The current unfinished draft of the book

This section of our family genealogy deals with the memorial book project begun 7 years ago dedicated to the memory of Joseph Remer Z"L. In it you will find a current draft of the book as well as a list of credits. The book will be updated occasionally. Eventually, the print version will be made available to the general public.

Chapter One

Hivniv. A name lost to history. Before the war, the one war that matters to Jews, three thousand people lived in that town, half of them Jews. The figures are not quite exact, but nothing is from that time. Hivniv is today called Ugnev, and belongs to the Ukraine. Before 1939 it was known as Uhnow, and belonged to Poland. And before that it was part of Austrian Galicia.

The town lay half-way between Rava Ruska and Belzc, about twenty kilometres from each. It was surrounded by fields and forests, and the mountains were in the distance. A river ran through the countryside and in summer the townspeople went bathing in it. It was a small town, a village really, that lay to the side of the Jeruslav-Sokal rail route. Most people got around by horse and cart, or walked. The village itself was surrounded by forty hamlets, and in one of those hamlets lived Joseph Remer’s grandfather, Mottel Remer. But Mottel’s son Aaron, Joseph’s father, lived in Hivniv.

Like many people, the Remers were in the lumber business. There were not many sources of livelihood in Hivniv. There was a water station, an oil factory, a Vodka distillery and a sawmill. Of them all, lumber was the most important activity, but all together they did not add up to much. Life was hard, the town was poor. There was a fair twice a year and a market on Thursday, but Jews often went hungry, saving their food for the Sabbath and often having to borrow money in order to put a hallah on the table. Wine was saved for Pesah.

During the year the Jews made do with Vodka on Shabbat.
Joseph Remer was born in Hivniv in 1914. He was named Judah Mermel Remer by his parents, Aaron and Rukhel Mermel Remer. Like so many members of his extended family, he was a Mottkele Remer, one of the B’nai Mottel, one of the descendants of the grandfather, to distinguish them from the other branches of the family. For the Remers had many offshoots, which inevitably linked them to some of the other, equally extended families of Hivniv, among whom were the Millers and the Judenbergs. In the end their destinies were woven together, both in the Old World and the New.

While World War One raged, Joseph Remer went to heder, the classroom where Jewish children got their introduction to the alphabet before moving on to Bible study and other subjects. But Joseph’s education did not last long. His father was sickly, and Joseph, like his older brother Elo, soon found himself at work. By the age of eight he was busy in the family’s lumber shed, and by ten he was negotiating deals with the local farmers.

Up early in the morning, a piece of bread stuck in his pocket by his older sister Pearl, young Joe, called Yiddel by Jew and Gentile alike, would walk from village to village, fingering the piece of bread that was to ward off hunger late in the day. With one farmer he would negotiate potatoes, with another onions, and between one and the other he would try to extract a trade that would yield him a small plus. Always mindful of his meagre provisions and fearful of the hunger that stalked him, the boy would snatch eggs from the chicken coops, crack them open and drink them, if the farmers’ eyes were busy elsewhere.

The weather too was a threat, for when a storm came up the farmers insisted on sheltering him for the night, but Joseph was always worried they might get drunk and kill him, or word might get around that a Jewboy was sleeping in the attic. Perhaps he had in mind the story of Wolf Yudenberg, who stood alone wielding his axe in the fire of 1903 to prevent his rampaging Ukrainian neighbours from smashing in his windows.

By the time he was thirteen, Joe was a full-fledged businessman, out selling trees to farmers from his family’s lands, or sizing up their timber yields for which he might offer a price. Already his innate mathematical skills showed forth, for he could take one look at a patch of trees and evaluate their worth with uncanny accuracy. With his father too sick to attend his Bar-Mitzvah, Joe organized it himself. He brought schnapps to shul where he put on his teffilin, then sent them and a mazel tov back to his father with his brother Elo, while Joe himself took his horse and wagon to the forests for another day of business.

Joe and his brother Elo were extremely close. In 1926, when the Belzcer Rebbe died, they walked the distance from Hivniv to Belzc and back in order to attend the funeral, for like all the Jews in that neck of the woods, the Remers were Belzcer loyalists. Still, the modern winds that blew across the Jewish communities of eastern Europe made their aftermath felt in Hivniv as well. Young Joseph and his sister-in-law Freida were members of Zionist youth groups, Freida in Hashomer Hatzair and Joseph in Ahva, an offshoot of the General Zionists. But though there was much talk of going to Israel and collections for the Keren Kayemet, they also organized soup kitchens and other traditional forms of Jewish charity.

A year after Joe became Bar-Mitzvah, Elo left for Canada. He was not the only one to go. The entire Miller family went too, and so did others. Joseph was left to take care of the family. One of his brothers, Shaya, was a milkman and carriage-driver, who lived with Freida and four or five kids in a single room they shared with a sewing machine. When his sister Salka was going to get married, it was Joe who assured them she would have her trousseau and dowry, and saw to it that it came to pass. The Remers were not wealthy, but neither were they indigent. Most of all they were skilled and hard-working people who did what they could with the little scope their surroundings gave to their talents. When Elo returned for a visit in 1937, Joe was putting up a three story building in which his sister Pearl sold fabrics, the same who baked hallah for the poor on Fridays. And Joe, like others, gave wood to the synagogue on Shavuot, in the Hivniv Jews’ time-honoured tradition of donating the winter’s fuel a season in advance.

By the time Elo returned he was married to Bertha Miller. It was on that visit that the decision was made to bring Joseph over to Canada. It was not an easy matter, for the Canadian government was not eager to receive poor Jewish immigrants. Bernard Bercovitch, an immigration specialist, got Joe an Order-in-Council by telling the government that Joe had $5000, vouched for by Joe Miller, Bertha’s brother, in a letter which Bercovitch sent to the Gdynia America Line. And so, in 1938, at the age of 23, Joseph Remer went to the Belzcer Rebbe for his blessing.

It was traditional for young Jews, when they left their town, to go to the Rebbe for his blessing, and Joseph was no different. Many of them, like Joseph, were active in Zionist parties, and for many of them departure meant departure for the land of Israel. But Joseph was not leaving for the holy land. Instead he was going to a country whose weather and forests were not much different from Hivniv’s, and where the temptations of modernity would be legion. Years later Joseph often told the story of the day he went to the Rebbe for his blessing. The Rebbe wished him well and sent him on his way, but Joseph had barely started on his way home when the Rebbe sent his shammes running to call him back. Joseph started to tremble, because often when this occurred it signified that the Rebbe had changed his mind. Joseph dutifully returned, his teeth chattering in fear of his soul, only to find that the Rebbe in no way wanted to rescind his blessing. The Rebbe merely warned him that he was going to America where it was easy to become a goy, and admonished him not to forget to put on his teffilin every morning.

Joe left Hivniv with the Frisch family. They traveled from Hivniv to Lvov, from there to Warsaw, and from Warsaw to Gdynia, or Gdansk, as it is known today. At Gdansk they boarded a boat, the Batori, for the one week voyage to Halifax, since Montreal was icebound. Quarters were close and the food was simple, but to people from Hivniv, oranges and bananas were something of a novelty. So was the fresh air of the new world, and Joseph quickly caught on.

When a Pole who was also on the boat tried to put his lit cigarette in Mr. Frisch’s beard, Joe grabbed him and told him they were no longer in Poland.
They disembarked in Halifax, where they were met by someone whom relatives of the Frisch family had sent, and took the overnight train to Montreal. When they pulled into Bonaventure Station, it was the first day of Pesah. The train had arrived early, so Joe and the Frisches walked straight to shul from the train. And there, on St. Lawrence Boulevard between Marianne and Mount Royal, Joseph sang hymns of praise to his own exodus.

 A year later, Joe and his brother Elo managed to bring over their sister Salka and her husband, Avrum Klar. The pennies Joe had arduously earned and carefully saved for his sister’s trousseau were not going to be the only memory he would have of her. In 1939 the Russians and Germans occupied Hivniv in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and divided it down the middle. Their part of Hivniv went to the Russians, but the respite was only temporary. The rest of the Remer family, like so many others, perished in the Nazi hell. But Joe, who had come to Montreal with $4.50 in his pocket, was alive in his brother Elo’s house, and the rest of his life would show the Nazis that they had not destroyed the Jews, nor the tradition of which he and his family from Hivniv had long been a part.

Chapter Two

The Montreal Jewish community into which Joe Remer immigrated cut a lively swath out of the Plateau, as the district was and still is called, that started at the foot of Mount Royal, the mountain that stood in the middle of the city. St. Urbain, along with St. Lawrence, were its principal thoroughfares, and the Jewish businesses that the newly arrived immigrants from Europe started up lined these arteries and their side streets. Bertha and Elo, for example, had a grocery store on St. Norbert, and lived for a while above that store. Bertha was the one who kept it, while Elo worked with his brother-in-law, Joe Miller, on Clark Street, in London Waste, the Miller family business which made felt out of textile shredding. Soon they were all living together in a triplex on Jeanne Mance: the Millers father and son, Bertha and Elo, and with them, Elo’s brother Joe. Not far away, on Pine and St. Lawrence, the Roths had a grocery store which served as the local hangout. Joe Remer would spend some of his time there, checking out the new arrivals and catching up on news from the old country, for the Roths often billeted newcomers in rooms above their store. But most of all, Joe worked. For him, as for so many others of that time, work was an economic and moral imperative. The world was in the throes of a recession.

