The Life Story of Sam Letinsky (Rachmiel Letinsky)

The origins of our family name "Letinsky"

Rachmiel (Sam) Letinsky was born in the small village of Salnietsa in the Russian Podolia (or Podillia) Governorate in 1907. In a 1989 interview, Sam said that his village was near the Ukrainian town of Berdychiv, but in 2023 his grandson Ron could not locate it on on-line maps. Podolia was an administrative unit (guberniya) of the Russian Empire from 1793 until 1925. The Podolian Governorate occupied the southwestern frontier of the former Russian empire, bordering Austria-Hungary. Until 1918 the governorate consisted of 12 counties (called Uyezds). One of those counties was called "Litinsky", centred around the town of Litin (Lityn).

Audio Interview with Sam Letinsky, April 1989

Audio Interview conducted by Ron (grandson) on April 22, 1989 at Sam and Sophie's Home, 652 Inkster Blvd., Winnipeg

A slide-show of photographs of Sam's life accompany the recording

The Life Story of Sam Letinsky (Rachmiel Letinsky)

As told by Ruth Riesenbach (nee Letinsky), his Daughter.  September 20, 2008

Sam's Early Years

My father was born in a small village called Salnietsa in Ukraine, in what is called a guberina, equivalent to our provinces, and it was called Podolskay (Solnitza Podilia). His mother couldn't remember if it was when they planted potatoes or when they harvested them the year my father was born. The year in 1907. He was given the birth date of October 25, which we celebrate every year up to his 91st, when he passed away, December 11, 1998.

His Parents

He was the second oldest in a family of four siblings. His sister, Riva, was the oldest then came his brother Bill [William] who spelled his last name as LITINSKY. Their father, REFUL, left Canada when Sam was six years old, and he didn't see him again until 11 years later. From stories I heard, my grandfather had parents living here, but the story is very vague and never got the facts straight. Reful worked for the railway [I think it was CPR], and I had a lifetime pass to travel for free for him, his wife and I think his children, but no one ever used it.

It took him 11 years to save up enough money to send for his wife and children. He chose the cheapest tickets, and as my father told me, the ships went bankrupt by the time they reached Sherbrooke, France, where they were stranded for two months. I don't know how they managed to survive without money but somehow, they did until my grandfather could arrange for their passage.

My father told me many stories about life in the village after my grandfather left. His mother Pessie was left to fend for herself, with four young children. When he left, the youngest, Molly, was an infant, and the other ones were still quite young. She resorted to running a Kuchma [similar to accommodation tavern and pub], where she made her own [illegal] homebrew. When the authorities found out, on one occasion, he made a surprise visit and destroyed the operation. Another time, they were forewarned, and spilled it out in the garden before the police arrived. The next day, the pigs [which roamed around freely] were all drunk from drinking the brew. 

Another story my father told me was that his mother was resourceful and tried different enterprises to make a living. She dealt with leather and to get merchandise she had to cross the border into Poland illegally as travel is prohibited. She left the children to fend for themselves with the promise that she would be back within a week. As it happened, she was caught returning at the border and put in jail. She had hidden some gold pieces in the heels of her shoes. While in jail she saw a window with iron grates in her cell. She watched for someone who looked Jewish and called out to them and asked if he [or she] would take the shoes to the rabbi and when she would be released, she would go to the rabbi and claim them, which she did. She was gone over a month and my father told me he and his siblings didn't know what happened to her. They thought something adverse had happened to her; she would never come back. You can imagine the joy when she returned.

Reful (Harry) Letinsky

Photo 1930s: Reful (Harry) Letinsky, Pessie (Bessie) Letinsky

Photo 1930s: Sam Letinsky likely at Winnipeg Beach

Living in Bolschevik Russia

My father was quite a wild kid! With no father to control him, his mother overwhelmed with trying to make a living and taking care for children, while alone, he managed to get into a lot of mischief. There wasn't much schooling as the village was very backwards and primitive. It was the time of the Bolshevik revolution and World War I. In order to avoid conscription my grandfather drank a glass of pewter nicotine diluted in some water so that his skin would appear yellow and he would have an extreme coughing fit when he was called up for medical screening. After that he left the country, as soon as he could.

