BOSTON – There’s a local Jewish connection to a Boston Christmastime tradition that recently celebrated a milestone.
Every year since 1971, the city of Boston has received a Christmas tree from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. This year, Mayor Michelle Wu marked the 50th anniversary of this annual tradition with an extravaganza on Boston Common.
The gift is in recognition of an earlier act of generosity. In 1917, the state of Massachusetts sent a much-needed relief expedition to Halifax following a tragedy that occurred on Dec. 6 of that year. In what the Halifax municipal government website called “the biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age,” two ships collided in the harbor. One carried explosives for World War I, and the collision caused a blast that killed over 2,000 people and left much of the city devastated. The leader of the Massachusetts relief expedition was a prominent Boston Jew named Abraham “Cap” Ratshesky.
“He was tapped very quickly by the governor of Massachusetts when the Halifax explosion occurred, to mobilize medical personnel, resources, money,” said Rachel C. King, the executive director of the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Born in Boston in 1864 to Eastern European immigrant parents Asher and Bertha Ratshesky, young Abraham entered life with a unique middle name: “Captain.” A shortened version became his nickname: “Cap.”
According to King, Ratshesky established the US Trust Company bank out of a desire to help immigrant Jews. He served as a state senator, and was a delegate to multiple Republican national conventions. During World War I, he was also the assistant food administrator for Massachusetts. Later in life, he was named U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where he earned the Order of the White Lion – that nation’s highest honor, King said.
His philanthropy included involvement with the forerunner of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; helping to create Beth Israel Hospital; and donating a building for the Boston headquarters of the American Red Cross. In 1916, he created his own foundation, which survives to this day. He and his wife, Edith (Shuman) Ratshesky, lived on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay and had an oceanfront summer home in Beverly, called “The Birches.” In the 1920s, he lent support to a maritime cause – the restoration of the USS Constitution.
Rebecca Steinfield, a descendant of Ratshesky’s sister Rebecca (Ratshesky) Morse and the current president of the AC Ratshesky Foundation, said that the choice of her ancestor to run the Halifax relief effort might have been because of his past involvement with the American Red Cross and Beth Israel.
“People knew he was a capable guy,” she said.
Ratshesky and other members of the Massachusetts delegation boarded a train for Halifax within 24 hours of the blast. They were “the first relief train to reach the city from the United States,” according to an article by Stephanie Call on the Jewish Heritage Center website.
According to the article, Ratshesky stayed in Nova Scotia until December. He directed relief efforts, helped turn a former mansion into a hospital, and requested a shipment of glass to restore the many broken windows from the blast. Walter Hoganson – a teenage Halifax resident who had lost a sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in the explosion – saluted Ratshesky’s leadership in a letter to Harold Kennedy, a friend in Massachusetts. Hoganson called Ratshesky “the hero of dear old Halifax,” which is used in the title of Call’s article.
“They’re still grateful to him 104 years later,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “It is a good story.”
As the Halifax municipal website mentions, the province decided to show its gratitude to Boston with a gift of a Christmas tree. The earliest one was sent in 1918. The gift became an annual tradition in 1971.
“Of course, there’s an irony because they start [sending] a Christmas tree every year even though he was Jewish,” Sarna said. “But I think he would have appreciated that irony in some ways. He didn’t go there as a Jew, he went there as a representative of the state of Massachusetts.”
Ratshesky died in 1943, and while he and his wife did not have any children, many descendants of his extended family – including Steinfield – still live in the Boston area.
Steinfield remembers going with her father one year to Halifax, where they met with the arborist who chopped down the tree before it made its 750-mile journey to Boston.
“I do find this tradition of sending a tree representing the gratitude of the people of Halifax, I think it is a lovely, lovely tradition,” Steinfield said, “such a wonderful example of connection, of the idea of gratitude.”