Family in Canada had vouched for him while those in the Old Country were dependent on him. He had to make good, before God and man.

Indeed, the very first thing Joe did in Montreal was to go to the Hebrew Free Loan society and borrow two hundred dollars to send to his father in Hivniv.

Then it was work, which to start with meant upholstery. In those days, even staple guns were a luxury, and Joe would keep the tacks in his mouth as he worked. He noticed that as people cut the material for chesterfields or bedding, they would gather up the scraps that others would come to collect. Joe figured he too could pick up scraps and sell them to companies. His brother-in-law, Avrum Klar, had by then come over with his family. At first, the Klars lived in Ste. Sophie. They had been brought over as farmers, and spent their early years in Canada milking cows and growing potatoes. But Avrum found work in Montreal, in the textile business, sorting out shmates. He would return to Ste. Sophie on Fridays because he wouldn’t work on Saturdays, and made up for taking his day off on the Sabbath by going in to work on Sundays. Since he started in the wee hours of Sunday morning, he often brought a bag of coal with him to make sure the place would be properly heated. One Sunday morning the police stopped him as he carried the coal down Montreal streets, and Avrum decided he’d go into business for himself. He started a clipping business called Silver Woolstock, and Joe joined him. But after a year Joe left Silver Woolstock to branch out on his own, and with his brother Elo, started a company called London Felt.

The beginnings of London Felt are enmeshed in family history, and like all family history, there are many versions to it. Some say the initiative for Elo’s leaving London Waste came from Bertha. Perhaps she felt Elo wasn’t getting his fair share, perhaps she thought he could do better. Perhaps Joe’s arrival sparked the ambition that lay in her soul, for which the St. Norbert street store was not the vehicle. At any rate, the store was sold, Joe Miller bought out his brother-in-law, and by the early forties Elo and his brother Joe had set up their own upholstery business, buying a building at 120 Grey Nun Street. It was a time when the cost of machines was cheap and the war effort helped business to revive. The Remers succeeded in getting government contracts to make upholstery for airplane seats. Bertha herself drummed up private contracts.
Soon the machines they had invested in were working round the clock and more than paying for themselves.

London Felt turned out to be the first in a long line of successes, successes that hinged on a strong family alliance. At its centre lay Joe Remer’s business acumen and Bertha Miller’s drive. There was a strong affinity between the two.

Both were frugal, modest, and enterprising. Even in later years Bertha would rarely take a cab, preferring to ride the streetcar from Peel Street to her home in Outremont even in a snowstorm. Joe’s demeanour, from the clothes he wore to the way he spoke, was an emblem of modesty. Both were dynamic, finding in business an outlet for their dynamism. Elo’s contribution lay elsewhere. The money he brought with him from London Waste was doubtless helpful in setting up this first venture, but its eventual success, like the initiative to undertake it, came from his wife and brother. Elo was the hard worker. He worked hard with the Millers and he worked hard with his brother. But the talent for business, the intuitive sense of when and where and how to invest, were Joe’s. Sooner or later, as subsequent history was to show, Joe would have branched out for himself. But having found in Bertha a personality of similar character, he started then. And in that way, one might almost say each was a catalyst for the other.

They were also a source of mutual emotional strength, reinforcing the bond between the brothers that went back to their childhood in Hivniv.  For there was a price to pay for that first venture. Bertha and her brother had a falling out for a while. She, Elo and Joe moved out of the triplex on Jeanne Mance where they had all lived and set up house together on De Vimy. Eventually Bertha and her brother made up, and in later years Joe Remer and his wife would even travel with the Millers. But in the early forties such a break brought its share of pain, all the more so given the importance of family to both Bertha and Joe.

Paradoxically, it was their very commitment to family that gave them the strength to ride out the temporary storm, a commitment that embedded itself in a deep sense of community which accompanied them all their lives. Joe’s business arrangements with his brother, his concern for his family near and wide and beyond them, for those in need, spoke not only of the man’s generosity, but also of the bond he carried inside him, a bond to the tradition of memory and obligation that was his, Bertha’s, and so many of those who had come from so many Hivnivs.

Already in the 1940s this bond could be seen at work. Even before, actually, for the story goes that it was Bertha who sat, day after day, in Mr. Bercovitch’s office, until he agreed to try a new approach to the Canadian government for the Order-in-Council that would allow Joe into the country. In 1942, when efforts were made to get the Belzcer Rebbe out of a Polish ghetto, a Rabbi Herschel Sputz approached the Remer brothers for a contribution. Their donation eventually helped the Belzcer Rebbe make his way to Israel. Nor did such rescue efforts stop with the end of the war. In 1948, Joe, Elo and Bertha combined efforts to bring the Remers’ cousin, Wolf, and his family, over from a DP camp. The process was long, complicated and costly, but eventually they succeeded. When they arrived, Bertha arranged for a Bar-Mitzvah for Yossi, Wolf and Helen’s son, who had turned thirteen while waiting in Parisian poverty with his parents. She made a party in her house to which she invited people from Hivniv, among whom were the Millers, and the young man received gifts, as was the custom for being called to the Torah. It was a lesson Joe would remember, for in his time he too would be responsible for many a Bar-Mitzvah that a young man’s parents could not afford.

Joe, Bertha and Elo helped set Wolf and Helen up in a grocery store on St. Urbain and Bagg streets, signing for them at the Hebrew Free Loan benevolent society, so that they could afford the key money. Wolf died soon after, and the Remers employed Yossi in the sisal business they had opened by then. Years later, Helen wanted Joe to join her in buying the building that housed her store. Joe refused. Once again the demands of business clashed with those of family, but the bonds laid down earlier relegated a potential feud to the minor leagues of a momentary spat. More important, surely, was the fact that Helen Shipper, Wolf’s wife, once safe in Canada, could then bring over cousins of her own, who one day attended her son Yossi’s wedding.

Chapter Three

By 1948, Joe Remer had been in Canada for a decade. London Felt was doing sufficiently well that the Remers could sell it at a profit and acquire another property at 120 McGill Street, whose back faced the front of their old building on Grey Nun Street. Their new property housed two businesses, one called Remer Spring that operated on the ground floor, another called the Sputz and Remer Diamond Company housed in the upstairs offices.

Remer Spring did not stay in their hands for long. It was soon sold, and replaced by a property at 40 King Street, where Joe established Empire Sisal and Spring, a company which pioneered the conversion of rope flax to sisal. They took cord from used bags and transformed it into sisal that went on top of the jute ticking in mattresses and car seats. Shortly afterwards they purchased an adjacent property on Queen Street and put up a building there which housed the Better Felt Manufacturing Company. But all these ventures were only preludes to Joe’s real estate investments. It was in real estate that he would show what his business flair could achieve, but though the flair was his, the profits were always shared jointly with his brother Elo. Except for the diamonds, which was Joe Remer’s personal thing, as much recreation as business, an outlet for his creative spirit that was also a kind of personal haven, a private place where he could converse in peace with his own mind and his fellow human beings.

It even started out as a kind of lark, a mixture of generous impulse, shrewd psychology, and playful business risk. One day in the late forties, Rabbi Sputz, whom Joe had already known from Sputz’s solicitation on behalf of the Belzcer Rebbe, came to the Remers’ office at London Felt in search of further donations. In the course of the conversation, Joe Remer learned that Sputz had diamond connections in London, and with a little capital he could start out in business. Joe took out two thousand dollars and told Sputz to do what he could. When he next came round, Sputz had to admit he lost four hundred dollars on his first transaction. Joe advanced him another four hundred and told him to try again. The next time Sputz returned with a profit and Joe advanced him further cash. When Sputz returned again with more than he set out, Joe advanced him fifty thousand and they set up Sputz and Remer Diamond Importers. The business lasted for years. When the Remers sold Remer Spring, the Diamond office moved to 1255 Phillips Square where it still can be seen today.

The whole adventure was typical of Joe Remer. He could see in Sputz a man with whom you could do business, could see too it would be a shame for his talent to go to waste because of a lack of capital. And so, with two thousand dollars, he turned a man who spent his time collecting charitable donations into a businessman who could give them. Not that Sputz gave anything away. It was legendary in the business how hard Sputz could be, so legendary that when people came to buy they preferred to deal with Joe, for he would often give away the diamonds, and certainly if the person seeking one could not afford to pay very much. One time a woman returned a stone she had taken on consignment, claiming Sputz had charged her too much. Joe agreed and halved the price. But to Joe the diamonds were not a business, not in his dealings with private buyers; and perhaps because he knew that Sputz took care of the business end, he could afford to relax somewhat.