The whole country was in upheaval and the Bolshevik army was everywhere looking for able-bodied men to join the Army. Children ran around wild and free. Because of the poverty, my father had no shoes and was barefoot all year except for winter when they wrap their feet in rags, called "homage to us". In the town, the Bolsheviks [or Communists as they later became], were much feared and hated.

My father heard the resentment from the townspeople, and at the tender age of 14 he took a piece of chalk and scribbled some anti-Communist graffiti on a building. When it was discovered, soldiers were sent out to find the culprit. Someone pointed their fingers at my father and though he vehemently denied it, he was hauled off to jail, and despite his past destinations of innocents, they compared his handwriting to the fact on the wall. An order was given for him to be executed the next day. My grandmother ran to the precinct, fell on her knees and kiss the feet of the commander, begging him to take pity on a poor "widow". Her son had no father to guide him and besides he was slightly retarded and not responsible for his actions. She needed him to help with the chores as he was the oldest, and he helped with the younger children. The commander took pity on her and released him with the warning never to repeat this again. There were many more "adventures" my father told me about, but this one was the most "life altering" one.

Sometime in 1924 they arrived to Canada after a harrowing voyage in steerage [the cheapest way to travel]. Again my father told of the possessions from home that my grandmother brought along, and for which he was responsible to guard and carry around. He was growing tired of carrying around so much baggage. As each day on the ocean past, he gradually through one or two items overboard and by the time they arrived at their destination there wasn't much left, to my grandmothers chagrin. There were feather pillows, comforters, cast-iron pots and pans etc. 

Going through immigration, my father was asked to spell his name -- Rachmiele. Not knowing any English he couldn't spell the name so the officer said we'll call you 'Sam', and that's the name he had for the rest of his life. His father had the same experience when he arrived and was asked to spell his name, Ruful, became 'Harry' for the rest of his life.

Moving to Canada

The family arrived in Winnipeg in 1924. I don't know much about their early years, except my father worked at various jobs, one of which was in a flour mill. He came home every day covered in green dust, from head to toe and his mother forbade him to return to that difficult and dirty job. Eventually he learned how to repair house groups and became a lather. He became a partner with Mona Rodkin's father, a Mr. Kartish, and they had business cards printed [one of which you will find somewhere in my memorabilia]. These were the depression years [post-World War I] and business was not good. By this time, it was 1928, the year my mother arrived in Canada, to her relative Aaron and Sonia Beloff. Sam was a tall, handsome young man, full of joie de vivre. He played the balalaika by ear, never having taken a lesson or studied music. The entertainment at that time was getting together in friends homes and anyone who could play an instrument or sing would entertain the rest of the group. Most of the newcomers were from Russia or Ukraine, and the songs they sang with the familiar ones from the old country and Yiddish. Sam and Sophie loved to dance and it was natural that they would be attracted to each other. Their courtship lasted for years before they could afford to get married. By that time my father was out of work, and my mother was the only “breadwinner”. They moved in with his parents on Magnes Avenue, and lived with his parents, brother and sister, till I was one and a half years old, before they could afford to move into "a sweet" [as apartments were called in those days].

The Home of Raful and Pessie Letinsky on Magnes Avenue in the 1920s

About 1931: Pessie Letinsky, Sophie Letinsky

1930s: Sophie and Sam Letinsky

Starting a New Life In Winnipeg

In the meantime, my father learned to become a steam presser in a cloak factory, a job he remained in for the rest of his life.

I have many memories of my growing up years which I will recount in my own story. My parents loved each other very much, but their marriage was a volatile one. My father was his mother's favorite, and he and she had a very close relationship. He confided in her and took her advice against my mother's decisions. It created a serious problem in their relationship and led to many verbal battles.

My grandmother was a strong woman, whose own marriage was not particularly gratifying. My grandfather was a very morose person, who missed the village from whence he came, and was never happy in Canada. I never saw him smile, nor did I have a relationship with him. I don't remember ever having a conversation with them. [My aunt Molly once told me that he never spoke to her in all the years she lived in his house]. I suppose Pessie and Ruful were unsuited to each other [but then who is]. Pessie was the only girl in a family of [I think] five sons. She was allowed to learn Hebrew [very unusual for a girl from that era]. She could "daven" and the other women in the "show" would turn to her for assistance in knowing where to pray at holiday time.

