Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s belated apology for Canada turning away the MS St. Louis in 1939 has refocused attention on this country’s shameful anti-Semitic immigration policy during the Second World War. After the war, with large numbers of traumatized Jewish survivors languishing in displaced persons camps in Europe, Canada came under growing pressure to relax its restrictions.
In response, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King declared that Canada would participate in the rescue and resettlement of people from the camps. Immigrants would be selected carefully, because admission to Canada was a privilege, not a right, and the number that would be admitted would be based on the “absorptive capacity” of the country. What remained unstated was that in the government’s view, Jews would strain the absorptive capacity of the country in any year. Thus, although it was clearly in the national interest to increase the population, it was also considered to be in the national interest to limit the number of Jewish immigrants to the bare minimum.
The exasperated Jewish leadership concluded that the only way to get greater numbers of their hapless brethren into Canada was to demonstrate that they could benefit the country. The garment industry was a mainstay of the Canadian economy, but its growth was hampered by a chronic shortage of workers. This industry was heavily Jewish, from business owners, to union officials, to workers. For once, they all agreed to set aside their customary adversarial relationship and join forces. Their efforts were rewarded in October 1947, when approval was granted for the admission of 2,136 tailors and 500 furriers. There was no specific mention of Jews in the order-in-council – from the government’s point of view, this was to be a strictly pragmatic, economically motivated initiative.
An eight-man delegation, headed by Canadian Fur Workers’ Union officials Harris Silver and Max Federman, arrived in Rome on June 11, 1948, to recruit Jews from the various Italian DP camps. Interviews were held on a first come, first served basis.
My father, Béla Rubinstein, his brother, Dezso, and their nephew, Sandor Hofstadter, all residents of UNRRA Camp No. 17 in Grugliasco, managed to get to the Canadian Embassy early and were among the fortunate few selected. None of them had any experience working with furs, but the recruiters didn’t care: they were on a humanitarian mission to bring war-ravaged fellow Jews to a better life in Canada.
The delighted new furriers were oblivious to the intrigue that had unfolded behind the scenes in Ottawa. After much wheeling and dealing, the delegation had been authorized to fill the 500-person furrier quota with 300 Jews and 200 non-Jews. Although the immigration officials had at first insisted on an equal balance between Jews and non-Jews, they grudgingly conceded that the split was not realistic, given the enormity of the Jewish refugee problem in Europe.
Sure enough, finding the Jews was easy, but the others proved a real challenge. After all, non-Jews were welcome in Canada and enjoyed unlimited employment opportunities. The displeased authorities abruptly halted the entire program: no Jews would come to Canada as furriers until the quota of 200 non-Jews was filled. In the end, the government authorized the recruitment of 149 non-Jewish single females. The consolation was that the 300 Jewish men would bring their families, for a total of about 800 Jews redeemed from the DP camps.
Today, Canada enjoys a stellar reputation as a progressive and compassionate country that continually absorbs large numbers of immigrants of every race, creed and colour. But it is important to recall the sordid historical background to appreciate just how breathtakingly this wonderful country in which we are privileged to live has been transformed.
An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada is Robert Eli Rubinstein’s Canadian Jewish Book Award-winning account of how his survivor parents succeeded in rebuilding their shattered lives after the war.