The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 the Response of the Organized Winnipeg Jewish Community

June 11, 2021

We are presently living in the shadow of a virus that is having enormous implications on our overall well being. COVID-19 is exacting growing pressures on a whole range of institutions encompassing political and civil society, is shaping public discourse on the role of government, safety precautions, the balance between public health and the economy, and igniting debates about the limitations of a market-driven economic system.

A century ago the world was under the grips of an influenza epidemic that was to kill 50-100 million people with 1,300 casualties in Winnipeg. At a time in which universal health care and state – subsidized programs did not exist or at best were taking their first baby steps, many communities had to resort to mutual aid and fraternal organizations to provide financial relief and emotional support.

According to Arthur Ross, Winnipeg’s Jewish community counted some thirty two mutual aid societies by 1920, which provided sick benefits, coverage for funeral expenses, income support, and interest-free loans. These societies fell into three categories: those that were open to all Jews (such as the Hebrew Sick Benefit Association); those that were of specific benefit to working class Jews and combined mutual aid with labour activism; and landsmanshaftn whose members originated from the same town, region or country.

Esyllt Jones noted that the Jewish community had a robust network of self-help institutions. The Jewish Aid Committee under the guidance of S. Hart Green was created specifically to address the flu epidemic. The committee established nursing and food relief and raised substantial funds – over four thousand dollars by November 1918. Thanks to a well – coordinated and elaborate strategy, the kitchen supplied food to 150 – 200 families on a daily basis. Bedding was provided and medical relief delivered by two trained nurses, two doctors and a number of volunteers.

Through the course of the epidemic, the Israelite Press kept the community informed of ongoing developments, announcements from municipal and provincial health agencies, and helped spearhead efforts in fundraising and mobilizing volunteers to assist healthcare professionals.

What can be discerned from a reading and understanding of the events of 1918 is the extent to which communal solidarity was critical to addressing an existential threat. This sense of solidarity continued to be a defining element of the Winnipeg Jewish community in the years to come.

Suggested reading

Jones, Esyllt. Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg.

   Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Ross, Arthur. Communal Solidarity: Immigration, Settlement, and Social Welfare in

   Winnipeg’s Jewish Community, 1882 – 1930. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019.