What then was this diamond venture? Having started off as an act of kindness, it continued to be that too. When new people came into the family, Joe would start them off in the diamond business. David Muskal, who married his brother Elo’s daughter, Esther, was one such beneficiary. But since he knew nothing about diamonds, Joe sent him off to learn, not from Sputz, but from Mr. Frankfurt, a competitor, who trusted Joe and owed him, because Joe often gave him stones when he needed them on consignment. David learned the trade quickly and continued to ply it in Israel when he and Esther eventually moved there, though David never acted as broker for Sputz and Remer, since Sputz had already had his agent and wouldn’t work with another. When Milan Bratin married Joe’s daughter Pearl, Joe also brought him into the diamond business, although it soon transpired that his talents lay elsewhere. And Pearl herself, aged eighteen and looking for summer employment, would come to work at 1255 Phillips Square, which meant that for answering the phone and doing messages she would get to eat lunch with her father at The Bay.

Sputz and Remer Diamonds gave scope for Joe’s generosity in other ways as well. When the Muskals came to Montreal from Israel for the wedding of their son and Esther Remer, Joe told David’s mother, at their very first meeting, he was going to have a ring made for her. Indeed, Joe’s generosity with diamond rings at weddings took on mythical proportions. Irwin Leibman, the son of one of Joe’s oldest friends from up north in Ste. Agathe, can tell to this day how Joe, at one of his children’s weddings, pulled ten diamond rings from his pocket and offered one to Irwin’s wife, Ann, simply because he wanted her to enjoy the simha. By the evening’s end Joe had given the rings away, as if to say thank you for the bounty he didn’t know what to do with, such bounty God had graced him with. Just as when he once ran into Mr. Bercovitch at an Israel Bonds dinner and asked him down to his office when he found out that Bercovitch’s son was about to marry. When Mr. Bercovitch showed up at Sputz and Remer, Joe offered him a ring for his son’s bride, and when Bercovitch declined because he said he’d need three, Joe at once offered three. The man who had helped bring Joe to Canada insisted he hadn’t done it for the money, but when Joe had offered the rings, he certainly hadn’t thought he could buy back grace.

For grace, in a way, sat in that little office in Phillips Square with its simple desk and bare floor, two chairs in front of the desk and all the diamonds in the safe. Rabbi Sputz would sit in his office next door and Mr. Halberstam would sit behind his little window to buzz visitors in. And people would come by to chat with Joe, some to buy diamonds, others to talk stocks, countless to get advice and listen to a man who had made millions as he sat and counted his diamonds, as if, doing so, he were able to make sense of the years that had come with all their terrible beauty. And he gave his advice as he gave his charity, obliquely and circumspectly.

But outside the purview of Sputz and Remer, out in the world in which he had wanted to create a refuge for those nearest and dearest, it was a different story. There Joe had wanted to make money, a million for him and a million for his brother Elo, he had once told a friend. By the early 1950s Joe was on his way to doing just that. Sputz and Remer, Empire Sisal and Spring were but the beginnings. So were R-K Investments, the apartment buildings on Plamondon and Darlington Place Joe purchased with his brother-in-law, Avrum Klar, and later the tract of land in Ottawa. Significant as they were, these ventures were soon to be overshadowed by the alliance Joe Remer soon formed with J. L. Gewurz, an alliance that was to propel them both into a turbulent world they would master at their peril.

Chapter Four

His drive to make a success of their early business ventures absorbed most of Joe Remer’s energies in the 1940s. Now and then Joe dated girls in the tightly knit Jewish community that ran down Park Avenue as if it were New York, but the engagements were not lasting. He was not yet financially established, and marriage was not something to be embarked upon lightly. Years later, after his daughter Pearl had given birth to a handicapped daughter, Joe would muse about the world not being a place into which you brought children. Which, of course, had not stopped him from doing so. It was more that he never forgot how shaky the world could be. Poverty, he remembered, could diminish even the happiness of Shaya and Frieda. And what poverty didn’t erode, the evil passions of men could. How, he would often ask Rabbi Carlebach, the rabbi of their Ste. Agathe shul, did God allow the Holocaust to happen? It was a question to which no answer satisfied him.

But the time he could snatch away from business to spend up north with his brother and sister and their families was always a welcome respite. When they first started going to Ste. Agathe they would rent a cottage. In summer Joe and Elo would go up on a Wednesday and return on a Thursday. By that time Elo had a place on Madeleine and Salka and her family were around the corner on St. Aubain. Joe was very close to them all. When Ruthie, one of Salka’s three daughters, contracted TB in the 1940s and was sent to the Mt. Sinai sanitarium in Prefontaine, it was Joe who arranged for her to get the proper medical attention. Surgery was necessary, there was no Medicare, and getting hold of streptomycin was no mean feat. In his own way, Joe was married too. Bertha and Elo had adopted two daughters, Esther and Ruth. Salka and Avrum had three of their own, Gertie, Ruth and Helen. And Joe hovered over them all.

But life holds surprises of its own. One day, on business in someone’s office, Joe met a woman nearly half his age who swept him out of that world that so absorbed him and into the other one of hupa and kidushin. And as he courted her he came to know a woman with talent and determination of her own. A woman who, single-handedly, painted her entire family’s apartment. A woman who could cook and whose mother could cook, for when Joe Remer and Gewurz bought the Turcot Yards, Mrs. Weinstein ran the restaurant. Joe knew from years of eating at her table that Bertha was an excellent cook, and Salka, his sister, was no less famous for the dishes she whipped up. Now they would be three, and Joe would live in a kitchen of his own. And so in 1952 Joe Remer married Irene Weinstein in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

It wasn’t a big wedding, but Joe hadn’t wanted a big one. They had friends in New York whom they wanted to attend, and the family of course went down: Elo and Bertha, Avrum and Salka, and their children. Sputz came, and Arye Roth came, and so did Leibel Frisch; also Hana Nebel, an old friend from Hivniv who lived in Brooklyn. And a week later they were back in Montreal for Ruth Klar’s wedding, the same niece whom Joe had saved from tuberculosis only a few years before. She married Morris Winer, who worked for a while for Joe and Elo at Empire Sisal and Spring, but before they all went back to work, they went off on a honeymoon: Joe and Irene, Morris and Ruth, the sweep of family this time catching them up in happiness. When Joe returned it was to his new home with Irene on Isabella, and to the saga that awaited him with J. L. Gewurz, whose wife welcomed his as much as her husband would embrace Joe.

J. L. Gewurz came to Canada in 1939. In the forties he went into the textile business, and when his factory burned down at the end of the decade, he went into real estate. It was a business that suited him, for J. L. Gewurz was never short of ideas when it came to developing property, and the ideas were often very good. But Gewurz was often short of cash, as if his vision was always greater than his means to realize it. Joe Remer, on the other hand, was not only able to appreciate good ideas and develop some of his own, he was great at realizing them. As far back as the Hivniv forests, he could see what a deal implied, what a venture would cost, how feasible an idea was in practice. And in that way, he and Gewurz made an ideal partnership. They got involved in the early fifties in a few joint ventures, buying a parking lot on what then was called Burnside and today has become 2020 University, an office and shopping complex that straddles de Maisonneuve to the south and Ontario, the former Burnside, to the north. They also bought land on what has become the Trans-Canada, the highway 40 leading out to the West Island, although at that time it was still a farm. Then, in 1955, J. L. Gewurz approached Joe Remer to buy the Dominion Textile plant at 3636 Notre Dame St. The price was a lot of money at the time - $330,000 - and though the idea was to turn the plant into a public warehouse, neither J. L. nor Joe knew anything about the ins and outs of warehousing. They only knew that aside from the warehouse on Van Horne, there were no other such facilities in Montreal. Also, the plant was located at the Port of Montreal and the St. Lawrence Seaway was being built, which made the idea seem appealing. Gewurz as usual didn’t have the money, but Joe Remer did. Even more important, Joe had credit with David Neville at the Bank of Montreal.

Not only had the Remers made money over the years through their different businesses, they had also built up an excellent name, for whenever Joe had borrowed money he had always repaid it on time. Adept at assessing costs and returns far in advance of the operations, Joe could count on meeting his obligations, often before they were due. As his talent brought credit, and his credit brought more, Joe was in a strong position to finance those ventures that others would later say it took a genius to see. They bought the Dominion Textiles building and brought in Reg Goldsmith from Smith Transport to run the warehousing. He in turn brought in Norman Diggins, the manager at the Van Horne warehouse, and Jack Fiddes, a Verdun car salesman whom he had known from Smith Transport. They took over the building on April 1 and immediately they could see it would have to be fixed up to be made suitable for warehousing. They would also need a railway siding to hook up with the one the National Harbour Board ran at their back. But that day they stood looking out at the St. Lawrence River as a flotilla of ships made their way, flags raised, over towards St. Lambert. It was the opening ceremony to dredge the channel for the St. Lawrence Seaway, and so Reg named their company-to-be Seaway Storage.

The National Harbour Board put a siding in and charged them each time they used it. The sewers were reinforced by digging 40 feet down, and in the process 40 foot long B.C. fir timbers were hauled out of the water. Their architects and contractors, Ship and Krakow, added a five ton elevator you could enter with a pallet, and put in a passenger elevator in the west part of the building they thought to convert to a multi-tenant operation. But the warehousing business did so well that they never had to use it. Instead they soon acquired another building at 2925 Ste. Catherine East, 70,000 unheated square feet which they used mainly to service the Canadian GE plant on Notre Dame East. And if that weren’t enough, J. L. Gewurz suggested they buy Turcot Yards, and Joe went along with that too, as well he could. Seaway Storage was expanding and his credit was better than ever. Although the entrepreneurial dynamic for this real estate expansion came from J. L. Gewurz and Joe Remer, Elo always remained a fifty percent partner with Joe. Elo worked more on the floor, alongside the men, showing them, with technique and by example, how to improve productivity.

