On be­com­ing a Cana­dian cit­i­zen

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - ELI HONIG

At Auschwitz-birke­nau, there was a ware­house re­ferred to by in­mates and their Nazi guards as “Canada.” There, pris­on­ers sorted out the var­i­ous goods brought by newly ar­rived in­mates to Auschwitz, in­clud­ing the clothes that they wore upon ar­rival. To the in­mates of the death camp, those items rep­re­sented un­told lux­ury and rich­ness that were as accessible to them as the im­pos­si­bly far­away coun­try of Canada. The irony was not lost on the Germans.

On March 23, 1949, a wi­d­owed mother, her two daugh­ters and her son ar­rived in Hal­i­fax as landed im­mi­grants. They had been hid­den dur­ing the war. Her hus­band, the chil­dren’s fa­ther, had per­ished in Auschwitz.

I was 6½ years old then, and had trav­elled on my mother’s French pass­port since I was too young to have my own. I re­mained in that sta­tus for a num­ber of years, though I was able to get a French pass­port a few years later. Af­ter fin­ish­ing high school in Mon­treal, I went to study at Yeshiva Univer­sity in New York. It was then that I de­cided I should ap­ply for Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship. But when I went to the Cana­dian con­sulate, I was told that I could only do so from Canada. Thus my sta­tus as a landed Cana­dian im­mi­grant and French cit­i­zen con­tin­ued through my un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stud­ies in the U.S.

In 1973, I ac­cepted a post-doc­toral po­si­tion at the Scar­bor­ough cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Toronto, and so, as a landed im­mi­grant, I started the process of re­turn­ing to Canada. By then, I had an Amer­i­can wife and a two-year-old son, and while the ap­pli­ca­tion process went fairly smoothly, I re­call one un­set­tling in­ter­view to­gether with my wife at the Cana­dian con­sulate in New York.

At one point, the con­sular of­fi­cial said to me, “All you peo­ple com­ing from the Mid­dle East, and you know who I mean.” I bit my lip and kept quiet. Then he com­plained about Phds com­ing to Canada, “while our Phds are driv­ing taxis.” Again, I didn’t re­spond. Fi­nally, he told me that if he had his way, I wouldn’t be ac­cepted. Un­for­tu­nately for him, and for­tu­nately for me, my ap­pli­ca­tion had al­ready been ap­proved by Ot­tawa.

I still don’t know what the pur­pose of that in­ter­view was. But I waited un­til I was set­tled in Toronto to re­port the in­ci­dent to im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties. The fel­low I

I should have been more sen­si­tive to the sig­nif­i­cance of the cer­e­mony.

spoke to told me that con­sular of­fi­cials hated all im­mi­grants – one week it was the Por­tuguese, the next it was the Ital­ians and then the Jews, etc. – so I dropped the mat­ter. I was just happy to be here.

In 1976, I of­fi­cially ap­plied for Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship and was granted the priv­i­lege. I re­mem­ber the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony well. It was held in a large room in a down­town court­house and there were about 100 peo­ple be­ing in­ducted. The judge seemed to drone on and on. My mind wan­dered and my glazed eyes turned to a Moun­tie who was stand­ing rigidly at at­ten­tion at the front. He didn’t move a mus­cle.

Then two things hap­pened in quick suc­ces­sion, snap­ping me out of my reverie. It was a com­fort­able, pleas­ant day, but two peo­ple fainted. One was from east­ern Europe – this be­fore the Iron Cur­tain fell. The other was a refugee from wartorn Viet­nam who had man­aged to ar­rive at these shores. They had lost con­scious­ness out of pure emo­tion. At that point, I said to my­self, “Hold on. Don’t be such a wise guy. Don’t take things for granted.” I should have been more sen­si­tive to the sig­nif­i­cance and mean­ing of the cer­e­mony – es­pe­cially be­cause of my per­sonal his­tory. While I had un­der­stood it cere­brally, I fi­nally re­al­ized emo­tion­ally the re­mark­able bless­ing I had in be­ing an im­mi­grant, and then a cit­i­zen, of this great coun­try Canada. It was a defin­ing mo­ment in my life.

Eli Honig taught physics at the Anne and Max Ta­nen­baum Com­mu­nity He­brew Acad­emy of Toronto for 31 years, and for longer than that at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

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