June 17, 2019

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'Tailor project' opened door to Canada for 2,500 Jewish families after Second World War

Belle Jarniewski, executive director of Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, with a photo pf her father Sam Jarniewski, a Holocaust survivor who was liberated from Dachau concentration camp and was among 2,500 Jewish tailors and their families who immigrated to Canada thanks to the tailor project.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Belle Jarniewski, executive director of Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, with a photo pf her father Sam Jarniewski, a Holocaust survivor who was liberated from Dachau concentration camp and was among 2,500 Jewish tailors and their families who immigrated to Canada thanks to the tailor project.

Winnipeg has welcomed wave upon wave of immigrant workers, but no individual likely had a tougher time arriving alive than sewing machine expert Sam Jarniewski.

After surviving the Holocaust and six concentration camps, Jarniewski made it to safety in Canada in 1948 under the "garment workers scheme." In 1948-49, the little-known "tailor project" opened a door for 2,500 Jewish families that had been slammed shut.

In Canada, from 1933 to 1948, there was systematic exclusion of Jews as immigrants or refugees. Prime minister Mackenzie King declared he was determined to keep Canada united at all costs and feared admitting Jews — when there was such a strong current of antisemitism in both French- and English-speaking Canada — would jeopardize that goal.

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Winnipeg has welcomed wave upon wave of immigrant workers, but no individual likely had a tougher time arriving alive than sewing machine expert Sam Jarniewski.

After surviving the Holocaust and six concentration camps, Jarniewski made it to safety in Canada in 1948 under the "garment workers scheme." In 1948-49, the little-known "tailor project" opened a door for 2,500 Jewish families that had been slammed shut.

Sam Jarniewski at Dachau concentration camp.

SUPPLIED

Sam Jarniewski at Dachau concentration camp.

In Canada, from 1933 to 1948, there was systematic exclusion of Jews as immigrants or refugees. Prime minister Mackenzie King declared he was determined to keep Canada united at all costs and feared admitting Jews — when there was such a strong current of antisemitism in both French- and English-speaking Canada — would jeopardize that goal.

However, groups successfully lobbied for the worker immigration scheme. Immigrants like Jarniewski in displaced-persons camps in Europe were guaranteed one year of employment at equal pay and terms as other employees in a Canadian garment factory.

"After the war, he was looking for a country that would take him in," said his daughter, Belle Jarniewski. Her father had lost his entire family, including his wife, child, parents and siblings in the Second World War and Holocaust.

"He was left with no one when he was liberated from Dachau," said the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, who wrote a book about Winnipeg's Holocaust survivors in 2010.

The 2019 edition of Holocaust Awareness Week began Sunday and runs through Saturday.

Jarniewski recovering in German hospital after being liberated from Dachau.

SUPPLIED

Jarniewski recovering in German hospital after being liberated from Dachau.

Jarniewski was conscripted into the Polish army in 1939 at age 32, when his wife was pregnant with their first child. Within weeks, he was taken prisoner, with the Jewish soldiers separated from the rest and sent to concentration camps. Throughout his ordeal, Jarniewski shared his drive to survive, said his daughter, who only learned of his actions after he died in 1983.

"There are people who've written to me since his death saying, 'I survived only because of your father,'" she said.

At just 5-2, he wasn't a big man, but had a towering strength of spirit. "He inspired me throughout my life," she said.

Jarniewski (on back of motorbike) with two fellow Holocaust survivors who remained friends for life.

SUPPLIED

Jarniewski (on back of motorbike) with two fellow Holocaust survivors who remained friends for life.

In one case, Jarniewski had convinced the Nazis an artist who'd arrived at the camp had a special talent they could use. "He became a sign painter in the camp," she said. "His survival was due to my dad."

In 1948, Jarniewski arrived in Winnipeg to work in a fur-processing factory owned by Sam Vigod, a distant relative. With the help of community groups and employers, Jarniewski and other garment workers were given housing accommodations to rent and a loan to help them get settled. After years of displacement and hardship, Jarniewski was able to integrate and thrive in Winnipeg.

"He belonged to a Yiddish B'nai Brith lodge, where they discussed literature, and he subscribed to several Yiddish newspapers and the Winnipeg Free Press," his daughter said. He moved from garment factory worker to entrepreneur, opening the Marion shopping centre grocery store in St. Boniface.

"It was an opportunity," said Belle Jarniewski, who still marvels at her dad's optimism.

"He'd witnessed the worst of humanity and all of the atrocities and somehow he was able to be happy and had many friends," she said. "It was amazing to me that someone who suffered the trauma he did was able to carry on and be happy in life."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Reporter

Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.

Read full biography

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