There was a family atmosphere to their way of doing business. Every fork lift truck operator was valued, and paid ten to fifteen cents more than the going hourly rate. To bring Diggins over from Van Horne Warehousing Reg had to promise him at least the same salary, and since he was Diggins’ boss, he explained to Joe he needed at least the equivalent. Joe gave it to him. After six months of operations, Reg asked for shares in the business, and not only for him, but for Norm and Jack as well. Remer and Gewurz were prepared to give Reg shares, but balked at giving them to Norm and Jack. They preferred keeping ownership in Jewish hands - that too was part of the family atmosphere - although they assented when Reg took a cut in his share so that the other two could participate as well. Towards the three of them, however, Joe always showed himself to be both trusting and generous, at various points lending all three money when each needed cash to buy a house. Indeed, once Reg told Joe that Jack needed $3000 to buy a house or he’d have to move to the country. Joe told Reg to give him five and tell him to pay it back when he could.

That indeed was Joe, careful in business, but discreet and helpful to those in distress, and certainly mindful of his friends. When he and Gewurz bought Delorimier Downs in 1957, Joe brought in Arye Roth as a partner, and made it easier for him to go to Israel when a decade later they sold the property for a pretty penny. He also brought in Morris Dalfen and Morris’ cousin Isaac, along with Meyer Sand, when he and Gewurz bought the Dominion Textile building. They were known as the two percenters, and Joe took them in even when he and Gewurz bought Nuns’ Island, which they did in 1955, when the island was still an ice-battered piece of land sitting alone in the St. Lawrence River. It was to prove their most far-sighted venture, but by the time it started to bring in money it was all that was left of the partnership.

Chapter Five

Partnerships are not easy ventures. In personal life as in business, it’s hard to do with them and it’s hard to do without. Gewurz and Remer were no exception. By the early sixties they had decided to split. Joe Remer offered Gewurz the choice between Turcot Yards and Seaway Storage. J. L. Gewurz chose Turcot Yards, having already bought 150,000 square feet as an annex to it on his own. Joe bought him out in their Burnside property and in the land on the Trans-Canada. Dalfen and Sand stayed with Joe in Seaway Storage. A wise decision, it turned out in the end, because Seaway Storage soon took off, expanding far beyond the two warehouses in Montreal’s east end.

Joe was now at the helm of a business which he relished. He had already bought real estate. Now he could develop it. One of their first ventures, for Goldsmith, Diggins and Fiddes stayed with him, was to put up a building for Union Carbide. For a while, Seaway Storage had been handling their shipping, storing the plastic pellets Union Carbide produced in Seaway’s Ste. Catherine East building. But the operation was expensive. Union Carbide’s plant started at Metropolitain Boulevard and stretched all the way to the back river, the Riviere-des-Prairies. It cost a fortune to haul their goods all the way down to Ste. Catherine East. Instead, Joe, Reg, Norm and Jack came up with a proposal to put up a building on Leduc Boulevard, now known as Henri Bourassa, right behind Union Carbide. That way they could roll right up to the plant, transfer the goods to their hydraulic powered trailers, and carry it across the road to store in their proposed building. Fiddes went to Toronto to explain to the vice-president how the operation would save them 17 cents on every hundredweight. The only thing he asked for was a five-year guarantee from Union Carbide to give them the warehousing business as long as they had business to give. Union Carbide agreed, Hy Krakow  and Harold Ship were called in as usual, and soon they, Reg Goldsmith and the mayor of Montreal were on television, sitting in the cab of a backhoe that dug up the first piece of sod.

Originally, they were going to put up a 100,000 square foot building, but Joe told them to put in a foundation for one and half times that figure; and with the building filled before the last wall went up, they kept on building until 150,000 square feet were in place. Joe often told Reg to build more, an attitude that, in retrospect, seemed particularly far-sighted and shrewd, especially with the cost at $3.80 a foot. But even $3.80 a foot adds up. The warehouse on Leduc Boulevard cost over $700,000, but as Joe often explained to Reg, he was building with the Bank of Montreal’s money. And building for the future, one eye always on how things would look twenty years down the road. It took vision and it took courage, and Joe Remer had both. Today the little gravel road that was once Leduc Boulevard is now the major thoroughfare crossing the northern end of Montreal Island from east to west. And land Joe Remer owned in a town no one then knew much about  Riviere-des-Prairies was not yet a part of Montreal - turned out to be a small gold mine. For Joe had also bought land there, for a housing development he wanted to put up.

One day, in the sixties, a buyer approached him and offered him five cents a foot. Joe had his notary check it out, suspicious that someone should offer him five when it was only worth one. It turned out that the client was a big German pharmaceutical company that had established itself in Laval, but needed a piece of land in Riviere-des-Prairies in order to get access to the oil refineries, to which they would link up underwater. Joe told his notary to ask for a dollar a foot, admitting he himself did not have the hutzpah. In the end the land was sold for seventy-two cents, and Joe could add savvy, if not hutzpah, to his arsenal of qualities. It was all part of his flair, but flair requires work and charm to succeed, and a head that stays on its shoulders.

With the building up on Henri Bourassa and used to capacity, Joe Remer and his associates turned their eyes westward. At first they thought of the Trans-Canada, but although the highway was in place, no companies had started to rent there. Reg Goldsmith persuaded Joe to trade land on the Trans-Canada with CN for land on Deschamps Boulevard in Lachine, where they put up their next building, which was also soon rented to capacity. With that building full and the West Island becoming alive, they finally decided to build on the Trans-Canada, and put up their most modern building yet, this time with 300,000 square feet. By then Joe’s friends at his synagogue started to wonder if they shouldn’t go into warehousing. But warehousing wasn’t their only business. At first they had used Archie Wilcox Transport to do their deliveries, but after they put up the Union Carbide building the volume of their business expanded, and all they still had was Tony Zarboni, Wilcox’s one driver.

Fiddes, who had connections in Verdun, arranged for Seaway to get a trucking license, and hired Zarboni as their driver. In no time at all they had a dozen trucks, Zarboni had become their dispatcher, and a new company, Seaway Cartage had been born.

Joe was always receptive to new ideas and possibilities. In the early sixties Jack Fiddes returned from an industrial fair in Chicago with a report about a new garbage truck he had seen, a dumpster with big steel arms in front to pick up the garbage in drums. It was a brand new concept at the time and he thought there was money to be made in it. Joe agreed, and decided to form another company, Containerized Refuse, but held off buying a truck until they got their first contract. They started with Dominion Rubber, moved on to Kraft Foods. Soon they had three trucks and their customers were asking them to expand to Toronto. With enough business to keep them occupied twenty-four hours a day, and cartage and warehousing operations to boot, something had to give. But before they could decide on further expansion and the structure needed to run it, Sanitary Refuse approached them. The owner, seeing how in two years Containerized Refuse had locked up industrial waste disposal contracts and knowing the company’s financial resources, asked Jack Fiddes to dinner one evening at Le Reveillon on Sherbrooke East. Jack soon found out it wasn’t only dinner he wanted to buy, but the whole company. Jack called Reg, who came right over, and over a handshake they sold the company.

In Containerized Refuse, Goldsmith and Fiddes had been partners with Joe Remer and Associates, and when they wanted to sell Joe did not object. In general, he gave them a free hand to operate their businesses. If the warehousing or trucking divisions required capital investments, Joe did not stint. He would ask very acute questions to make sure the investments were sound, and he would follow operations by scrutinizing the monthly financial statements. But as long as the businesses continued to make money he didn’t intervene, and the men he relied on knew they could count on him for credit and advice, not to mention an open mind when they thought they had a good idea.

By the time Expo’ 67 came around, Seaway Storage had five buildings with over a million square feet. Their business was ripe for expansion. Goldsmith had already suggested starting with Toronto, but when he and Joe had gone there to look at land, Joe had been reluctant to invest. The price of land was higher in Toronto than in Montreal, and although Joe could take risks, he could also be cautious until he was sure he knew the terrain. Since Joe was reluctant to invest his own money in a Toronto venture, the proposal was raised to take Seaway public. Evaluators were called in, who explained that although the company was doing well, the debt load on the buildings was too high for a public offering. At which point Storage Leaseholds was formed, separating the real estate from the warehousing operations.  From then on, Storage Leaseholds leased its buildings to Seaway Storage, and the profits from the latter paid for the former. This arrangement also ensured that if Seaway Storage was sold, Joe would still hold onto his buildings, which he never would have agreed to sell, for the buildings were the heart of his empire.

