1885 – 1940
Unquestionably the most prominent Jewish woman in Canada in the interwar period, Lillian Freiman was born in Mattawa, Ontario, one of the eleven children of Moses Bilsky (1829–1923) and his wife, Pauline (née Reich, b. Berlin, 1857, m. 1875). Freiman’s sister, Lucy, married Allan Bronfman (1895–1980), brother of Samuel, and with him a founder of Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, the liquor distiller and marketer. Like many Canadian Jews, Moses Bilsky, who originated in Russian Lithuania, moved back and forth between Canada and the United States for a number of years. Arriving in Canada as a child in 1845, he became caught up in the western Canadian Gold Rush fever and then headed for California, Panama, and back to California. During the American Civil War, he was a Union soldier. His wife was a homemaker. In Canada, the Bilskys were pioneers of the Jewish community of Ottawa, where they settled after Moses had achieved financial success in the lumber business in Mattawa. For many years, Moses was Ottawa’s most eminent Jewish citizen.
Lillian Freiman lived most of her life in Ottawa. At the age of eighteen, she married Lithuanian-born Archibald J. Freiman (1880–1944), one of a very few Jews to found a major department store in Canada (Freiman’s, in Ottawa), a sector of retailing that in the United States and Germany was dominated by Jews. The Freimans had three children: Dorothy (Alexandor, 1906–1986), Lawrence (1909–1986), and Queene Esther (Luxenberg, 1912–1997). The Freimans also adopted a World War I war orphan, Gladys (Rozovsky).
From World War I until their death, the couple spearheaded Canadian Zionism, he as president of the Zionist Organization of Canada and she as head of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO. Their son, Lawrence, also served as president of the ZOC.
Though not yet thirty years old at the outbreak of World War I, Lillian Freiman quickly established herself as a civic leader in Ottawa and a national leader of Canadian Jewry. A Red Cross sewing circle, which she began in her home, evolved into the Disraeli Chapter of the Daughters of the Empire. She raised funds for Jews in Europe and Palestine, led Ottawa’s efforts to battle the influenza epidemic in 1918, served as treasurer of the Ottawa Welfare Bureau, and was active in such organizations as the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, the Institut Jeanne d’Arc for Catholic girls, and the Protestant Infants Home. In the immediate postwar years, she led the campaign to bring to Canada one hundred and fifty Jewish war orphans (Gladys Rozovsky was one) from the Ukraine and to settle them with Jewish families. Because of her work with war veterans, she was granted honorary life membership in the Canadian Legion veterans’ organization, the first woman to be so honored. In subsequent years, she lent her name and devoted energy to groups such as the Girl Guides Association, the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association, the Ladies Auxiliary of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue to which the family belonged, and the Ladies Auxiliary of B’nai Brith, all in Ottawa.
Freiman’s philanthropic efforts were widely diffused, but it was Zionism that received her most concerted attention. Although people of her wealth and position in the United States seldom allied themselves with Jewish nationalism, in Canada Zionist affiliation was almost universal in these years. It was, in part, a reflection of the uncertain status of Jews, who were not accepted into the French Canadian community and were only reluctantly received by Anglo-Canadians. (Although the Freimans owned a summer home near that of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and considered King a friend, the latter’s diaries reveal a distaste for Jews including the Freimans.)
At war’s end, Freiman undertook to raise money for the Helping Hand Fund of Hadassah. Traveling coast to coast, she secured about two hundred thousand dollars, a prodigious and unprecedented sum in a community of some one hundred and twenty thousand Jews, most of them recent immigrants. She was instrumental in bringing Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization founded by Henrietta Szold, to Canada from the United States. Later, she influenced the Canadians to affiliate with WIZO, which had its headquarters in Britain, rather than with American Hadassah. The British orientation seemed more natural in Canada with its still strong ties to the mother country which also held the mandate for Palestine. From 1919 to 1940, Freiman served as Dominion president of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO. In 1934, she chaired the United Palestine Appeal, and in the same year she became the first Canadian Jew to be awarded the Order of the British Empire. Moshav Havazzelet ha-Sharon in Israel’s Emek Hefer, land purchased by the Jewish National Fund with contributions by Canadians including the Freiman family, is named for her.