s Book Store as Third Place, 1910 – 1920.”

  Canadian Jewish Studies, vol. 18 – 19 (2010 – 2011), pp. 95 – 119

Miller, Berl. Autobiographical account. (Jewish Heritage Centre Archives, JHC 201 f.5)