He had been putting them up, after all, since Hivniv. And perhaps for that reason too, he was not overly interested in expanding Seaway, which would have required a different organization. Reg and Norm and Jack, on the other hand, were ready to take the company across Canada. But they needed capital beyond that which Seaway could generate on its own, and expertise that lay in other cities. With Joe reluctant to expand, the company never went public, and the three began to look for a buyer. It was Jack Fiddes who came up with one in Anthes Imperial, a conglomerate based in Ste. Catherines, Ontario owned by Bud Wilmot. Fiddes got to Anthes through Ross Johnson, then vice-president of General Steelwares, one of Seaway’s customers. Fiddes told Johnson they were looking to expand into Ontario and Johnson sent him Dave Gallagher from Anthes, who were looking for warehousing in Montreal. After a little negotiating a deal was struck, and Anthes bought Seaway Storage. Joe Remer was not eager to sell, but Goldsmith and Diggins and Fiddes were, and they pressured Joe, who finally agreed, especially since he held onto his buildings. Norm and Jack sold their shares in Storage Leaseholds, thought Reg did not, and all three realized a handsome profit on the sale of Seaway Storage. But they also got the chance to put their vision into practice.

They went to work for Anthes Imperial and with the company’s backing, expanded into Ontario. Not too long after, Molson’s bought up Anthes, and with Joe Remer’s employees still at the helm, Seaway finally expanded right across Canada. By the time Molson’s sold their warehousing operation, Seaway-Midwest, as the company was called, had annual sales of fifty to sixty million dollars. Norm Diggins left before Fiddes and Goldsmith, who eventually became president of Molson’s warehouse division. But he never forgot Joe Remer, whom he continued to visit over the years. He was still a minor partner in Storage Leaseholds, and before Reg retired from Molson’s he again became partners with Joe Remer, when Joe bought the Hawker Siddley buildings on Notre Dame. He had offered Norman Diggins to become partners as well, but Diggins wasn’t interested. Reg was, but didn’t have the money at the time. Joe Remer told him not to bother about that, the Bank of Montreal was as rich as ever. That too was Joe Remer, content to know he had been a part of other people’s happiness. He sold Seaway Storage before it reached its full potential, but without his initial enterprise, the seed would never have grown at all. And when it came to seeds, Joe Remer sowed in many fields.

Chapter Six

In 1955, his son, Aaron, was born, and two years later, his daughter, Pearl, and Joe Remer now made room for the rhythms and claims of family. He worked long and full days - his business empire was being put in place - but evenings found him home at six and eating supper with his wife and kids, and with his wife’s mother who lived with them. After dinner he would repair to the white sofa in the living room, read the paper, talk politics with his mother-in-law. Irene dealt with the kids’ schooling, but Joe would chide them for a spelling or math test when the mark was not up to scratch. He himself had had to leave school at the age of eight, so everything he knew was self-taught and acquired by dint of effort and discipline. It made the gap between parent and child a little harder to breach, especially with his son who was bright and restless, a combination that proved problematic in school at a time when little was known about shpilkes, except to say of a boy that he was sitting on them.

The child who read the encyclopedia by flashlight at night gave his teachers enough trouble by day, such that by the time secondary school rolled around, Aaron found himself in Israel, attending an agricultural high school. It was a major move, but one that enabled Aaron to blossom. He graduated high school, completed a preparatory year for the Haifa Technion, and was accepted into their program of aeronautical engineering. Pearl was another story. Her father’s daughter, second-born, she found comfort being close to home and life, in general, smoother. She followed Aaron to Young Israel, then moved with him to the at the Share Zion Hebrew Day School. High school she spent in Montreal, graduating from the Hebrew Academy.

Like so many fathers in the fifties, Joe Remer held his kids close to his heart, yet kept himself at arm’s length. In part, he was preoccupied. He had numerous business deals going, and though business was the means to care for his family, the business required attention. Joe gave it, sometimes to the point of distraction, often driving his kids right past their school and once all the way down to Phillips Square before he realized he’d forgot to drop them off. And yet, perhaps because he himself had been deprived of it, he valued education highly, taught himself the Haggadah he’d never learned and the prayers that had flown along with the alphabet into the Hivniv air. He studied Talmud with Rabbi Hauer at the Hevra Kadisha, and his lips moved devotedly if haltingly in accompaniment to the synagogue chants. All the greater was his pride when Aaron on occasion took a part in Sabbath services, performing effortlessly at what his father valiantly laboured.

The Sabbath, indeed, was sacred, and off limits to business. There was the Friday night meal, and shul in the morning and evening, but the man who worked nearly six days a week was also tired on the day of rest, and slept. Thus did Joe Remer engulf his children in the embrace of his unspoken love. Pearl would come and spill her concerns into his generous ear. Aaron would keep his eyes on the hallah knife to read how, over the Friday blessing, his father’s hand registered worry or relief. But Joe played his cards close to his chest, shielding his family from his business concerns and sometimes from his love, sometimes finding it easier to talk to Aaron’s friends about that which he couldn’t talk to Aaron, the age-old story of a father’s fear for what shall befall his son. Up at his retreat in Ste. Agathe, Joe Remer would talk to Freddie Inhaber, Bertha’s nephew and one of Aaron’s closest Laurentian friend, about more than the insurance policies he needed for his buildings: how Aaron will settle down, how he’ll learn the value of a dollar, whether he’ll marry a Jewish wife. Like all parents, Joe Remer searched his own life for solutions, and like all parents, he could have worried less.

But if life with father wasn’t all play, it wasn’t bread and water either. Sundays Joe Remer would take his kids swimming at the Y, then they might go to look at some buildings. At one point or other they would visit the family: Salka and Avrum on Northcrest, or Elo and Bertha on Wilderton Crescent, though usually it was the three Klar sisters and their families, who by that time had moved to Chomedey, where they all lived on Franklin Drive. It was the nicest street, Joe Remer used to say, with its high concentration of family that to Joe always meant extended. Sonny Altman, who married Helen Klar, worked for Seaway Storage until it was sold. When Ruth, Elo’s daughter, got married in 1962, Joe took an active interest in the wedding, and set her husband, David Harel, up in business, importing gold jewellery and watches. David Harel was himself related to the Remers through his father, who was a Judenberg. Saturdays, David would visit Joe in his Hampstead house on Briardale, sit in the basement with its brown leather couch and Indian carpet and giant but closed television screen, and there in the room that was definitely Joe’s, the two men would discuss Torah.

In the early sixties Joe Remer bought a new house in Ste. Agathe. This enabled the family to go up north even during winters, which usually meant the Christmas vacation. Summers, Ste. Agathe was a definite retreat, and there too it was extended family, for Joe’s brother and sister were not far away. In the summer Joe would take two weeks off. The rest of the time he and Irene would come up on Thursdays, while the kids stayed all week under the watchful eye of their grandmother. Even when Aaron went to Israel, he would return for a few weeks of summer, bringing an Israeli friend in tow to what was a country family compound of sorts, even with the houses somewhat apart. For Joe it was a place to relax and socialize. Mornings he would putter around in search of things to repair. Afternoons friends would come over for cards and conversation. His and Irene’s closest circle of friends gravitated around Ste. Agathe. There were the Richlers, the Seemans, and the Sokoloffs, the Leibman boys, Freddie Inhaber and Danny Miller, not to mention the expanding Remer family. Some were partners, most were business associates of one kind or another, though the link between them all was the little shul in Ste. Agathe that at one point was a thriving Jewish institution with impressive funds in the bank. It hadn’t always been so. In the early days they had even once had trouble attracting a rabbi, for the rabbi who applied had not found the mehitza high enough. There was a big discussion about what to do, but Joe Remer simply said to make it higher and he would pay for it. If the rabbi, who needed the job, could put his principles before his salary, Joe couldn’t see why they should hedge over a question of money. It was not the only matter under debate, but Joe’s simple and gracious logic carried the day. The mehitza went up and the rabbi was hired. Thus Joe, whose heart was deeper than his pockets, made his modest way through life.

But even a modest man learns to change his habits, at least somewhat, and especially when the prodding comes from his little girl. Her parents didn’t tend to go out much, but Sunday evenings, at Pearl’s request, slowly became a time for going to restaurants. They did, however, travel. By the time Pearl was ten, the family spent Christmas vacations in Florida, where Pearl and her dad would take in a fifty-cent movie at the Martinique Hotel. But even before that her parents would spend part of the winter away from Montreal, six weeks in Israel, perhaps another six in Mexico. Mrs. Weinstein senior, no longer running the Turcot Yards restaurant, was there to keep the home fires burning.

Israel was a long-standing attachment. As early as 1948, Joe had visited the country, only to find the Belzcer Rebbe who straight away asked whether he had remembered to put on his teffilin. The attachment was as old as Hivniv, where Yehuda Remer had been an active Zionist, and the new state of Israel, the Zionist dream come true, was a part of his past come alive. Metaphorically, but also physically, for it was home to relatives and friends who also harked back to Hivniv days, gathering in those remnants of Israel that had managed to escape the Holocaust. There were the Rimons and the Reisners, the Judenbergs and the Latners, Feivel Klughopt and Asher Kleinspitz, Ortner, Zack and Roth. They lived in Haifa and Netanya, in Petah-Tikva and Tel-Aviv. Their links were those of blood and childhood, of Hivniv and Ahva, separate and together, and the claims they had on each other were as old as the disputes they didn’t readily give up. But the bonds were fast and unbreakable, as Joe Remer recognized, smoothing rough feelings over even here and helping those in need as best he could. Bertha too, for the links that were now Miller and Remer in Canada wove their threads equally among the Israeli diaspora of their youth. To this day people remember the refrigerators that soon followed a visit by Joe or Bertha, or the parties at the old Savoy Hotel that would mark their reunions. On more than one occasion in those early years, Joe considered investing in Israel, but government regulations at that time would not have permitted him majority ownership, and there Joe drew the line between charity and business. Over the years, he and Irene would return again and again, the baths at Sodom and the Dead Sea being a fixed and stellar attraction. And once Aaron was there, Passover in Israel became a family tradition. For Irene also had family in Israel, cousins by the name of Koch, and their home became Aaron’s second home for the time he spent in the country.

