Seventy years ago, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Record ran a bold headline – Refugee Boulevard – on an article about the large crowds of young people who gathered on Sundays on Esplanade Avenue in Montreal, pouring onto Fletcher’s Field (now known as Jeanne-Mance Park).
They were not like the tam-tam players of today; they were well-dressed, orderly newcomers who were connecting with others who had survived the Holocaust as children or teens. They were rebuilding their lives in Montreal, in the neighbourhoods known today as the Plateau and Mile End.
Now in their 80s and 90s, a few of those people are inviting the public to join them on a walk through old haunts.
Refugee Boulevard: Making Montreal Home After the Holocaust is a three-pronged collaborative project of Dawson College, St-Paul University in Ottawa and the Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM), funded principally by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The centrepiece is an audio tour, downloadable free of charge, during which seven survivors reminisce as their favourite spots are passed. A majority of them came in 1948, under the War Orphans Project, and had to make their way alone.
Between 1947 and 1952, 764 boys and 352 girls arrived in Canada through the project. Many of them came with family, or under work schemes.
The tour starts in Jeanne Mance Park, at the Rubenstein water fountain at the corner of Mont Royal and Park avenues. Personal landmarks that mostly have different vocations today include the Herzl Dispensary on Jeanne Mance Street, the YMHA on Mont Royal Avenue, the Jewish Public Library (JPL) and Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada (JIAS) on Esplanade Avenue and Schreter’s clothing store on St-Laurent Boulevard.
The walk, which takes about an hour, ends at the Museum of Jewish Montreal on St-Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Avenue.
It’s narrated by Fishel Goldig, who is joined by Ted Bolgar, Paul Herczeg, Tommy Strasser, George Reinitz, Musia Schwartz and the late Renata Skotkicka-Zajdman, all of whom were active with the MHM for many years, where they told their stories to students.
Refugee Boulevard also includes a website (refugeeboulevard.ca), which provides additional information on the storytellers and others, including Muguette Myers and Sidney Zoltak, who appear in video interviews.
The survivors have also contributed personal photos that depict much happiness and confidence, despite their often difficult postwar adjustments.
The tour – both the audio and its transcript – can be accessed through the website, as well as an accompanying booklet that provides more historical context.
A theme is the critical role Jewish community institutions played in the integration of the refugees, including the Y, JIAS, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the JPL, where many learned English and the Canadian way of life.
The young survivors relied on their own networks, as well. The clubs they formed based on their countries of origin helped them find jobs and marriage partners. Many of the friendships they formed endure to this day.
Refugee Boulevard’s Sept. 15 launch was held in the former JPL building, which holds fond memories for the participants.
Four researchers spent almost a year completing the project, which, in addition to bringing these stories to a new and wider audience, they hope will contribute to the present-day conversation about refugees and immigrant resettlement.
The chief team members are: Stacey Zembrzycki and Nancy Rebelo, who teach in Dawson College’s history department; Anna Sheftel, an associate professor of conflict studies at St-Paul University; and Eszter Andor, the MHM’s commemorations and oral history co-ordinator. All are knowledgeable about the oral histories of various ethnic communities.
Zembrzycki has worked with Holocaust survivors since 2008 and was a survivor chaperone on the 2011 March of the Living. She is the author of According to Baba, an oral history of the Ukrainian community of Sudbury, Ont.
“This is not so much about how they survived … it’s a reminder of their struggle and resilience afterward,” she said, “their hard work and how they found friends and community in this neighbourhood.”
While the participants are grateful for the help they did receive, and are proud of what they made of their lives, some still feel the pain of the rejection they experienced from many in the Jewish community.
Friends Zoltak and Goldig, both natives of Poland, came here with their parents. “We were not very popular. They called us greenhorns and other names,” said Zoltak. He was a fine ballroom dancer, but native Jewish girls would not dance with him. He had to go to a dance hall downtown, where he was seen as a coveted dance partner.
“The Jewish community didn’t want to know what happened to us, they didn’t want to hear our stories,” added Goldig. “I went to a yeshivah for four years and no one ever asked me: how did you survive? … At the Y, in the change room, other kids would not go near us. It was very, very difficult for all of us.”