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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 ...

Infuriated, Mr. Paterson “unleashed a volley of criticism at the Canadian government,” Ms. Draper says, urging Ottawa to lift military control because, he argued, “in many cases, the better brains [are] inside the wire.”

Also working for the refugees’ release was C.D. Howe, the influential munitions minister who essentially ran the war effort and intervened after discovering that the camps held some highly skilled people whose help he could use.

As well, legendary American stage actress and monologist Ruth Draper (no relation to Paula) wrote to prime minister Mackenzie King on behalf of one internee – she had had a romance with his uncle, a Jewish-Italian anti-fascist poet.

The prime minister wanted the young man freed; he sensed a public-relations opportunity – as did Mr. Paterson and his supporters, who wanted an even bigger payoff. “They saw this crack in the door and they realized they had a way to push it open,” Ms. Draper says.

On May 2, 1941, Mr. Paterson’s proposal was approved by the cabinet, the “enemy aliens” were reclassified as interned refugees, and controls at the camps relaxed somewhat. The men had access to newspapers and radios. With the help of a senator, Mr. Koller secured a subscription for The Economist to complement his lessons.

Meanwhile, hundreds of the internees were being returned to Britain – including Mr. Pariser. “I was then working for the British government, since I was such a dangerous person, translating Japanese and Russian texts.” (Some were sent back almost immediately – they had been working on vital war-related projects, such as radar, and were swept up by mistake.)

By mid-1941, thanks largely to Mr. Paterson’s efforts, students who could secure a sponsor began to be released, enrolling in yeshivas, matriculation courses and universities.

Dr. Kohn, the future Nobel laureate, had hoped to be a farmer, but an aptitude test led him to quite a different career. “That’s another example where the Canadians went out of their way to be helpful,” he says. “I took this test and I was confined to one suggestion: physics. So I thought that was a sign from above.”

He studied at the University of Toronto and went on to do his doctorate at Harvard. But he couldn’t get a job at a Canadian university, and so stayed in the U.S., eventually winding up at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1998, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on “density functional” theory, which can be applied to physics as well.

Things turned out well for Dr. Kohn, now 89, and for many of his contemporaries, but Ms. Draper is hesitant to say the story has a happy ending. “Some people were very bitter about their experience,” she explains, “and, in light of the Holocaust, found it very difficult to even tell their kids about it. They said, ‘Well, what do I tell my kids? That I came here as a prisoner? As an enemy?’ ”

Vancouver artist Wendy Oberlander was one of those children who grew up unaware of what had happened to her father. “We knew that he’d been in camp, we knew that that wasn’t a concentration camp and we knew that it wasn’t a summer camp, but we actually didn’t know anything more,” she says. “There was this silent imperative that you don’t ask. … We could feel my father’s discomfort and fear and inability to speak about it.”

When she learned from a friend that his father also had been confined to some sort of camp in Canada, she began to ask questions – and do research, in particular at the Canadian Jewish Congress archives in Montreal, which had files on many of the internees. “It was ... humbling, painful,” she says. “I felt ashamed in a certain way. ... It’s like stumbling on someone’s diary or someone’s private notes.”

The end result was her award-winning 1996 short film Nothing To Be Written Here, which finally allowed daughter and father to discuss – for the camera – what had happened. “Ultimately ... he felt very grateful someone told his story,” she says of her father, who died in 2008.

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