Aaron and Bertha Rosenthal: An Extraordinary Tale of Silversmithing and Philanthropy

This post is brought to you by Jan Kurman, a University of Ottawa student volunteer at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.

Silversmithing is an ancient art form which involves the crafting of fine objects from silver or silver alloys. The art that is created by silversmiths has been used throughout history as money, jewelry, silverware, and even decorative pieces. It takes a great deal of creativity, patience, and skill to become a silversmith and such expertise is sometimes rare. Which is why it may come as a surprise to learn that Ottawa was once the home of a great Canadian silversmith. As Ottawa was rapidly expanding in the later half of the 19th century, the city welcomed two extraordinary German immigrants into its small Jewish community.

Portrait of Aaron Rosenthal, early 1910s.
OJA 1-897-02

Born in Lobsenz, Prussia (now Łobżenica, Poland) in 1831, Aaron Rosenthal was an expert jeweler and silversmith by trade. At a very young age, Aaron left the safety of his home town and departed for India and then to Sri Lanka where the markets for gems and minerals were abundant. He lived on the Indian subcontinent for the majority of his teenage years. Eventually, Aaron moved on to Australia, where he set up shop as a jewelry merchant in Melbourne. Like many others at the time, his decision to move may have been motivated by the gold rush that was happening in the region. It was in Australia where Aaron would soon find the love of his life.

Bertha Lehman was visiting Australia with her family in the late 1860’s when she was first introduced to the young jewelry merchant. The pair, both German, quickly fell in love with each other. They were married in Australia and soon moved to England to start their new life. However, this didn’t last long. New prospects opened up and the couple decided to move to Montreal and then finally to Ottawa in 1878. The family permanently made Ottawa their home and opened a jewelry store on Sparks Street. Unlike most of the other new immigrants in Ottawa, the Rosenthals had accumulated savings from their past business ventures. They constructed a new elaborate building for their business which still stands on Sparks Street. Today, it is known as the Birks Building and is owned by the federal government.

A view of the building Rosenthal had built, 1911.

The store was a well-known feature in the city of Ottawa. Aaron’s silverware was desired by Ottawans everywhere and many families owned his famous silver tableware. Aaron’s sons would later join the jewelry business, which became known as A. Rosenthal and Sons Ltd. The firm remained very successful for most of its existence. It was located right in the core of Ottawa’s modern central business district. When Aaron passed away in 1909, the business continued to run with the help of his children. The historic building was finally bought out by the jewelry giant Birks in 1945.

The Rosenthal family was one of Ottawa’s earliest Jewish settlers, some even consider them one of the founders of Ottawa’s Jewish community. As such, they had an enormous task ahead in forming a functioning community for the incoming Jewish immigrants. Between 1891 and 1901, Ottawa’s Jewish population quadrupled from a couple dozen to almost 500. The Rosenthals, along with the Bilsky family, were essential in helping new Jewish immigrants settle into the community. They helped create a prayer group for holidays and when numbers became too large, a synagogue was built.

Bertha was a key component in multiple philanthropic efforts. As many Jewish immigrants were arriving in poverty, Bertha created the Ottawa Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society. This was Ottawa’s first Jewish charity and it provided newcomers to Ottawa with a warm welcome. It operated without the help of local government and relied on local donations and other activities to raise money. One of these activities was the sale of an economical cookbook which contained a variety of Jewish recipes that are most likely still in use today. Bertha was also the president of the Ottawa Hebrew Ladies Sewing Circle which provided warm clothing to the impoverished people of Ottawa.

Her generosity did not stop there. She lent her services to the Perley Home for Incurables and the Ottawa General Hospital by providing funding or physical assistance when needed. When the Great War began, Bertha’s Canadian Red Cross sewing group sprang into action. The group provided services for soldiers’ families, raised money for the Red Cross, and supported the children of deceased soldiers. From this group, The Disraeli Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire was formed in 1918. Bertha’s charitable efforts not only helped the Jewish community thrive, but the entire city of Ottawa.

Bertha and Aaron Rosenthal’s contributions to this city are enormous. The family’s generous projects laid the groundwork for future generations of Jewish people to come to Ottawa and call this city their home. Aaron’s valuable business skills and acumen helped build a highly successful enterprise which emboldened Ottawa’s entrepreneurs to follow suit. Bertha’s astounding effort to help those that are less fortunate demonstrated her selfless and virtuous character. Her work brought contentment to thousands of people in times of struggle and suffering. Together, the family endeavored to make Ottawa a better place to live and in the end, succeeded. Further proving how valuable Ottawa’s Jewish community was and is to this city.

A selection of the Rosenthal silver in the Archives.

Sources:

  1. “LEHMAN, BERTHA (Rosenthal) – Dictionary of Canadian ….” http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lehman_bertha_15E.html. Accessed 15 May. 2020.
  2. “Rosenthal Family fonds – The Canadian Jewish Heritage ….” https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn80456. Accessed 16 May. 2020.
  3.  “Birks Building – Parks Canada.” https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_fhbro_eng.aspx?id=2557. Accessed 18 May. 2020.

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