Holocaust survivors’ experiences offer powerful, timely message
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/10/2015 (2728 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, 35,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust emigrated to Canada. Typically those survivors have been lumped together, studied and written about as a single homogenous group, their immigration and integration viewed as a single phenomenon.
But as Adara Goldberg methodically points out in her extraordinary social history Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation, 1947-1955, these survivors did not comprise a unified group, nor were their immigration experiences identical.
To the contrary — although they shared in common the fact of survival, the circumstances regarding their survival as well as their personal histories and private demons were all unique and directly affected how they came to Canada, why they came and how they managed once they arrived.
While many survivors were sponsored by relatives already living in Canada, most came to the country as contract labour for the garment industry with the Orphans Project or with other refugee aid programs. Originating from a host of countries, these newcomers spoke diverse languages and represented diverse ages and experiences. They had survived slave-labour camps, death camps or by hiding, and in most cases had witnessed terribly inhumanity and lost everyone and everything that was familiar.
Like all stories of survival, the individual stories are no doubt fascinating and horrifying, but Goldberg, the education director at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, barely touches on their prewar or Holocaust experiences.
Instead, she focuses almost exclusively on the survivors’ immigration and acculturation, while scrutinizing government policy, national agencies such as the Canadian Jewish Congress and Jewish Immigration Aid Society, and the individuals and communities that made wide-scale immigration possible.
“Communities came together to receive refugees and materially supported them in obtaining suitable employment, housing and necessary goods,” writes Goldberg. “The project of rescuing the remnants of European Jewry was considered noble, and while their efforts did not always suffice, Canadian Jews behaved relatively sympathetically, at least in the early stages.”
The Winnipeg Jewish community in particular, she notes, was welcoming and supportive, helping to settle about 300 survivors. The names and recollections of a handful of these local survivors are included in the book and used to illustrate both successful and more troubled assimilation experiences.
Goldberg also shares many fascinating and little-known facts about Holocaust survivors in Canada. She relates stories about the rabbinic survivors who created the ultra-orthodox community in Montreal, the refugees lost in Canada to atheism and Christianity, the trans-migrants who first tried to settle in Israel and the children who, because they arrived with adult family members, were not considered to be or treated as survivors.
There’s no doubt that by compiling these disparate experiences into a single volume, Goldberg has made an invaluable contribution to the canon of Holocaust literature.
But she has done something else as well.
“During the Nazi era,” she writes, “Canada exhibited the poorest humanitarian record in the Western world with regard to the granting of asylum to European Jews fleeing persecution.”
By the time Canada opened its doors to immigration, many of those who could have been saved were beyond saving.
In reminding readers of this immutable fact, Goldberg also raises the question: What doors are open to the 60 million refugees currently wandering the world in search of a place to call home?
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer. In 1948 her grandparents took in two boys who arrived in Canada with the War Orphans Project.
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