Zelda Abramson, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and her family came to Montreal in 1952 and their early years in the city were financially challenging. It wasn’t as seamless a journey as the family expected and when Abramson grew up, she realized she didn’t know very much about the struggles faced by the city’s Holocaust survivors.
That curiosity itched at Abramson, who’s now the head of the sociology department at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. So, in 2012, she and her partner, John Lynch, started interviewing Holocaust survivors who settled in Montreal, to get a clearer picture of what they endured in that postwar period. The culmination of those interviews, and their research into hundreds of case files from Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, is the basis for a new book called The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust.
“There have been very few studies on this topic,” Abramson says, “and none that showed the narrative arc I wanted to learn more about.” She also notes that she wanted to compile details about what Canada got wrong when it barred many Jews from immigrating here.
Montreal underwent a massive transformation when survivors travelled from Europe or Israel to Halifax and then made their way to Montreal. The influx of refugees boosted Montreal’s Jewish community from 63,888 in 1941, to 100,000 in 1958.
The candid interviews in the book present a portrait of what these immigrants encountered in areas such as work, health care, language barriers and anti-Semitism. As Abramson writes in one chapter, “Jewish immigration was feared … because Jews might be a prime source for the communist subversion of the Canadian system … and because they were stereotyped as capitalists with exploitative tendencies.”
Many settlers described feeling lonely, as interviewee Myra G. points out in the book: “I remember the humiliation of being an outsider, of not speaking the language.… I remember wanting to become invisible and disappear into the walls: please don’t notice me, please don’t notice me.”
Abramson says the arrival of so many Holocaust survivors reshaped Montreal’s Jewish community in impactful ways: many educated Jews came to Montreal and injected “cultural capital into Canada.… And these Jews also gave birth to Yiddish culture in Montreal.”
“Montreal was changed by the survivors and the survivors were changed by Montreal,” adds Abramson.
How these refugees endured their challenges comes up often in The Montreal Shtetl, but thankfully, there are more happy endings than tragic denouements. Abramson writes in the latter half of the book that, “Although not every family was a financial success, most Holocaust survivors living in Montreal were successful in that they were able to buy a home, and they were not wanting for food or clothing.”
As to what Abramson would like readers to be left with when they finish the book, she says, “I want them to understand the politics of migration and learn about the decisions made of who can and can’t enter our country. At certain times, we need to be more generous in terms of supporting immigration and helping them once they arrive in Canada.”