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Vancouver — “There were certain observers who thought that places like Toronto and the establishment there was as anti-Semitic as anything in North America,” Menkis said.
After tiring of Canadian intransigence on the refugee issue, the British sent a high-ranking diplomat, Alexander Paterson, to assure the Canadians that the Jewish refugees posed no security threat. Paterson ended up spending more than eight months in the country and cleared many of the prisoners individually.
By 1943, the last of the refugees had been released. Many went on to make important contributions to Canadian society, including two Nobel Prize winners. But as late as 1948, even after the horrors of the Holocaust had been revealed, a public opinion poll had Jews ranking near the top of a list of groups that Canadians least wanted in their country.
“This is how blind Canada was, blinded by racism, to the potential of all the people they might have been able to rescue from the Holocaust,” Draper said.
Draper, who has taught in the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto’s University College, began researching the internment of Jewish refugees in the 1970s. At the time, the Jewish community was reluctant to complain about this history given the fate of the Jews of Europe. Even among the survivors themselves, who lamented their lost years of freedom, many were thankful just to have escaped the destiny of their European brethren.
“To be overly critical of a government’s policy at the time, about this specific group, in light of the Holocaust,” was hard to justify, Draper said.
But if criticizing the Canadian government in the aftermath of the Holocaust was somewhat taboo, today the internment camps have been largely forgotten. Moreover, given how far Canada has come, it can be easy to overlook the anti-Semitism that led to them.
Beginning in the 1960s, much began to change in Canada. Hoping to placate French Canadians who felt shut out of society at large, the government launched a dialogue on biculturalism.
“A number of groups – with the Ukrainians in the lead – said, ‘Well, biculturalism isn’t enough,’ ” Menkis said. “That opened a whole discussion at the federal level about multiculturalism.”
The Jewish refugees were held in eight camps across Canada, at least two of which also housed Nazi prisoners. Because they were not prisoners of war, the Jewish refugees fell outside of the protections of the Geneva Conventions. As a result, they were sometimes treated worse than the Germans. In some camps, the Nazis had access to Christian clergy and enjoyed Christmas trees and decorations, while the Jews struggled to find menorahs or candles, and rabbis were hard to come by.
Jewish prisoners organized classes, taught each other English and Torah, published newspapers and made art, pieces of which are on display at the Vancouver center’s exhibit. The exhibit also features video testimony from survivors and artifacts from the camps ranging from homemade board games to personal diaries to luggage brought from Britain.
Over time, the treatment of Jews in the camps improved; eventually they were reclassified from enemy prisoners to refugees. Upon their release, many returned to Britain to support the war effort.
“They were the first witnesses to the horrors of Nazism,” Draper said. “They’re the ones who knew more than anyone else what was happening to the people who didn’t get out.”