Before my great-aunt Leba (Presner) Mayerovitch died a few years ago, she lent me some thick photo albums, in which I found some family pictures I’d never seen before. This is the story behind three of those images.
My grandfather Samuel “Shia” Presner was a second-generation Canadian whose parents escaped poverty and anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland around the turn of the twentieth century, coming to Canada and settling in Montreal.
Education was the clear route to success in the new world, but despite top marks, when Shia applied to medical school at McGill, the well-regarded university in his hometown, he quickly discovered he wasn’t welcome. A “a strict quota” limited “Jewish enrolment to 10% of all students” in the Faculties of Medicine and Law. (This was not a friendly time for Jews in several parts of Canada. My father remembers being told about a prominent resort in Quebec’s Laurentians with a sign at the entrance proclaiming: “No Dogs / No Jews.”)
So Shia did the next best thing, as did many of his friends: he became a pharmacist. After graduating, and thanks to a loan from his brother-in-law, he opened a drugstore around 1936 on busy Ste-Catherine Street West in downtown Montreal, just a few doors west of Crescent. He dispensed prescriptions at the back of the narrow shop, served up chocolate sodas and malted milks at the “luncheonette” counter, and sold all manner of knick-knacks, or should I say tchotchkes. Evidently the pineapple ice cream sundae was also a big seller.
My grandmother Lillian (Bierbrier) Presner helped customers with cosmetic purchases in a role then called a “beautician,” which didn’t really take advantage of her Bachelor of Commerce degree. (She would put her education to use later in life, starting a mortgage company.) The store stayed open seven days a week – even though some Sundays saw only one or two customers – because Shia felt an obligation to be available, just in case someone needed some toothpaste or Aspirin or an urgent prescription filled.
After acquiring two more pharmacies around Montreal, my grandfather’s three-pack-a-day (unfiltered!) cigarette habit took its toll, and he was hit with a heart attack in 1955. He quit smoking and scaled back his work, selling his stores but still practicing pharmacy until the age of 80. He died three years later when I was 16.
Shia, thank you for persevering in the face of ignorant and prejudiced people. I’m glad you found a profession you were proud of, even though it wasn’t your first choice. I wish I’d gotten to hear your stories directly, but am still grateful to have learned them now.
Special thanks to my dad Bob Presner for help piecing together and fact-checking the stories in this post.