Mexico’s attraction was also the baths. There was the spa at Ixtapan de la Sal, and there were friends they had met through J. L. Gewurz, the Ecksteins, to whom Gewurz was related by marriage. They went for Bar-Mitzvahs, and they went for weddings, and Joe also once went for a business investment that never quite turned out. He lent the Ecksteins money for a real estate development that wound up being expropriated without compensation, and Joe was left holding promissory notes he never could redeem. But success in business has to allow for ventures that don’t always work out, and Joe’s success was such that this was one he could absorb. Thanks, in part, to Nun’s Island, which, ironically enough, was to become Joe’s greatest financial asset. That investment too was fraught with risk, the greatest risk he ever ran, and there, too, J. L. Gewurz played a role, which this time went far beyond making introductions.

Chapter Seven

In the same year that Aaron was born, J. L. Gewurz met a man called Colin Gravenor, an English gentlemen with an eye for women and dapper tailoring and a sparkle that could light up the average office. Gravenor had a proposition. The Congregation of Notre Dame was looking to sell Nuns’ Island, an immense piece of land - some 4 million square metres - that sat in the St. Lawrence River, just off the main island of Montreal where the cities of Montreal and Verdun meet up. J. L. Gewurz shut his eyes and saw the future, because at that time the island was not only barren; it lacked any connection to the mainland. There was no bridge, no road, no link that would make the word development even enticing. Unless, of course, one could imagine the future. J. L. could, but as usual he didn’t have cash, nor the credit with which to raise it. And so again he approached the man who could. Joe Remer listened, shut his eyes as well, and soon he, Gewurz and Gravenor were three-way partners in a venture that took even more than vision. Gumption. Confidence. The Tevya-like ability to talk with God. And a name worth gold at the Bank of Montreal.

But even for Joe Remer, Nuns’ Island almost proved to be too much. Colin Gravenor was the first to crack under its pressure. They had bought the island for a million and a half dollars, but without a land link to Montreal, there was little they could do with it. Still, they had to pay taxes, and interest on the loan, and the debt burden soon made itself felt. Gravenor wanted out, and Sherburn, the company owned jointly by Gewurz and Remer, bought him out. But Gewurz too was strapped for cash, and sold some of his equity to the Gruss family in New York City, leaving Remer Holdings as the single largest shareholder. Which left Joe Remer with a virtual controlling interest and decision-making responsibility, though here, as elsewhere, he took his brother Elo in as a full partner.

In 1961, the federal government built the Champlain Bridge, and in exchange for use of some of their land in the construction of the bridge, the government paid them $700,000 and built an access road to the island. Access was further improved with the construction of the Decarie Expressway, which also provided them with some cash in exchange for use of the island as a place to dump the landfill. But perhaps most important, in order to prepare for Expo’ 67, the World’s Fair hosted by the City of Montreal on St. Helen’s Island and the newly created Ile Notre Dame, an ice dam was built out in the St. Lawrence to prevent the ice which built up each year from flooding them. Nuns’ Island benefited as well, and now was ripe for development. But even Joe Remer was approaching the end of his rope. For perhaps the first and only time in his life, his business ventures threatened to overwhelm him. For ten years they had been paying taxes and interest with no cash coming in. Nuns’ Island seemed like a bottomless pit threatening to siphon off all his successes. Joe kept his worries to himself for the most part, unwilling to bring his business home, but even he knew sometimes you needed a little luck  Fortunately, luck came, with a little help from his associates.

Arthur Garmaise, a lawyer who was also Gewurz’s son-in-law, was referred by the Gruss family to a Chicago company, Metropolitan Structures, as a potential investor in Nuns’ Island. At first, they didn’t respond, but when Arthur tried again in 1965, the Chicago developer showed interest. A deal was put in place whereby Metropolitan Structures leased the island, assumed all expenses, but had no rent to pay for the first ten years of their lease. This stopped the hemorrhaging on Remer and Gewurz, but the solution did not prove long-lasting. The Chicago developer hired Garnet Oulton, an engineer with the City of Verdun, to help them put up their first units, and by 1975 there were 2500 of them in place. By then, Metropolitan Structures had to start to pay rent to Quebec Home & Mortgage, as the Nuns’ Island company was first called. But they too discovered that taxes were high. Moreover, the City of Verdun had not allowed them to deduct from their taxes the costs for all the infrastructure they had put in. By 1978, Metropolitan Structures had trouble meeting its payments and invoked a clause in the original agreement by which the owner could be asked to co-sign a mortgage, using the property as collateral. That way they hoped to raise the money needed to continue building. But Joe Remer didn’t want to sign and put the whole property in jeopardy. Negotiations then ensued between Remer and Ben Levis of Metropolitan Structures. They were long and complicated, and most parties to them agree it took two such subtle and astute men for an agreement to be reached.

In the end, provisions were made for the Chicago company to deposit money with Quebec Home for the value of the land on which they wanted to build, in exchange for the security needed to raise a mortgage. For the undeveloped land, the major part of the island, the old lease was scrapped and a new one put in place, allowing each of the parties to sell land to a third one, but granting each the prior right to buy the land at half the price bid. They could also buy and develop land jointly, but that never happened. It took a while for the agreement to be put in place, because Metropolitan Structures insisted that the courts first confirm their emphyteutic lease, such leases at the time being highly contested. Confirmation came, the agreement was put in place, and development finally came to Nuns’ Island.

It still took a while. One development went up but did not succeed financially. When Metropolitan Structures proposed selling the same buyer another piece of land to put up a second project, Sammy Gewurz, J. L.’s son, who by then was handling the Gewurz interests on Nuns’ Island, approached Joe with a proposal to build it themselves. Sammy had experience in marketing developments through his own company, Proment, and he suggested asking Sol Polachek, of Magil Construction, to join them as builder. Joe agreed, and though the real estate market collapsed with high interest rates in the early eighties, it soon bounced back. Within a decade numerous projects had been completed at a cost of millions of dollars, many of which garnered awards for construction, development and marketing. The initial investment of a million and a half dollars had turned into megabucks, but J. L. Gewurz, who had moved to Israel in the late seventies, never lived to see those returns, and even Joe Remer died before all the chickens had come home to roost.

The wait was indeed long, and like all long waits, it brought its share of pain. Even the luck that brought Metropolitan Structures their way had its price tag, for a dispute arose over Garmaise’s role that found its way to the courts. Garmaise claimed that commission was due him for bringing Metropolitan Structures onto the island, whereas Joe Remer felt he was doing nothing more than what any director of the beleaguered company should be doing. When the agreement was signed bringing the Chicago developer on board, it was stipulated that Arthur was to be paid a fee. Joe Remer signed, but stated his opposition and promised he would contest the claim. When ten years later Metropolitan Structures started paying rent, Arthur claimed his commission. J. L. Gewurz paid Arthur his part of what was owing, but Joe refused. Arthur went to court, as he did again when the 1978 agreement changed the terms of the original one, and the court ruled in his favour. The whole incident left a bitter taste, family claims and moral principle again entwined in business dealings. And underneath it all, the hurt that lingered still from the dissolution of the Remer and Gewurz partnership in Seaway Storage and Turcot Yards.

But pain also is a two-way street, and underneath dispute, a strange and hard form of love beats its sinuous way. J. L. Gewurz, by all accounts, never quite got over his sense of loss when Joe dissolved their partnership. For his part, if Joe Remer went to court over Gewurz’s son-in-law’s commission - the only time he had recourse to such action - he too never quite got over a certain sense of betrayal. And yet the partnership lived on, not only because Nuns’ Island was an investment too complicated to dissolve, but also because the two men built something more than money. Out of the ashes of a common past they were hoping to build a future and so repair what had long ago been broken, there on another continent that was their barely known childhood, yet long enough known for the roots to take hold. And so, on barren terrain purchased from a congregation of nuns, the two men toughed it out, transplanting roots and waiting for them to take hold in the time it takes tradition to pass from one generation to the next. Sammy Gewurz picked up where his father left off, did what his father could no longer do, and Joe Remer welcomed him as if he welcomed a son. Sammy brought him bagels and coffee, and Joe gave him advice and consent. And when Joe was no longer there, his own son and son-in-law took up the slack. Aaron now oversees the Remer Group’s holdings, Milan sits in the Nuns’ Island offices, and Sammy Gewurz, one floor below, works on projects they develop together. The partnership is alive and thriving, after all.

