Canadian diplomat Klaus Goldschlag had a life full of triumph, tragedy and bitter irony – a narrative that would stretch credulity in a novel. But like the best fiction, his story speaks to a larger truth about the resiliency of the human spirit. A Jewish refuge, he came to Canada as a teenager from Germany and rose in the diplomatic service to become Canadian ambassador to Turkey (1967-1971), Italy (1973-1976), deputy undersecretary of state for External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs), and ultimately ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (1980).
His diplomatic career was truncated when a catastrophic mishap during elective surgery in Bonn left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak or write. A weaker person might have succumbed to depression, but Goldschlag, then in his late 50s, carried on, communicating his ideas and thoughts with the support of family for more than 30 years. He died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 30 at the age of 89.
“He was one of the most remarkable diplomats in our modern history. I don’t think that is an exaggeration,” said Allan Gotlieb, undersecretary of state for External Affairs from 1977-1981 and later ambassador to the United States. Besides being a strategic and original thinker, and the most “brilliant foreign policy mind” in the “generation after Lester Pearson,” Goldschlag was also a “delightfully amusing and witty individual,” according to Gotlieb.
Klaus Goldschlag was born in Berlin, Germany, on March 23, 1922. After his father died, his mother was so impoverished she put her only son in an orphanage, although they continued to visit each other on weekends. Caught up in what would become Hitler’s genocidal “final solution” for European Jewry, Goldschlag might well have died in a Nazi death camp or perished in wartime bombing. Instead, he was adopted by Toronto businessman Alan Coatsworth. The story of how a Canadian Methodist saved a German Jewish boy is as complicated as the times in which they lived.
Coatsworth, a fire insurance broker, had no children and used his disposable income to start a social club called the Young Maccabees. He invited hard-up Jewish boys, many of them who were selling newspapers in the streets, to his home to hear talks by philosophers, artists, and religious leaders and to listen to live music.
But it wasn’t only local boys who Coatsworth befriended and mentored. Canada has a shameful record of turning away refugees trying to escape from Germany after Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and anti-Semitism effectively became official government policy. In their book, None is Too Many, Harold Troper and Irving Abella argue that Canada’s record of accepting only 4,000 Jewish refugees into the country from 1933-1948 (including its refusal to allow any of the approximately 900 Jewish passengers on the M.S. St. Louis to disembark) is arguably the worst of any Western country. That makes Coatsworth’s actions all the more exemplary. He went against the prevailing orthodoxy to do what he believed was right.
In the mid-1930s, Coatsworth sponsored two Jewish boys from Germany, and then travelled to Berlin and offered to adopt one of the boys living in the orphanage where Goldschlag resided. His intention was that the boy would study to become a rabbi in Canada, thus perpetuating the religion that Hitler was trying to eradicate. In order to choose which boy should go to Canada, the orphanage administrators gave all the children a test. After Goldschlag scored the highest marks, he and his mother agreed he should accept the offer and leave Germany, a decision that changed both of their lives.
Unable to speak English, and without any family or friends, Goldschlag lived in Coatsworth’s house and attended Holy Blossom Temple (although he wasn’t very religious and had made it clear he wasn’t going to become a rabbi). He quickly became fluent in English and excelled as a student at Vaughan Road Collegiate. After war broke out, Goldschlag went to Holy Blossom and asked the elders if he could borrow enough money to help his mother escape Germany. They said they weren’t in the business of lending money, but the next morning an unsigned envelope, containing the full amount, was delivered to the house.
A grateful Goldschlag, who was never able to discover the identity of his benefactors, wired the money to his mother, who booked passage to the Dominican Republic – one of the few countries openly welcoming Jews. And that’s how she survived the war – playing bridge on a Caribbean island – before reuniting with her son in Canada in the late 1940s.