She was not very nice to my mother, who, being an orphan, and not having her own mother, was sensitive and needy of a mother's love and understanding. Although my grandmother liked my mother, she was "heavy handed" in her dealings and interfered in my parents’ lives. As a child I remember a time when my mother came back from helping my grandmother prepared dinner for visitors and was told to go home and eat because there wasn't enough food or room for her. There were other incidents over the years when she was hurt by an unkind word or thoughtless gesture. My memories of my grandparents are not very fond ones. I feel close to my mother's family, the Beloff's, who I adored and loved to come to their home as often as I could.

Working Life

My father's life was a difficult one. Working in a factory all those years was not to gratifying during the depression years, in the 1930s, the economy was in a bad state, and work was scarce. There were many red lines, and many people had to go on "relief" [today's welfare]. My father prided himself that he never asked for a "handout", and managed to find some kind of work. When the second world war broke out in 1939, the factories again became busy with Purdue seamed uniforms for the Army, and the economy improved. He would often have to work overtime, and would not come home until very late after I was asleep. There were weeks when I didn't even see him. By that time my brother was born [December 20, 1939]. My father was very excited to have a son, but he wasn't a very good father. Part of me knew to the fact that he never had a proper role model, and partly to his own personality and lack of understanding, his relationship with Ed, as he grew older, became hostile, and they were never close, although my father tried in his own way to be helpful. It always showed disdain towards him. When it became an architect, my father was very proud of him, since he was the first one in the family to achieve higher education.

My father was a strong man and was used to physical work. He loved to garden and repair small things. He would often help friends and neighbors by repairing plumbing or carpentry jobs. He had a pleasant voice, and would often play his balalaika and sing Russian or Jewish songs. He loved music, and when he discovered how to taped from the radio, he take many years programs from Noach Wittman's Yiddish Hour on Sundays. After retirement, he would often play his cassette tapes on his tape machine. While living in the Bnai Abraham Senior Apartment , he would bring his tapes down to the lobby to play for the other tenants in the building, and would become disappointed because they quickly lost interest in his listening to them, but rather converse and gossip among themselves.

Photo 1950s: Sam Letinsky visiting in Toronto

1960s Photo: Sam harvesting from his Inkster back-yard crab-apple tree.

Older Aged

When my mother became ill, and had to have a leg amputated, it became difficult for him to look after her. He was getting on in age in the house on Inkster became a burden for him. We encouraged him to move into the Beit Am (the seniors apartment complex connected to the Bnai Abraham synagogue), where he could be with other people and not have the responsibility of looking after a house. He was ready and willing, but my mother resisted. She loved her home and refuse to move. We had a difficult time convincing her but in the end she had no choice. Once they moved in and settled, she adjusted quite well, but by that time she was a changed person from the jolly, robust woman she once was.

They had a little bit of help from Homecare but most of the work fell on my father. I was very much involved with their care and dad [Joe] and I helped out as much as we could. Eventually my mother was hospitalized and had a stroke in the hospital. It took a long time to get her admitted to the Sharon Home (the Jewish seniors residence), but in April 1994 she was finally admitted.

My father visited her daily until she past away September 27, 1995. 

He was very devoted to her and after her passing, his life became meaningless for him. He was diagnosed with leukemia, soon after, and slowly his own health deteriorated. The only treatment he received were frequent blood transfusions to boost his cell counts plus some medication. Using a hospital several times and on December 11, 1998 he passed away. He was 91 years old.

1980s. Sam and Sophie freequently visited Ruth and Joe Riesenbach at their condo in Hallandale, Florida

1996: Sam Letinsky and his daughter Ruth Riesenbach (nee Letinsky)

Searching for the source of the family name "Letinsky" (LETIANETSKY) we discovered that there was an iron smelting factory in the next town from where they lived in the Ukraine. It was called something like LETIN or LITINK. We suspect that that was the pen name some families adopted centuries ago. Up to that time peasant families didn't have surnames until the 18th century. We think that surname was at derivation of the factory or town name. You might find some documentation among the memorabilia, a registration card for immigration dated November 10, Royal Mail Autumn Shipping. Also a document for his mother Pessi (Bessie) born 1879. She was 45 in 1924 when they arrive to Canada. They are buried in B'nai Abraham Cemetery in North Winnipeg section C., Row 15, plot 8. Harry is buried in plot 9.

End of Ruth's Biography