Morris Wohansky is a marginal figure in Canadian history. However, in 1948, his gravestone upset enough Canadians that it made international news — creating an unusual example of cemeterial censorship.
Wohansky, born in 1882 in Belarus, emigrated to Waterloo in 1900, where he established a dry-goods and general-retail business that grew to two locations. In 1905, Wohansky married Rebecca Heifetz, and together they raised five children in a Lutheran, German-speaking home. He died of a heart attack in 1934, at the age of 55.
His 1935 burial at Mount Hope Cemetery, attended by around 200 mourners, was overseen by A. E. Smith, the national secretary of the Canadian Labour Defence League, a legal defence and civil-rights organization affiliated with the Communist Party of Canada. Wohanksy’s tombstone, a large tablet of black marble, was emblazoned with the words “workers of the world unite”; a five-pointed star containing a hammer and sickle; and the adapted words of Industrial Workers of the World activist Ralph Chaplin — “Mourn not the dead, but rather mourn the apathetic throng who sees the world’s great anguish and its wrongs, yet dare not speak.”
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There wasn’t much initial reaction to the provocative gravestone, at least judging by local press coverage. However, according to the Toronto Star, on July 3, 1948, a local clergyman became “shocked beyond measure” when he noticed it while performing a funeral ceremony. He went to the local press, and the stone soon became a syndicated story in newspapers across Canada and the United States.
Local agitators quickly took up the cause of removing the gravestone. The Canadian Legion, under president J. G. Becker, featured prominently in the campaign. At a meeting of the Kitchener-Waterloo branch, veterans described the stone as “a slap in the face” and advocated that it be “blown up,” “smashed with a sledgehammer,” or “pulled over with a rope.” Chris Schendelmayer, the chairman of the Waterloo Park Board’s cemetery committee, vowed to bring the matter before the park-board commissioners at their next meeting. The Waterloo Chronicle speculated that, as no local monument companies would admit to having produced the stone, it must have been provided by the Communist Party of Canada. After the story made the press in the U.S., the American War Mothers issued a letter of support for the Canadian Legion’s stance.
News of the controversy also reached the radical press. The Militant, an American socialist newspaper, concluded that the issue was a victory for the workers, as “it shows that not even death itself can stop us.”
The reaction to the gravestone, which had been standing for 12 years, took place in the context of the Cold War Red Scare — the persistent paranoia and anti-communist fervour that gripped Canada in the years after the Second World War, quickly overshadowing the Soviet Union’s contributions during the conflict. In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Russian Embassy in Ottawa during the Second World War, defected to Canada with a briefcase of papers that detailed a Soviet spy ring operating in the country; his actions led to the arrest of MP Fred Rose less than two years before the Wohansky gravestone made the news.
The Waterloo Parks Board ultimately voted that the slogans could remain but that the five-pointed star containing the hammer and sickle had to go.
The executives of the cemetery told the press that the symbol would be chiselled off at 9 a.m. on July 23.
When the journalists arrived, however, they found that the symbol was already gone. Schendelmeyer told a journalist that “there has been a lot of unpleasant publicity about this and as far as I am concerned the whole thing is finished.”
After the hammer and sickle had been removed, Becker, the legion president, struck simultaneously conspiratorial and conciliatory notes. He claimed that he was “quite sure the Wohamsky [sic] family, on whose plot the stone rests, had nothing to do with it being put up” and contended that the Communist party had the emblem put on the stone “to spread propaganda.” (While the precise motivating force behind the stone remain unknown, certain facts suggest his family should not be ruled out: in January 1933, Wohansky’s son, Willard, was photographed by the Globe at Queen’s Park while participating in a hunger march led by the communist Windsor alderman Tom Raycroft.)
Today, Wohansky's altered gravestone remains, a silent reminder of the history of communist efforts and aims — and of the subsequent attempts to erase their legacy.
Sources: July 3, 1948, July 14, 1948, July 23, 1948 editions of the Toronto Daily Star; November 26, 1948, edition of the Waterloo Chronicle; and August 16, 1948, edition of The Militant.