Lillian Freiman (née Bilsky), OBE, benefactor, community activist, organizer, civic leader and Zionist (born 6 June 1885 in Mattawa, ON; died 2 November 1940 in Montreal, QC). Lillian Freiman used her high social status and wealth to help those less fortunate, both within and beyond the Jewish community. For her work assisting First World War soldiers and leading the Poppy Campaign, the Canadian Legion made her an honorary life member in 1933. Freiman was the first woman to receive this honour.
This portrait of Lillian Freiman probably dates from the 1920s.
Lillian Freiman was the fifth of Moses and Pauline (née Reich) Bilsky’s 11 surviving children. The family settled in Ottawa in the early 1890s. Moses became a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community. He provided support to new immigrants. The Bilsky home was open to all who needed help. This instilled social morals in Lillian that she carried for the rest of her life.
As a teenager, she joined the Ottawa Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society. She was also involved in the city’s Children’s Aid Society, where she started working with troubled youth.
In 1903, when she was 18, she married Archibald J. Freiman (1880–1944). He was a Lithuanian-born Jew who founded Freiman’s, a successful department store in Canada’s capital.
Lillian Freiman photographed by William James Topley in 1908 in Ottawa.
Home Front Organizing
By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, Lillian Freiman had three young children. She nevertheless devoted herself to providing comforts to the soldiers at the front and those stationed in Ottawa. In 1915, she organized the Red Cross knitting and sewing club by installing 30 sewing machines in her own home. Jewish women gathered there weekly to make sheets, blankets and clothing to send overseas. This club formed the basis of what became, in 1918, the Disraeli Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.
In 1917, Freiman foresaw the difficulties that returning soldiers would face in their transition back to Canadian society. She helped form the Ottawa chapter (and later Dominion Command) of the Great War Veterans’ Association of Canada. This organization later became the Canadian Legion and is now the Royal Canadian Legion. Freiman contributed space in her home and furnishings for the office that served as the local headquarters. She wrote the first letter of the organization at the desk she donated.
Lillian Freiman at her desk, c. late 1920s or early 1930s.
Influenza Relief Work
Pandemic influenza — the “Spanish” flu — struck Ottawa in September 1918. Mayor Harold Fisher enlisted Lillian Freiman to organize a special body to deal with the epidemic. For five weeks, she worked relentlessly with the medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Law. She organized a group of 1,500 volunteers who nursed the sick and provided them with food and clothing. By the time the outbreak came under control, she had earned the love and respect of Ottawans from all walks of life.
In 1921, teacher and humanitarian Anna Guérin visited Canada. Guérin was the director of a charity that sold poppy boutonnieres to raise funds for war-torn France. Lillian Freiman saw the potential of a similar campaign to help Canada’s veterans and their families. She gathered women in her home to create cloth poppies. The sale of poppies in Ottawa was so successful that additional supplies had to be rushed from Montreal.
A group of Poppy Day officials and workers at Ottawa's Rockliffe Airport immediately after the arrival of Flying Officer Bryans, RCAF, from Montreal, with additional supplies of poppies. Lillian Freiman is the eighth person from the left.
The first Poppy Day occurred on 11 November 1921. Freiman chaired the Canadian Legion’s Poppy Campaign from that year until her death in 1940. At her funeral, the lower half of her coffin was covered with red poppies.
Leadership in the Jewish Community
After the First World War, Lillian Freiman and her husband, Archie, turned their attention to the Zionist movement. Zionists of their era, before the founding of Israel in 1948, sought to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1919, she took the leadership of Hadassah-WIZO, an organization that became a major fundraiser for Zionist activities both in Palestine and Canada.
Regulations passed in the 1920s by the Canadian government made it difficult for immigrants, especially Jews, to enter Canada. (See also Immigration Policy in Canada.) In 1920, none of Eastern Europe’s 137,000 Jewish orphans was granted entry to Canada or the United States. Freiman arranged a meeting with Frederick Charles Blair, an official with the Department of Immigration and Colonization. She requested that 1,000 Jewish Ukrainian war orphans be allowed into the country. In response, 200 healthy orphans were authorized to enter Canada.
As the president of the Jewish War Orphans Committee of Canada, Freiman launched a campaign to raise money and find adoptive families. In 1921, after raising $100,000, she travelled to Belgium to oversee the transport and placement of about 150 children. (Not all 200 orphans authorized by the government met the various criteria of the selection process.) The Freimans adopted 11-year-old Gladys (Rozovsky).
Did you know?
Lillian Freiman was the first Jewish Canadian to receive the Order of the British Empire (OBE). On New Year’s Day 1934, King George V named her an Officer of the order’s Civil Division for her charitable and patriotic works.
Death and Commemoration
In the early 1930s, Lillian Freiman’s health began to decline. While she was in hospital in May 1939, the Ottawa Branch of the Canadian Legion presented her with a veteran’s beret and a letter stating that they did “not know of a better and more deserving soldier” than her. She died on 2 November 1940 at age 55.
On 29 December 1941, a tablet unveiled at the Ottawa Legion honoured Freiman as a “friend of all soldiers and dependents.” On 8 March 1942, Ottawa’s Adath Jeshurun Synagogue unveiled a memorial stained glass window recognizing her devotion to the cause of Israel and humanity. And in 2008, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated Freiman as a National Historic Person. Its citation called her “a gifted organizer and philanthropist who worked to improve the health and welfare of her fellow citizens.”