Chapter Eight

Nuns’ Island aside, life went on with its own ups and downs. In 1969, Esther, Bertha and Elo’s other daughter, got married at the Shaar Hashamayim to a man she met in Israel. But less than a year later Bertha herself passed away, on the second day of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday where thanks is given for having received the Torah and which the Jews of Hivniv marked by their annual contribution of wood to the synagogue. Over the years Bertha had become more devout, affiliating herself with the Lubavitchers and bringing Elo and Joe in her wake. Joe, though a member of Hevra Kadisha synagogue and an admirer of Montreal Chief Rabbi Hirshprung, nonetheless felt drawn as well to Rabbi Kramer the Lubavitcher. It was perhaps the warring tensions in his soul that brought him into Rabbi Kramer’s orbit. On the one hand, his hard-headed realism, that even in Rabbi Hauer’s Talmud classes always led him to question; on the other, his fierce loyalty to the tradition of Sinai that passed from one Shavuot to the next. Thus it was that on the Shavuot when Bertha died, Joe found himself on Kent Street, holding his tearful brother Elo in his arms, as they stopped by Rabbi Kramer’s house to consult him on certain points of halaha.

Not long after Elo moved to Israel, as did his two daughters and their families. Joe helped Elo to sell his house, and when Elo returned to Canada a few years later accompanied by his new wife, Toby, Joe had them stay with him until Elo found a suitable house. It was through Toby, as things worked out, that Joe’s daughter Pearl met her husband, Milan Bratin. They were married in 1978, also at the Shaar Hashamayim synagogue. For Pearl, ever since she had seen her cousin Esther married in that shul, had decided that would be the place for her wedding too. Since Joe belonged to Hevra Kadisha, he did ask his daughter twice if she were sure about the Shaar, but more than that he did not insist.

Happiness was in no small part being able to give your daughter what she wanted. Pearl returned his love in kind. When shortly thereafter she wanted to get a job, her father lined up an interview for her at Israel Bonds. The day she was going for the interview Joe asked her not to go, claiming he hadn’t worked all his life for his daughter to have to do so as well. Pearl also did not insist, went home, and started to raise a family.

Milan was brought into the family business. Diamonds, at first, as was Joe’s wont. Milan even took a gemology course, but diamonds was not to his liking, and he soon moved over to help Gerry Weinstein at the Fleur de Lys warehousing operation. Fleur de Lys was part of the industrial complex on Notre Dame that Joe Remer purchased from Hawker Siddely in 1975. Hawker Siddely was looking to sell, but was asking at least ten million dollars for its property. Joe wound up buying it for a quarter that price, again with the Bank of Montreal’s money, but dissatisfied with the former administrator, he needed someone to operate it. Reg Goldsmith, whom he had brought in as a minor partner, was still working for Molson’s at the time. Irene, Joe’s wife, suggested her brother, Gerry Weinstein, who was then working for Steinberg’s. Gerry at first refused, but then relented, and came over to manage what is now known as Cite de l’Industrie, the largest single multi-tenant industrial facility in Quebec. Then, to round out the family circle, Joe brought his son, Aaron, in as well.

Aaron had been studying in Israel, preparing for his engineering course by doing a preparatory year in Haifa, and doing it in Hebrew alongside his Israeli counterparts, rather than, like most foreign students, following the English language stream. This made his acceptance into the Technion an achievement of considerable distinction, but Joe Remer wanted his son close and the purchase of Notre Dame Industrial was also his way of saying so. Although he had sold Seaway Storage some years ago, Joe had kept an interest in warehousing in a building on Grey Nun Street he had bought with Manny Dalfen. When he bought the complex on Notre Dame, Joe shifted his warehousing operation to his new building and brought Aaron in to work there. He started on the ground floor under the supervision of Frank Kimber, Joe’s warehousing foreman for many years, and in no time at all was the best forklift truck driver in the place. He then moved on to purchasing agent for Notre Dame Industrial, under Gerry Weinstein’s supervision, but like father, like son being a universal truth, Aaron quickly needed his own domain, and took over responsibility for warehousing. He negotiated the sale of the Grey Nun building and baptized what they’d concentrated on Notre Dame as Fleur de Lys Warehousing. Gradually Aaron became involved with Nuns’ Island, especially as his dad started experiencing health problems. As Aaron left Fleur de Lys, his brother-in-law Milan took over as general manager, although in time he too moved over to Nuns’ Island, managing daily operations and stock investments for the Remer Group holdings.

Joe Remer didn’t need Notre Dame Industrial for financial reasons, except perhaps in the way a businessman always needs more business. But he did need it for family reasons, having decided that after all these years of doing everything in partnership with his brother, for once he wanted to set up a business whose beneficiaries would be his immediate family, and they alone. It was a father’s decision, not a brother’s, but Elo had trouble understanding, and just for once a cloud of pain darkened the two brothers’ sky. Human, all too human, on one side like the other, but the hurt never stopped the love and the bond continued strong. It was the late seventies. Elo would visit Israel often in those years to see his family new and old, while Joe waited impatiently for his return, rushing to his office at Phillips Square when he knew Elo would be back, there to take his brother in his arms and bask in his own smile, as he stepped back to look at the man with whom, so long ago, he had walked to Belzc and back.

Chapter Nine

In 1981 Joe Remer purchased a condominium in Miami. He and Irene had done some traveling, to Israel, to Mexico, to Italy, often with Joe and Bessie Miller, but now their main time away from Montreal was spent in winters down in Florida, where Joe’s house stood opposite the Lubavitcher shul. Pearl and her growing family - a son, Jacob and a daughter, Rochelle - would join them for part of the time. In Montreal, Joe and his wife went out a little more, taking in restaurants and movies, but social life on the whole still tended to centre around their close circle of friends, the Saturday night card game, and of course the house in Ste. Agathe, which for Joe was the country counterpart of Sputz and Remer Diamonds. Up north he could paint and hammer, and talk to the caretaker, Mr. Gaussiran, about the best way to fix what was broken. Or he would sit and rock on the front porch swing and talk to the younger generation, now that some of his friends were gone. He could have traveled more, but it never quite worked out, and so he did what he knew best and kept on at his business.

There were many of them, but slowly Joe was winding down. He sold Sputz his share in the diamond business and moved his office to the Notre Dame complex. Reg Goldsmith, now retired from Molson’s, had also moved into an office there, and the two men would sit and talk. His sister, Salka, started to develop Alzheimer’s, and that nearly broke Joe’s heart. Then he too developed heart problems and was put on medication. With Elo Joe made arrangements to ensure he had control of their joint holdings, Elo himself reluctant to leave decision-making in his own children’s hands. Even with his tenants Joe started to take precautions. For years he had rented some land out back of Notre Dame Industrial to a trucker named Bob Garfield on nothing more than a handshake. Now Joe decided to give him a lease until the year 2002. The rent, he insisted, should stay the same, and the lease would ensure that it would.
That too was Joe Remer’s style: part business, part charity, part good old-fashioned affection for someone who sparked it in him. Bob Garfield had started off with one truck and a couple of trailers when he first came to Joe in 1975 in search of a couple of hundred square feet of land where he could park his vehicles. As his business grew, he needed more land, and started to cut down the trees out back, leaving a wall of trees in front that hid the chain saw’s work. When Gerry Weinstein discovered what was going on, he nearly hit the roof, but Joe, when told, never said a word, only came by to admire the handiwork. Perhaps he saw a kindred spirit, recognized in Garfield’s gumption something of his own, and remembered the subterfuges to which he had recourse back in the Polish countryside. For when the City of Montreal was building the metro and looking for a place to dump the rock it tunneled out of the ground, a contractor showed up asking Garfield if they could dump it on the land he was renting from Joe. Garfield agreed, if the contractor would clear away the trees. The deal was struck, and Garfield’s yard was soon leveled at no cost to him. But since contractors don’t show up out of thin air, Bob Garfield suspects to this day it was Joe Remer’s benevolence that had sent the man his way.

It was a story typical of so many others that circulated about Joe Remer’s name. His charity was constant and discreet, for he knew as Maimonides did that anonymity is its highest form. And lived what was said in the Ethics of the Fathers: pious is he who gives such that others give too. Once, for example, Bob Garfield asked Joe to get him some diamond studs for his wife. Joe told him they would cost $8000, but when Bob went to pick up the diamonds, there was a note in the box telling him the cost was only $4000, he’d managed to get a good deal. A week later the telephone rang. It was Joe, asking for a $4000 donation to the Hebrew Free Loan. And that was Joe. He didn’t haggle and he didn’t beg. A price agreed was the price paid, but when a notary or lawyer or real estate agent closed a deal with Joe Remer, he could expect a request for a donation to his favourite charity. If times were rough, Joe would reach into his pockets and come up with the capital himself. Not only his own, but his friends’ too, as once he and Joe Schreter did when the Hebrew Free Loan had more requests than its funds could allow it to satisfy.

