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Lillian Freiman: A Mother to Thousands

For the week of Monday December 27, 2010

On January 1, 1934, Lillian Bilsky Freiman became the first Canadian of Jewish origin to be distinguished Officer of the Order of the British Empire by King George V. Freiman dedicated herself to the service of others. She was passionately involved at the community level, was a strong defender of immigration and immigrants, and worked to better accommodate returning soldiers.

Lillian Freiman sitting in her office
© Canadian Hadassah-Wizo
Born in Mattawa, Ontario, in 1885, hers was the first Jewish family to settle in Ottawa and in 1903 she married Archibald Jacob Freiman. They became important pillars in the Jewish community and helped break down barriers by extending their philanthropy to other communities. Their family home in Ottawa quickly came to be known as “a centre of wide hospitality.”

In 1919, Freiman became president of the Hadassah-WIZO Organization of Canada, which grew to become the country’s leading Jewish Women’s philanthropic organization. Under her leadership its membership swelled to 3,232 women. In addition to its charitable mission, the Hadassah effectively became a forum in which thousands could collectively advocate for women’s rights.

In 1920-21, immigration laws were more restrictive and anti-Semitism was widespread. Some newspapers even stereotyped Jews as “dangerous aliens who were flooding Canadian cities.” Despite these barriers, Freiman organized the Jewish War Orphans’ Committee of Canada and successfully oversaw the arrival of 150 orphans from the Ukraine, many of whose parents were victims of violent mob attacks known as pogroms. Of the 150 new arrivals, one became her adopted daughter, but all owe their lives to her graciousness.

Comic strip from Canadian Heroes Magazine, 1942, found in A Common Thread: A history of the jews of Ottawa, 2009
© Anna Bilsky

In the post war years, Freiman went on to help in the formation of the Dominion Command of the Great War Veterans, the predecessor of the Royal Canadian Legion. From her home she organized the first Poppy Campaign in Ottawa. The campaign eventually spread nationwide and continues to raise great sums of money for Canada’s war veterans.

Freiman worked tirelessly until she died on November 2, 1940. Amidst news of war in Europe, the Ottawa Journal dedicated its entire third page to her memory. It was written that “such a woman is born once in a thousand years.”

Throughout her life she displayed her keen skills as organizer and defender of the Jewish diaspora. She worked to improve the health and welfare of women, and her fellow citizen through community work and philanthropy, and she helped forge lasting intercultural ties throughout Canada. For these reasons, Lillian Bilsky Freiman was designated a person of national historic significance in 2008.

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