OCHS email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-10-29 published
A champion of Canadian textile workers
By Barbara SILVERSTEIN, Special to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, October 29, 2003 - Page R5
A pioneer in the labour movement within Toronto's once-vibrant garment industry and an early advocate of basic social-welfare programs has died at the age of 105.
As a union activist, William (Velvl) KATZ survived blacklisting in the 1920s to establish the embroidery local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and later went on to co-found the Labour League, a Jewish radical left-wing mutual-benefit society that later evolved into the United Jewish People's Order.
"He was a man of integrity, intelligence and idealism," said his daughter Ida ABRAMS. "He held... an exacting moral standard. If he gave his word, he meant it."
Mr. KATZ, who died in April of heart failure, was born in 1897 in a small Polish town just north of Krakow. He and his three younger siblings were raised in the sheltered communal life of Hasidism, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. Mr. KATZ studied at a religious school and later apprenticed as a cobbler and had almost no exposure to the secular world until 1918, when he fled to Germany to avoid military conscription. In 1997, he told the Canadian Jewish News that his life changed dramatically. In Poland, the only books were religious, he said. "Suddenly there were books on every subject imaginable."
By all accounts, Mr. KATZ became caught up in the intellectual fervour ignited by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. "He thought communism would bring an end to anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination and injustice," said Ida ABRAMS. "He believed the revolution was just around the corner."
In 1920, a cousin who was suddenly unable to travel offered Mr. KATZ a free boat ticket and he arrived in Toronto with the address of the relatives of a German friend. Mr. KATZ became their paying boarder. In the course of his stay, he courted their daughter Bluma and married her in 1922. Two years later, he brought his brother Ben and then his sisters Lil and Eva to Canada. Similar efforts to bring his half-sister Esther failed and she did not survive the Holocaust.
Around that time, Mr. KATZ quit shoemaking and turned to the garment industry where he took up union organizing. Eventually, his reputation as a "lefty" alienated bosses and by 1924 he was unemployed. Ida ABRAMS recalls vivid memories of May Day parades she attended with her father. "People marched with banners and flags and sang union songs. There was always the threatening presence of policemen on horseback."
His job problems ended in 1930 when Mr. KATZ became a partner in a modest embroidery shop on Adelaide Street. Although he was an employer himself, he continued to support the efforts of the labour unions. In those years, Mr. KATZ campaigned for basic social-welfare programs -- such as old-age pensions and unemployment insurance -- through the Labour League Mutual Benefit Society, a Jewish radical socialist organization he co-founded in 1926.
Mr. KATZ had initially belonged to the Workmen's Circle, an established left-wing Jewish proletariat benefit society but in the mid-20s it ruptured over ideological differences. Mr. KATZ was among a radical group that broke away to establish the Labour League which, in later years, even ran political candidates. In 1945, the league was renamed the United Jewish People's Order.
In its formative years, the Labour League established several cultural institutions that still exist today: the Morris Winchevsky School, the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir (formerly the Freedom Singing Society), and Camp Naivelt, a collective of 90 cottages near Brampton, Ontario The camp was a popular venue for folksingers Pete SEEGER and Phil OCHS performed there -- and it was where the Canadian folk group The Travellers got its start.
United Jewish People's Order flourished until 1956, when Mr. KATZ learned of the atrocities of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and disenchantment set in. Instead, he supported institutions in Israel, and the preservation of Yiddish culture. Through this he became Friends with Canadian Yiddish poet Simcha SIMCHOVITCH, whose latest book Toward Eternity: Collected Poems, is dedicated to Mr. KATZ.
Mr. KATZ, whose wife died in 1972, leaves his daughter Ida ABRAMS and his sister Eva GANTMAN.
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