Then there were the times when friends and acquaintances needed money and had only Joe to turn to. Sometimes the sums needed were large, as it was the time Joe phoned his bank from his Miami home to have them put his name to a six-figure cheque that saved a man from bankruptcy. Other times the sum was small, but the need every bit as great. A man once had to sell his business because his wife was going blind and he needed the money to take her to Boston for an operation. When he returned, he had nothing to his name. He approached Joe Remer, who approached a friend, and together they found the man a truck, paid a couple of months’ rent on an apartment, and gave him money to start anew. Five months later the man returned to repay some of the money, but Joe instructed Gerry Weinstein not to take a penny, simply to tell the man that if he could, one day down the road he should help someone else. The man sat in Gerry Weinstein’s office and cried.

Someone once said that to Joe life was business, but Joe made business a source of life. One Passover eve Joe Remer got wind that a man was having financial difficulties. He drove to his house at 11 p.m. and gave the man an envelope with money for the festival. Then there was the woman whose Jewish divorce Joe arranged when her estranged husband proved refractory. Two stories among many, and all of them known by less than a handful of people. But Joe knew we couldn’t take our money with us. Besides, he would ask, how long are we here for?

It was a question all the more apt as the eighties flew by. Joe, now 70, came home one day from a pinochle game complaining his arm was hurting. An angiogram having revealed his arteries were blocked, he underwent bypass surgery. Two years later he was blocked again and more surgery was called for. When Pearl would visit him at the hospital they would kibbitz about the new home she and Milan were having built. He would ask if the hole were dug and she would answer the roof was going on. Each of them knew life was ending and starting, as it always had. Aaron had married the year earlier. Pearl had given birth to her second daughter. Salka, Joe’s sister, was admitted to the hospital. The night before his operation Joe called his family to his bedside. He didn’t want to wind up like Salka, he told them, there was enough money for everyone, family above all.

He underwent the operation on a Wednesday. The operation went well and Aaron stood by him in the recovery room, his father gripping his hand for dear life, his eyes barely open. Then Aaron was ushered out. The next thing he knew his father had died, unable to breathe once the tubes were taken out. His beloved sister Salka, whom the doctors had not expected to survive twenty-four hours, outlived him by another eight years. Avrum, her husband, also enjoyed a few more years’ grace, and Elo a few more after him. Joe had done all he could for those he had never ceased to cherish.

His funeral was standing room only. People came and came, Jew and Gentile alike, surprised to find each other there, you too knew Joe Remer the unstated exclamation in their eyes. But he had helped and befriended so many people, and all so quietly, that it was only when they came to pay their respects that they could see the scope of the man’s kindness and take the measure of his now stopped heart.

Chapter Ten

Before he died Joe left instructions that people whom he had helped in his lifetime not be asked to repay their loans. It was one more act of kindness, this time from the other side. It was also a piece of parental advice, given in his inimitable way. The combination was typical Joe Remer: quietly domineering, tyrannically ethical, as often happens when force of character meets up with the charitable impulse. Joe Remer kept a phone book in his head, and when he hadn’t spoken to someone in a while, he’d pick up the phone and dial their number just to see what’s up. People in their turn would drop in to see him and check out their business proposals. Joe would never say do this or that. He’d sit and listen and ask how the family was, and by the time his visitor left, he’d have come to the conclusion on his own. It was the same with his advice to the rising generation. Milan and Sammy and Sheldon Leibman learned about stocks listening to Joe and watching him operate. Joe never gave answers, but he did give hints. You make your money when you buy, he would say. Or, two heads are not better than one, two heads are more than one! Aaron had learned this long ago when, as a youngster, he had been taught the answers were something to come up with on his own. Why else, his father asked, was he going to school?

There was something fiercely ethical about the man. When he bought the Hawker Siddely buildings, he insisted on explaining to his two good friends, Joe Schreter and Sam Sokoloff, that he had not gone behind their backs, since a few years earlier they had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the buildings together. For years Joe had driven an old Chrysler until finally Irene persuaded him it was not a crime to own a Cadillac. Perhaps because, a self-made millionaire, he could do with so little himself, he thought it quite appropriate for Aaron to drive a beat-up Toyota and live on a small allowance. Irene, on the other hand, loved art, and filled her house with it. Though first to give, he was last to accept public honours, stepping aside, as at the Hebrew Free Loan, so others could enjoy the prestige of the senior post. Perhaps too he felt some unease at being in the public spotlight, always awed by the education he missed and humbled by the lack he felt.

Not that he lacked anything when it came to sizing up men and their deals.

The stories here too tell of a legend. There was that time he made an offer on the Pan Am building in New York, and it took the computers to figure out if what he proposed was sound for the buyers. Or negotiating with Metropolitan Structures on refinancing Nuns’ Island, it was Joe who came up with the ingenious formula, so intricate that his lawyer had to go to his office and check out the math for himself. Once, too, an acquaintance came by with a proposal to buy the Place Ville-Marie parking concession. The man had worked with a friend for a week on the figures and came to Joe with the bid they were about to submit for upwards of a $100,000. It took Joe ten minutes to check the figures before writing them a cheque. Young whippersnappers just out of college had trouble believing such a sharp mind was lodged in this humble personage. One of Joe’s lawyers remembers an occasion when an MBA came to speak to him about a shopping center he was going to build, proud that he’d be purchasing the land at 25 cents a foot. Joe looked at him and told him he thought it was a great idea, especially since land he owned bordered the back of the proposed project, and now would be worth 75 cents a foot. But it was not only figures at which Joe was adept. He had this knack of picking just the man he needed to do a job. He found Reg Goldsmith when warehousing seemed but a good idea, and Gerry Weinstein when he needed someone for the Hawker Siddely place. He was generous with his money, but not foolhardy, and to requests he judged wouldn’t work out, he did say no and stuck to it. The emotional fallout was not always pleasant, but Joe could ride it out, confident in his judgment, confident too in the knowledge his actions never stemmed from malice.

It was like that with his family. It was like that with his business associates, who mostly were like family. He and Klar invested together, and he and Klar divested together, but nothing stopped them all that time from going to the shvitz together. What he failed to do with Gewurz senior he did with Gewurz junior, but at family celebrations on either side, guests could see both older men. A quarter of a century after his brother left the Miller family business, Joe and Irene found themselves at Joe Miller’s parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. And even difficulties with his brother Elo’s daughter, Ruthie, didn’t carry over into family reunions. Tax arrangements required her signatures on papers that were sent annually to Israel, but the signatures always tarried and Joe’s frustration increased, which had something to do with the final arrangements Joe and his brother Elo made. But if the signatures didn’t always come when expected, Ruthie, like his other nieces, would find herself at the Remer table when Passover found her in Montreal. And when Aaron took over stewardship of the Remer holdings, a potentially difficult situation was defused, showing once again how beneath surface tensions the solid bonds of family triumphed, for the roots Joe Remer had carefully planted went deep indeed.

And not only planted, but cultivated, consciously and unconsciously, as if business was family’s second skin, or vice versa. For Joe Remer was at the center of a continuous network of relationships that always seemed to come full circle. It started with him and his brother and radiated outward. Cared for at the beginning, Joe ended up doing his caring in turn. What Elo and Bertha gave to him, he returned later to Elo and Toby, and Toby brought him Milan, and Milan brought him a home for his daughter that was kosher in the widest sense of the term. And so one day toward the end of his life, Joe left a million dollar business deal to attend his grandson’s hockey game, admitting to his daughter he had now learned to do what earlier he had thought inconceivable.

Like all lives, his was a story, and like all stories, a thread winds through it that even the hero perceives only as a glimmer. Did Joe Remer know, when he brought Gerry Weinstein on board, that Irene and Gerry’s  brother-in-law, Sol Polachek, would one day work hand in glove with Sammy Gewurz to develop a part of Nuns’ Island? Could he foresee the day his son Aaron would develop world-wide sophisticated communications projects, while keeping his eye on the family legacy as CEO of the Remer Group companies? Could he hear the future whisper its thanks as the Hebrew Academy received a donation from Joe Remer’s kids in honour of their father? Would it interest him to know that the little Eckstein boy, now become a man, still remembers the tallis Joe gave him for his Bar-Mitzvah? Or that Fausto Miranda, the Mexican lawyer for whom the failed business deal is now a hazy memory, can still recall what a gentleman Joe Remer was? Or that Sheldon Leibman, whose son’s Bar-Mitzvah Joe attended the day he entered the hospital for the last time, to this day remembers how, walking back along the lake after talking with Joe at his house up in Ste. Agathe, he was left with the feeling he’d been talking to a saint? Things radiated out from him, was the way he would put it. Even Mr. Gaussiran, the caretaker up north, remembers how Joe Remer died with his dream of opening a retirement home on land he owned in Ste. Sophie and St. Jerome unrealized.

Birds, his wife said, Joe Remer loved birds. He didn’t like animals. Dogs reminded him of Europe, where as a boy he’d endured their attacks. But birds he found beautiful, small and light and flying around in the high air. A strange love, perhaps, for a man with his feet so firmly on the ground. And yet not, for early on he had come to know what a paradox life is, some fierce and strange combination where one always does more and less than one could, more and less than one even hoped for: hallah on the Friday night table, a roof over one’s family, a trousseau for one’s sister, a million dollars for one’s brother, thanks to God, charity to the men and women who look up at the sky and watch, as you do, birds whirl in the dizzying light.
Copyright: GROUPE-ACCES communications 1998