VANCOUVER — A couple of years ago, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre was approached by the children of Jewish men who were interned in Canada between 1940 and 1943. They came with fragments of stories told to them by their parents, declaring unanimously that these stories needed to be aired in public.
Many of their fathers had gone on to do great things in Canada. Two were Nobel laureates, one was a member of the Order of Canada and another was among Painters Eleven, a group of Canadian artists. There were university professors, architects, designers and men who achieved prominence in their respective careers. Their internment in Canada during the war years was a secret part of their lives that few had knowledge of.
In June 2012, after 18 months of intensive research and many hours of interviews with surviving internees, VHEC launched Enemy Aliens, an exhibit about the internment of Jewish refugees in Canada between those years.
“People are so surprised by this part of Canadian history that they don’t know,” said Nina Krieger, executive director of VHEC and curator of the exhibition. “This is our most ambitious project to date, and we feel so lucky to have amazing documents and photographs of internees, precious primary resources that have been entrusted to us.”
Between 1940 and 1943, Canada’s internment camps in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick were filled with more than 2,000 male Jewish internees from Germany and Austria. Shipped from the United Kingdom to Canada and Australia, they were a mix of intellectuals, political activists, teenagers and yeshiva boys who were thrown together in the confusion of war.
Britain had initially thought them to be “fifth columnists” who wanted to subvert the regime, but realized later the group they had comprised mostly civilians. This information was slow to reach Canada, however, and when the internees arrived, they were treated as dangerous prisoners of war and guarded behind barbed wire fences for most of their stay.
Using videos of first-person testimony of the 14 surviving internees who live across the country, Krieger and her team of researchers attempted to answer questions about the circumstances that brought them to Canada, and their experience in this country. “We’re mindful of how fortunate we were to capture those interviews,” she said, adding that three of the interviewees died before the exhibit launched.
The video testimonies add compelling immediacy to the rest of the exhibit, which consists of photographs, documents and explanatory panels describing life in the camps. In one video, internees describe the enemy’s welcome they received on arrival. Many had their belongings confiscated and stolen by Canadian soldiers, who pointed machine guns at them, thinking they were terrorists disguised as teens and religious Jews. “We were marched through town while the local population spat and cursed at us,” another recalled.
In the camps, this group of diversely talented individuals created a unique society that included religious worship, arts, culture, theatre, music, newspapers, education and a forum for learning and exchange. By distracting themselves with entertainment and learning, camp internees kept their spirits from plummeting. They were also able to upgrade their interrupted schooling to the point that many could write McGill University matriculation exams, a precursor to their application to Canadian universities.
Life in the camps was full of challenges, from ensuring food was kosher and observing the Day of Atonement to dealing with sexuality in an all-male camp.
The 44 artifacts on display bear evidence of some of the activity that occurred in the camp. There are diaries and paintings, including a small watercolour painting by Oscar Cahen, who became a member of Painters Eleven. The suitcase that Peter Oberlander brought from England to Canada is on display, as is a permission slip signed by the commandant of a camp in Sherbrooke, Que., giving an internee permission to sketch within the compound. Other identity documents refer to internees as “Jews,” “refugees” and “enemy aliens,” classifications that during that time served as instruments of oppression.
Enemy Aliens paints a clear picture of a Canada that was hostile toward and did not want to accept Jews. It’s a Canada that looked very different from the society we know today, and as you peruse the exhibition, you cannot help but feel grateful for the atmosphere of acceptance that exists in this country 70 years later.
After 1943, as the internees were released into Canadian society, a public relations campaign was launched to stem any backlash against them. The internees were presented as people with unique stories about their experiences, rather than as a group who might be usurping jobs from Canadians. In this way, the Central Committee for Interned Refugees successfully campaigned for the internees to be allowed to stay in Canada, as opposed to being extradited back to the United Kingdom.
Enemy Aliens was made possible in part as a result of funding from the Community Historical Recognition Program, which is part of the Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. It’s too late to recover the three years of internment that were lost to these internees, but not too late to achieve perspective, through Enemy Aliens, of what life was like for Jewish internees in Canada during that time.
Enemy Aliens runs through June 2013, after which it will become available as a travelling exhibit throughout Canada. Next month, it will also be available on an interactive website through which an international audience will be able to “handle” and examine documents online and gain a greater understanding of this story through its virtual presence.
For more information visit www.vhec.org or call 604-264-0499.