Mr. Koller, a former foreign correspondent for the CBC, was only vaguely aware of what had happened to his father, who went on to work as an economist, including a job with the Royal Commission on Transportation.
Described by his son as “a prodigious pack rat,” he kept a large wooden crate in the basement for many years, but Frank Koller didn’t explore the material until long after his father’s death in 1963. What he found was heartbreaking: carbon copies of letters desperately seeking information about his father’s mother and sister, as well as responses, the last of which suggested that the two women had been sent to Andrychow in southern Poland.
The news may have provided some relief at the time, but Andrychow turned out to be a feeder station for Auschwitz.
After the war, many of those who had been interned received terrible news. Rabbi Schild’s parents were deported from Cologne and perished – he doesn’t know how – in Riga. Dr. Kohn’s parents died in 1944 in Theresienstadt.
“I am very angry about what happened to my parents; you can’t imagine how angry I am,” Dr. Kohn says, his constant smile vanishing for an instant. “I am not angry with Canada. I’m fond of Canada.”
While some refugees – especially the older ones – languished, Dr. Kohn’s is far from the only success story: Max Perutz also won the Nobel for chemistry, in 1962. Helmut Kallmann was chief of Canada’s national music archives. Kurt Rothschild became a noted Toronto industrialist and philanthropist. Max Stern was a famed Montreal art historian and gallery owner.
Rabbi Schild had a long career at Toronto’s Adath Israel congregation (where he remains rabbi emeritus). Emil Fackenheim was a renowned theologian and philosopher. Mr. Oberlander was a noted Vancouver architect and pioneering professor of urban planning. Harry Seidler became a celebrated architect in Australia.
“You could look at this group and say here’s an example of what Canada denied itself by closing its doors,” Ms. Draper says. “If we look at what they contributed to our country over the last 70 years and then you magnify that by all the people ... we did not rescue, then we see what a tremendous mistake Canada made at that time.”
Ms. Oberlander draws a parallel to modern Canada: “These are people that the government said no to repeatedly, and we think today: ‘Who are the immigrants that we turn away – and the potential of the wealth of gift and humanity that they bring?’ We don’t know.”
Over the years, the story has been told in memoirs and, of course, on film – as well as Ms. Oberlander, the late Harry Rasky produced a documentary aired in 1982. But the Vancouver centre is the first institution to produce a full exhibition, which came about after it was encouraged to act while there was still some alive to tell the story first-hand.
The urgency was warranted. Three men interviewed for Enemy Aliens have died in the past six months, one just a week before the opening.
At the launch, an emotional Rabbi Schild, wearing his Order of Canada pin, spoke of his love for this country and his pride in what he and those like him have contributed. “We ... helped to build a better Canada, and that’s why I think it is a story with a happy ending,” he told the packed house.
“Above all, it brought me to Canada, all expenses paid.”
Marsha Lederman is a member of The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau.