Finally, freedom: Erwin Schild was about to be a free man in Canada.
After facing death on Germany’s infamous Kristallnacht as his Jewish seminary was attacked in Würzburg, followed by several weeks in Dachau, a terrifying wait for an exit visa, escape to Holland and then Britain, arrest in London and internment on the Isle of Man, and a treacherous passage across an ocean thick with German U-boats, the 20-year-old future rabbi was anxious to reach a new home – and the freedom he had been promised.
Instead, he and the others were marched off the boat by the British soldiers who had made the crossing with them, and surrounded by gun-wielding Canadian soldiers.
“The surprise was that we were received as German prisoners,” says Rabbi Schild, now 92. “Mach- ine guns. It was unbelievable.”
The men, about 2,300 of them, aged 16 to 60, were mostly Jews and in all cases civilian refugees from Nazism. Yet, they were classified as enemy aliens, interned in Canada – some for more than three years – at times alongside avowed Nazis, if not German prisoners of war.
It’s a story too few people know, says Nina Krieger, education director at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“I think probably afterward, with knowledge of the enormity of the Holocaust, what they experienced sort of paled in comparison …, so they didn’t articulate their experience but got on with becoming Canadian.”
Ms. Krieger is also curator of the first comprehensive exhibition to explore Canada’s dubious treatment of those seeking shelter from Nazi Germany. Entitled “Enemy Aliens” The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940-1943, the exhibit examines what some call a Canadian footnote to the Holocaust. It also has added resonance today, as the country struggles with its policies on immigration and refugees.
Many of the internees went on to accomplished careers. Several became members of the Order of Canada; two became Nobel laureates. Their feelings about Canada in light of their internment here range from anger to gratitude.
“I do not harbour any resentment,” says Walter Kohn, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. “There are, of course, some things that were not great. But I didn’t know where to find utopia, and Canada was pretty close.”
They began their lives, most of them, in Germany and Austria. As the situation for Jews deteriorated at an alarming rate in their countries, they managed to make their way to England – many, like young Walter, on the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that saw 10,000 children take refuge in Britain between Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – on Nov. 9, 1938, and the start of the war less than a year later.
At first, the refugees worked or went to school, and lived in everything from hostels and foster homes to agricultural training centres.
But when the fighting began, all German and Austrian nationals were defined as potential threats and sorted into three categories. Class A were interned immediately as “dangerous enemy aliens,” unlike Class B (“friendly enemy aliens”) and Class C (“friendly aliens and refugees from Nazi oppression”).
But in 1940, as countries fell in Germany’s push to the English Channel, and the threat of a Nazi invasion became more real, fear began to spread – as did a widespread belief that the Germans had inside help.
“There was this feeling that all of western Europe had been overrun because of fifth columnists, because of spies,” says Paula Draper, a historian who wrote her PhD on the refugees and a contributor to the exhibition. “So just to be safe, they started rounding them up,”
Scotland Yard fanned out and arrested the men in May, 1940. A second wave rounded up Italians the following month when Italy joined the war and Winston Churchill famously declared, “Collar the lot.”
Ray Pariser, then a dashing young scientist at Cambridge University, remembers being taken at 4 in the morning. He wound up being interned on the Isle of Man, as did Dr. Kohn, who recalls food being extremely scarce – he lost 25 pounds in a few weeks.
With invasion seemingly imminent, Britain opted to free up soldiers used to guard internment camps by asking two former colonies for assistance. When Canada and Australia agreed to take more prisoners of war and dangerous aliens than the British had on hand, “they basically filled up the difference with these refugees,” Ms. Draper says.