Cana­dian Jewry in the era of ‘none is too many’

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - IRV­ING ABELLA SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

On May 15, 1939, 907 des­per­ate Ger­man Jews set sail from Ham­burg on the lux­ury liner, the St. Louis. They had been stripped of all of their pos­ses­sions by the Nazis, hounded out of their homes and busi­nesses, and now their coun­try. Their most prized pos­ses­sion was the Cuban en­try visa each car­ried on board. Yet they con­sid­ered them­selves lucky; they were leav­ing a coun­try in which liv­ing as a Jew had be­come im­pos­si­ble.

When they reached Ha­vana their luck ran out. The Cuban govern­ment re­fused them ad­mis­sion. For the next week the fran­tic pas­sen­gers vainly sought a port that would al­low them en­try. Ev­ery coun­try in South Amer­ica re­fused. The United States’ re­sponse was even more cruel: it sent a gun­boat to shadow the St. Louis in case it got close enough to al­low pas­sen­gers to swim ashore. Only Canada re­mained. A des­per­ate plea to Ot­tawa for per­mis­sion to land was promptly re­jected de­spite the valiant ef­forts of the Cana­dian Jewish Congress. As the top of­fi­cial of the im­mi­gra­tion branch ex­plained to Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King: “No coun­try can open its doors wide enough to take in the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews who want to leave Europe; the line must be drawn some­where.”

The line drawn, the pas­sen­gers’ last flick­er­ing hope for res­cue extinguished, the Jews on the St. Louis were forced back to Europe where many were killed in the death camps of the Third Re­ich.

Canada ar­guably had the worst record of any west­ern na­tion in ac­cept­ing Jews at­tempt­ing to es­cape the Nazis. When it came to Jewish refugees, “none is too many” was the of­fi­cial pol­icy. As a prom­i­nent Jewish leader wrote at the time, “the world is di­vided into two parts – those places where Jews can­not live, and those they can­not en­ter.” Canada fell into the lat­ter cat­e­gory. In­deed, to the con­demned Jews in Auschwitz, Canada had a unique mean­ing. It was the name given to the camp bar­racks where the gold, valu­ables and cloth­ing of the in­mates were stored. It rep­re­sented life, lux­ury and sal­va­tion. It was also iso­lated and un­reach­able, as was Canada in the 1930s and ’40s.

Why Canada had the worst record of any west­ern na­tion in try­ing to save the con­demned Jews of Europe was the sub­ject of None Is Too Many, a book writ­ten by Harold Troper and me some 35 years ago, and re­cently re­pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Toronto Press. It is a story that shocked many Cana­di­ans who be­lieved the na­tional myth that theirs is a coun­try of im­mi­grants that has a long un­in­ter­rupted his­tory of wel­com­ing refugees and dis­si­dents, a coun­try that has al­ways been in the fore­front of ac­cept­ing the world’s dis­pos­sessed and op­pressed, and where racism and big­otry are for­eign cre­ations that play lit­tle role in Cana­dian his­tory or the Cana­dian psy­che.

Ours is the story of the old, scarcely rec­og­niz­able Canada of the first half of the 20th cen­tury, a be­nighted, closed, xeno­pho­bic so­ci­ety in which mi­nori­ties were barred from al­most ev­ery sec­tor of Cana­dian life. It was then a Canada whose im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies were racist and ex­clu­sion­ary, a coun­try blan­keted by an op­pres­sive anti-semitism, in which Jews were the pari­ahs of Cana­dian so­ci­ety, de­meaned, de­spised, dis­crim­i­nated against. Worst of all, anti-jewish big­otry had per­me­ated the up­per lev­els of the Cana­dian govern­ment whose de­ci­sions closed Canada’s doors to the des­per­ate Jews of Europe.

For Cana­dian Jews in those years, quo­tas and re­stric­tions were a way of life. Ac­cord­ing to a study com­mis­sioned by the Cana­dian Jewish Congress – but never re­leased be­cause of its ex­plo­sive na­ture – few em­ploy­ment pos­si­bil­i­ties were open to Jews. Few school teach­ers and no prin­ci­pals were Jewish.

FILE PHOTO

Jews on the St. Louis were forced back to Europe.

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