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Erwin Shild, left, and Walter Kohn visit ‘Enemy Aliens’ at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Erwin Shild, left, and Walter Kohn visit ‘Enemy Aliens’ at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

The friends Canada insisted were foes Add to ...

“Was it a military decision? Was it a government decision? That I don’t think is so clear.”

Rabbi Schild remembers the commanding officer on the Isle of Man calling the internees to the dining room and saying: “I have news for you: All the unmarried young men who are interned will be sent to another country. You’ll be released, you’ll be able to work, you’ll be able to resume your normal life, but not in England.”

Only on the boat did Rabbi Schild learn that he was bound for Canada, his fate decided by where he was standing – men three or four rows behind him went to Australia.

The presence of German U-boats made the crossing terrifying. (In fact, the transfers were halted after the July 2, 1940, sinking of the Canada-bound SS Arandora Star, with the loss of 805 lives.)

But the relief of arriving safely soon gave way to shock, Rabbi Schild recalls. The refugees expected to be released, but “Canada was expecting enemy aliens – that’s what we were.” Told to expect fascist civilians and military prisoners, Canadian authorities were in no hurry to change their plans even when it became clear – clarification arrived by telegram at about the same time as the first ships – that many of those on board posed no threat.

The consequences were at best unpleasant and at times traumatic. Rabbi Schild recalls being sent immediately to a makeshift camp in a former sports stadium in Trois-Rivières that was not only still under construction but already had occupants: German prisoners of war.

“When they saw us enter the camps, they saw that these were Jews, they were Hassidic boys with [side curls] and black hats, and they started singing: ‘When the Jewish blood spurts from the knife, everything goes twice as well.’ Something like that,” Rabbi Schild says.

It was a song the boys had heard in Germany. “We pleaded with the officer: ‘We can’t be with these people.’ They realized something was wrong so they threw up a barbed-wire fence between our part of the camp and where the German and Italian prisoners were.”

The stay at Trois-Rivières (or T Camp) was short, and the men were transferred to other camps in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario. For the most part, they were from then on interned separately from any Nazi sympathizers.

Treatment varied from camp to camp. (The commandant at Sherbrooke was “a total bastard,” says Ray Pariser’s son, Ami. “He would rip up people’s mail in their faces.”)

But when it became clear that they were not going to be released soon, older internees, such as William Heckscher, later a noted art historian at Duke University, organized classes for everything from Shakespeare to statistics to shoemaking.

“Their priority was to get the younger ones out [and into school]; their education had been interrupted,” says Frank Koller, whose economist father, Philipp, was among the instructors. “I think it was both seen as the right thing to do, but also a way of keeping them sane.”

Refugees sent to Australia were quickly acknowledged as such, but Ms. Draper says Canada failed to do the same because of “a bizarre combination of bureaucracy and anti-Semitism. …

“The Canadian government at that time was not interested in letting in Jewish refugees ... even though the British said to them basically, ‘We will guarantee that they are not dangerous.’ ”

This was the “none is too many” era described in the 1983 book of the same name by historians Harold Troper and Irving Abella. Those words were uttered by an immigration official when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept after the war, but they reflected policy – and the attitude of F.C. Blair, the notoriously anti-Semitic federal director of immigration.

“He really felt the whole thing was some kind of underhanded scheme to get Jews into Canada and he really tried to keep the door shut, but the powers above him eventually squeezed them open,” Ms. Draper explains.

Within weeks, Britain asked Canada to provide “a system of less rigid custodial treatment.” Apparently unable to distinguish refugees from true enemy aliens, Canada in turn asked for help. Alexander Paterson, commissioner of British prisons, was dispatched (along with Chaim Raphael, an English Jew who worked with refugees), expecting to make short work of it. But opposition from Ottawa extended the visit to more than eight months.

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