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Melli: The heartbreaking truth about Canada and immigration during the Holocaust

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During the Holocaust, over six million Jews were murdered. Many lives could have been saved if other countries had opened their doors, pushed past the stereotypes and social norms, and welcomed those escaping the Nazi menace.

Although some countries did accept refugees, they didn’t do enough. Canada, which has a reputation as one of the most accepting and culturally diverse countries in the world, accepted  5,000 Jews, one of the worst records of  the western democracies. They rejected many more than they accepted.

Canada, years before the Holocaust had even started, was a very anti-Semitic country. Perhaps it stemmed from the government under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King or the false stereotypes that many European immigrants had or the influence that the church had. My great-grandfather Cesar Szelepski always wanted to be Canadian. Although he was proud of his Polish nationality, there was something about the dream of Canada that always appealed to him. When he left Poland in 1930 at the age of 17, he could only go to Argentina because he had family members that were living there. To get in, you had to have a family member write you a card to be accepted. Another family member paid for his journey. When he arrived in May, he was excited to live in a country filled with immigrants from all over the world. Perhaps, it was better than Canada.

Unfortunately, shortly after he arrived, the situation in Argentina started to worsen almost immediately. Over the next few years, he slowly started to bring his family to Argentina by working in a factory. In 1933, he brought his younger brother. They worked hard to try to bring their parents and the four siblings that were still in Poland to Argentina. During this time, Canada had placed Jews into the most unwanted category of immigration. Proof of a $15,000 investment into farming was needed to enter. Although my great-grandfather would’ve given up almost anything for the opportunity to Canada, his main priority was helping his family.

Canada was invited to the Evian Conference a few years later in 1938. This was a conference for world leaders to discuss the ongoing situation in Europe. They didn’t want to go originally but only went because they were assured that they would not be made to accept Jews.

That same year, my great-grandfather brought his sister to Argentina. Originally, Cesar wanted his father to come but since another war was on the horizon in Europe, his sister was sent instead. Although there is not an exact day, it is believed that my great-grandfather’s family was killed, around a year later, in front of their synagogue.

Meanwhile, Canada was very strict with their policies when it came to Jewish refugees. There were a few cases where Jews who applied to Canada lied about their religion. They were accepted but lived in fear. They hid their beliefs and some even started to attend church to help blend in with the majority Christian Canadian population. When the MS St. Louis carrying around 1,000 Jewish refugees was rejected from Cuba and later the United States, Canada had a special opportunity to help all these innocent people who were fleeing persecution and probable death. Canada did not take any special measures. Of the 937 people who boarded the ship, and the 907 who returned to a war-filled Europe, 254 later died in concentration camps.

During the summer of 1940, Canada and Australia were forced to accept around 3,000 refugees because England had already accepted so many Jewish refugees. The thought of being “escorted” into Canada would’ve been many people’s wish come true, especially that of my great-grandfather, but when these 3,000 Jewish Europeans arrived in Canada, they were placed into prisoner camps. These people were given the name “accidental immigrants.” Thanks to all the efforts from Jewish organizations, these immigrants were placed in new camps. In 1943, the camps were closed and only 972 people chose to stay in Canada.

My great-grandfather later had three boys in Argentina. After restarting his life in an unknown country, starting a family, and doing his best to support his own children made it impossible for his wish to come true. While we must not dwell on the “What-if’s,” it’s important to learn and know what Canada did. We cannot change the actions or change the “none is too many” mindset when it came to Jewish refugees being accepted into Canada, but we can make sure that this mindset is never again employed.

In 2002, my parents and older sister came to Canada. Two years later, 74 years after my great-grandfather left Poland, I was born; the first Canadian of the family.

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Mica Melli is a grade 10 student at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School. He lives in London, Ont.