Seven years ago, when acclaimed Toronto actress Paula Wolfson began searching for information about her grandparents – whom she had never met – little did she realize her search would bring her to the ByWard Market on a sunny spring day to witness the unveiling of a replica of the clock that once hung over her grandfather’s Clarence Street watch shop.
The event took place on Friday, May 12 at the official opening of the redesigned George Street Plaza. Part of a larger initiative aimed at revitalizing the ByWard Market, the giant Wolfson clock is central to the new design.
City Councillor Mathieu Fleury described the clock as a focal point of the plaza, as in “meet me under the clock.”
The ceremony was clearly emotional for Wolfson.
“My grandfather would be so honoured to know that he left behind such an enduring legacy,” she said, holding back tears.
Initially, Wolfson had little success finding any information about her grandparents. But then she encountered John Diener, vice-president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Ottawa.
The genealogical detective kept following leads that ultimately led him to the Ottawa Jewish Archives. There he not only found a photo from the 1920s of David Wolfson in front of his Clarence Street watch shop, but also the clock.
With the help of archivist Saara Mortensen, David Wolfson’s story and a piece of Ottawa’s Jewish history came to life.
When Wolfson closed his shop, he gave the clock to Sam Nathanson, who ran a pawnshop on William Street. After serving in the Second World War, Louis Nathanson joined his father in business. He modified the clock by adding ‘pawnbroker’ across its face as well as the pawnbroker’s symbol to the bottom.
In 1946, Sam Nathanson’s daughter Sylvia married Bertram Bronsther. They joined Louis in the business and changed its name to Sam’s Buy and Sell. Musical instruments became their most popular item so they changed the name to Sam’s ABC Music.
When Sam’s moved to Bank Street at Alta Vista in the 1980s, the clock sign was removed and stored by the Ottawa Jewish Historical Society (OJHS).
In 2009, the OJHS restored the clock and donated it to the Ottawa Jewish Archives.
“The Wolfson clock is the most important artifact in our collection,” said archivist Saara Mortensen. “Seeing a copy of it here in the square keeps history alive and relevant. Visibility is the key.”
“Paula’s grandparents were forgotten for the last 60 years,” added Diener. “This clock has made them come alive again.”