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Erwin Shild, left, and Walter Kohn visit ‘Enemy Aliens’ at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

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.

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"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."

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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."

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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.

"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.)

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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.")

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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