Ottawa’s Greatest Philanthropist: Lillian Bilsky Freiman

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

Portrait of Lillian Freiman, 1923. OJA 1-005

Women’s contributions to history often go unrecognized. This is despite the fact that a lot of the key players in Canada’s history were women. From Laura Secord to Viola Desmond, women have left a lasting impact on our shared heritage. The city of Ottawa, being the centre of our nation’s politics, can also boast about hosting a variety of historical events. It was here that the Famous Five launched their legal challenge to the Supreme Court, which culminated to become the well-known Persons Case. It is also in Ottawa where one of our nation’s greatest philanthropist grew up.

Lillian Bilsky Freiman was born in Mattawa, Ontario in 1885 to Moses Bilsky and Pauline Reich; considered Ottawa’s first Jewish settlers. Moses was a key component in the Jewish community of Ottawa. The Bilsky family would help new Jewish immigrants settle and find jobs within the nation’s capital. Pauline would help out impoverished individuals by turning the house into a makeshift shelter, where food and a bed was always offered. The family house was also used as a place for prayer before Ottawa’s first synagogue was built. Lillian grew up in an environment where charity and generosity were commonplace. It would go on to shape the woman she would become in her later years.

Portrait of Pauline Bilsky, wife of Moses Bilsky, mother of Lillian, 1904. OJA 1-556-01

Lillian would take on various volunteer roles in her youth. She was a member of the Ottawa Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society; a group devoted to raising money for needy families who were struggling to settle in Ottawa. Lillian was also a volunteer at the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society, helping families keep their children safe and healthy. Through her work, Lillian was able to entrench herself in the community and became well-known for her organizational skills and her charitable actions. The altruistic nature that she developed in her early years would stay with her for the rest of her life.

When World War I broke out, Freiman was quick to spring into action. Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were being targeted with pogroms and violence from invading armies as the conflict expanded. Freiman organized social events and other amusements to raise money for the Jews who were displaced by the war. Although she was already a mother with three children of her own, Freiman always put in a great effort to help those in desperate need for help. Further proving that an individual who strives to do what is right can make a big difference in the lives of many.

Lillian’s efforts to help the soldiers on the front lines would go on to be praised by the Canadian government. Thirty sewing machines were bought and installed in her home where women from Ottawa’s Jewish community would get together and make blankets and clothing to send to soldiers on the battlefields. Her operation would grow and she began organizing Red Cross sewing circles to meet the needs of thousands of soldiers. Lillian’s sewing group would go on to become the Disraeli Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. Led by Lillian, the group would go on to provide presents for the children of 9,000 soldiers.

In 1917, the Great War Veterans’ Association was cofounded by Freiman. The organization would later become the Royal Canadian Legion and would go on to advocate and support our country’s veterans. When John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields began to gain popularity, Lillian began crafting the first Canadian poppies in her living room. Directed by Lillian, a campaign was introduced to make the poppy a symbol of remembrance and as a way to raise money for veterans. She was a lifelong member of the National Poppy Advisory Committee and organized annual poppy campaigns in Ottawa to help raise awareness for local veterans.

“So great has been the sale of poppies in Ottawa that additional supplied had to be rushed from Montreal by aero plane. Scene shows group of Poppy Day officials and workers at the Rockliffe Airport immediately after the arrival of Flying Officer Bryans, R.C.A.F, from Montreal, with additional supplies of poppies.”
Left to right: W.E. Ashton – Canadian Legion; Misses C. McDonald; Alice Dinwoodie; M. Ogilvie; Bert Minskip; Miss Betty Birkett; Flying Officer Bryans; Mrs. A. J. Freiman – General Convener, Poppy Day; Mrs. H. H. Rowatt; Wing Commander Godfrey, O. C. Rockliffe Airport (behind); Miss Helen Moore; Mrs. Douglas Blair

After the First World War, another massive crisis would engulf the nation. The Spanish Flu arrived in Canada as soldiers began to return home from the war. Infections and deaths began to mount in Ottawa as an emergency was declared. The mayor of Ottawa requested Freiman’s help in the effort to contain the virus. She organized 1500 volunteers to help provide necessary supplies to the three temporary hospitals set up in the city. Lillian worked closely with the city’s medical officer to publish progress reports and help spread valuable information in order to contain the spread of the deadly disease. Her efforts gained praise not only in Ottawa, but on the national stage as well.

Nellie Pierce (left) and Mrs. Lillian Freiman (right) on board ship to sail for Antwerp, Belgium to bring Ukrainian war orphans to Canada. OJA 4-019

Freiman’s charitable acts would often extend beyond Canada as she constantly helped Jews suffering in post-war Europe. Thousands of Jewish children were left without parents after the war and due to pogroms. A minimal amount were allowed to enter Canada since the Canadian department of immigration remained apathetic to their suffering. Freiman would raise money and sail to Europe, bringing over a hundred destitute Jewish children back to Canada where they could start a better life for themselves. She would even adopt one of the girls she rescued and raise her as one of her own. Freiman would constantly clash with immigration officials as quotas and other artificial barriers barred thousands of Jewish immigrants from entering Canada.

Despite all her achievements and generosity, Freiman remains a figure that is not well known among most Canadians. Most of her philanthropic efforts are much too numerous to mention in a single blog post. Freiman’s courage to organize critical responses in times of great suffering would ultimately help thousands of people. The government of Canada designated Lillian Freiman as a Person of National Historic Significance in 2008. Today, she is widely recognized as the Poppy Lady.

Lillian Freiman at her desk, 1935.

Sources:

  1. “BILSKY, LILLIAN (Freiman) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bilsky_lillian_16E.html. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.
  2. “Freiman, Lillian Bilsky National Historic Person – Parks Canada.” https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=12012. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.
  3. “Canadian Army Officers’ Mess once home of Canada’s poppy ….” https://www.army-armee.forces.gc.ca/en/news-publications/national-news-details-no-menu.page?doc=canadian-army-officers-mess-once-home-of-canada-s-poppy-lady-an-apt-circumstance/i1pgmtre. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.
  4. “Lillian Freiman | Jewish Women’s Archive.” https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/freiman-lillian. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.
  5. “Government of Canada recognizes National Historic ….” 11 Oct. 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2018/10/government-of-canada-recognizes-national-historic-significance-of-social-advocate-lillian-bilsky-freiman.html. Accessed 11 Aug. 2020.

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