Downtown View:Christmas Thanks

By Karen Cord Taylor

A tree is being cut down today in Nova Scotia with great fanfare. Soon it will travel by flat-bed truck  to the Boston Common, where it will be erected, decorated and loved. Similar trees have occupied the Common or the Pru yearly since 1971.

A tribute to Americans’ Christian holiday, the tree’s journey is mostly because of a Jewish man, Abraham Ratshesky. This blending of countries and cultures is fitting at a time of year in which we should all be celebrating everyone’s way of marking the winter solstice.

Abraham Ratshesky was a co-founder of Boston’s U.S. Trust Company, a founder of Beth Israel Hospital and a Back Bay resident. He was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to serve as minister to what was then called Czecho-Slovakia. He still has family in the area. His great-nephew Alan Morse lives in Brookline.

In 1917 America and Canada were at war with Germany. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the closest North American port to Europe, so it was busy.

Early in the morning of December 6, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel McCall received a short telegram. Something terrible had happened in Halifax, though it was unclear what that thing was, according to the Nova Scotian author Blair Beed. A Halifax survivor had run three miles to the only operating telegraph station to send the cryptic message.

         Bostonians later pieced together the story. A few days earlier the French ship, the SS Mont Blanc, had been loaded with war munitions in New York. It stopped in Halifax in open ocean on December 5 because the port’s submarine nets had been lowered for the night, blocking the harbor. Early the next morning the ship proceeded through a narrow strait to the inner harbor while the Norwegian steamer, the SS Imo, loaded with relief supplies destined for Belgium, was leaving.

A tugboat impeded the Imo’s path, and in trying to get back on course, the steamer rammed the Mont Blanc. A small fire erupted on the Mont Blanc, and the crew abandoned ship.

As the Mont Blanc sloshed toward a pier, the fire grew, and the munitions exploded with such force that the ship’s anchor shaft was found three miles away.

It wasn’t just fire that destroyed the town. A blast wave tore down houses and tore up people, and a tidal wave drowned them.

Throughout that first day Gov. McCall tried through downed lines to reach Halifax by phone or telegram. When he couldn’t, he acted anyway. He commissioned Abraham Ratshesky to leave by train to do whatever needed to be done. Through a blizzard Ratshesky led a group of rescuers—doctors, nurses, Red Cross officials, railroad officials and journalists—without knowing what they would face. That train arrived on December 8 at 7 a.m. It was the first major help Halifax got.

When Ratshesky arrived, he found a city with neighborhoods completely destroyed. His entourage was met by Mr. C. A. Hayes, the general manager of the Canadian Government Railways, whose trains couldn’t get through from the west. When Mr. Hayes saw the Americans, he burst into tears. It was later estimated that more than 2,000 people died.

Ratshesky set up hospitals, organized a food supply, arranged for housing, and generally got things going. The people of Boston came through too. On the first day they learned what happened, Bostonians raised $100,000 for Halifax’s relief. That was at a time when $12 a week was the prevailing wage.

Massachusetts automobile dealers sent $25,000 worth of trucks, ten chauffeurs and gasoline. The state sent horses and carts, four ambulances and x-ray machines. Soon other American cities were sending help, but Boston, with a quick-thinking governor, an able organizer and the closest proximity, got there first. The help lasted for several years.

Ratshesky was able to leave by December 13 but the Red Cross stayed until January 5, 1918. When Gov. McCall finally paid a visit, he was honored with a degree from Dalhousie University, and a temporary housing block was named after him.

At Christmas in 1918, Halifax sent Boston a tree in gratitude for the city’s help. In 1971, the county’s Christmas tree producers revived the gift, and now Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources annually selects a spruce or fir from someone’s yard or field for shipment. The owner is asked to donate the tree, and the answer is usually a resounding “yes.”

The Boston Parks Department is responsible for the tree on this end. Ryan Woods, that department’s director of external affairs, said he spends most of the fall dealing with logistics around the event.

The tree arrives the Friday before Thanksgiving and is illuminated with celebration on December 3.

Nova Scotian poet Clark Hall long ago penned this acknowledgement of the help Bostonians gave to Haligonians:

When good old Boston heard the news,

She answered like a flash,

And sent us food and clothing

Likewise men and cash.

As soon as they received the news,

Without the least delay,

They got their cars in readiness

And started on their way.

God Bless our neighbours to the South,

God Bless them one and all

Who responded so magnificently

To humanity’s urgent call.

Where’er that spangled banner floats,

On water or on land,

You’ll always find them ready

To reach out a helping hand.

They sent us their trained nurses

With a brotherly, Christian will,

And in the medical line, the best

Of Massachusetts’ skill.

They attended to our cuts and torn

In an earnest, faithful manner,

Those ministering angels in our midst,

From beneath that starry banner.

We never shall forget them

Till we go to our grave.

And may the flag of freedom

Forever o’er them wave.

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