At Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was a warehouse referred to by inmates and their Nazi guards, as “Canada.” There, prisoners sorted out the various goods brought by newly arrived inmates to Auschwitz, including the clothes that they wore upon arrival. To the inmates of the death camp, those items represented untold luxury and richness that were as accessible to them as the impossibly faraway country of Canada. The irony was not lost on the Germans.
On March 23, 1949, a widowed mother, her two daughters and a son arrived in Halifax as landed immigrants. They had been hidden during the war. Her husband, the children’s father, had perished in Auschwitz.
I was six-and-a-half years old then, and had travelled on my mother’s French passport since I was too young to have my own. I remained in that status for a number of years, though I was able to get a French passport a few years later. After finishing high school in Montreal, I went to study at Yeshiva University in New York. It was then that I decided I should apply for Canadian citizenship. But when I went to the Canadian Consulate, I was told that I could only do so from Canada. Thus my status as a landed Canadian immigrant and French citizen continued through my undergraduate and graduate studies in the U.S.
In 1973, I accepted a post-doctoral position at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, and so as a landed immigrant I started the process of returning to Canada. By now, I had an American wife and a two-year-old son, and while the application process went fairly smoothly, I recall one unsettling interview together with my wife at the Canadian Consulate in New York.
At one point, the consular official said to me, “All you people coming from the Middle East, and you know who I mean.” I bit my lip and kept quiet. Then he complained about PhDs coming to Canada “while our PhDs are driving taxis.” Again, I didn’t respond. Finally, he told me that if he had his way, I wouldn’t be accepted. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, my application had already been approved by Ottawa.
I still don’t know what the purpose of that interview was. But I waited until I was settled in Toronto to report the incident to immigration authorities. The fellow I spoke to told me that consular officials hated all immigrants – one week it was the Portuguese, the next it was the Italians, and then the Jews, etc. – so I dropped the matter. I was just happy to be here.
In 1976, I officially applied for Canadian citizenship, and was granted the privilege. I well remember the swearing-in ceremony. It was held in a large room in a downtown courthouse, and there were about 100 people being inducted. The judge seemed to drone on and on. My mind wandered and my glazed eyes turned to a Mountie who was standing rigidly at attention at the front. He didn’t move a muscle.
Then two things happened in quick succession, snapping me out of my reverie. It was a comfortable, pleasant day, but two people fainted. One was from eastern Europe – this before the iron curtain fell. The other was a refugee from war-torn Vietnam who had managed to arrive at these shores. They had lost consciousness out of pure emotion.
At that point, I said to myself, “Hold on. Don’t be such a wise guy. Don’t take things for granted.”
I should have been more sensitive to the significance and meaning of the ceremony – especially because of my personal history. While I had understood it cerebrally, I finally realized emotionally the remarkable blessing I had in being an immigrant, and then a citizen, of this great country Canada. It was a defining moment in my life.
Eli Honig taught physics at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for 31 years, and for longer than that at the University of Toronto.