Founder of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO designed the first Remembrance Day poppies
Lillian Freiman (née Bilsky) was a philanthropist, community leader, and prominent Zionist. She is best known as the “Poppy Lady,” for designing and creating the first Remembrance Day poppies in 1921. She also founded the Canadian Hadassah-WIZO and was the national president of the Zionist women’s organization from 1919 until her death in 1940.
Freiman was the daughter of Moses Bilsky, Ottawa’s first Jewish settler, and his wife Pauline. She was born in 1885 while the family lived briefly in Mattawa, Ontario. She lived most of her life in Ottawa and, at age 18, married Archibald J. Freiman, who would found A.J. Freiman Limited, a department store at 73 Rideau Street in Ottawa. The couple had three children, Dorothy, Lawrence and Queene Esther, and an adopted daughter, Gladys, a Jewish war orphan from Ukraine.
The Freimans dedicated much of their lives to advocating for the establishment of the State of Israel. Her husband served as the president of the Zionist Organization of Canada, while she was the head of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO.
When the First World War broke out, Freiman set up 30 sewing machines in her home and organized a Red Cross sewing circle to send clothing and blankets to the soldiers overseas. The circle, which she began in her home, evolved into the Disraeli Chapter of the Daughters of the Empire. She raised funds for Jews in Europe and Palestine, led Ottawa’s efforts to battle the influenza epidemic in 1918, served as treasurer of the Ottawa Welfare Bureau, and was active in such organizations as the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, the Institut Jeanne d’Arc for Catholic girls, and the Protestant Infants Home.
Additionally, she co-founded the Great War Veterans Association, which later became the Royal Canadian Legion. Freiman was the first woman to be named an honorary life member of the Legion.
Following the war, Freiman founded Canadian Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization, and travelled across Canada to raise funds for the Helping Hand Fund of Hadassah. She raised about $200,000, then an exceptional sum to be collected from the approximately 120,000 Jews then living in Canada. As president of Hadassah, she also brought the organization into WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). Freiman also chaired the United Palestine Appeal in 1934.
When John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” became famous, the poppy was developed as a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who died in action during the First World War. In 1921, Freiman started crafting the first Canadian poppies in her home. Poppy-making was soon taken over by the Vetcraft Shops, an organization that employed returning servicemen to make furniture and toys. She was a member of the National Poppy Advisory Committee and chaired Ottawa’s annual poppy campaign each year until her death.
In 1930, the publication Women of Canada referred to Freiman as the “Mother of the Jewish People of Canada” and, in 1934, she became the first Canadian Jew to be awarded the Order of the British Empire. In 1935, Hadassah dedicated the year to Freiman in tribute to her 50th birthday.
In failing health, Freiman died on November 2, 1940 at age 55. Among the dignitaries attending her funeral was the prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. An honour guard from the Royal Canadian Legion also attended Freiman’s funeral.
Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. Previously in the series: