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Historian recalls how Canada shut out Jews of Nazi Europe

Jewish Post and News
WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Canada, April 7 (JTA) — “You are our last hope. If you don’t take us in, you will be our death warrant.” That heart-wrenching request was in a copy of a telegram Irving Abella received in a “plain brown envelope” in the 1970s. Dated June 30, 1939, the message was from the doomed German Jews on the St. Louis. Fleeing Nazi Germany, the ship was cruising up and down the east coasts of North and South America, seeking a country that would accept its passengers. In the envelope was a second telegram — a curt reply to the passengers from a Canadian immigration official: “Permission to land refused.” The contents of that envelope eventually led Abella to help research and co-author “None Is Too Many,” a book about how Canada closed its doors to the Jews of Nazi and post-Holocaust Europe. A history professor at York University in Toronto, Abella visited Winnipeg last month for the world premiere of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre production of the same name. Published in 1982, the book began “by accident,” recalled Abella, past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. A graduate student of his who could not find a job started doing research on his own at the National Archives in the 1970s. The student sent him “plain brown envelopes” about information being cataloged there. After getting an envelope with copies of the telegrams from the St. Louis and the Canadian government’s reply, Abella wondered how the Canadian government treated other Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. Abella got part of his answer at the National Archives. After spending four days going through listings of Immigration Department records, he came across one on “Jewish refugees.” “I went into the reading room and waited for my file. The archives clerk came back with a trolley with four huge boxes.” Peering inside, Abella found “old yellowing letters” and pictures. These turned out to be requests from European Jews for entry into Canada. “We are alone,” read one letter from a doctor, writing for his family. “There is nothing left for us but suicide.” “We appeal for permission from you to enter your country,” the letter continued. “You are our last hope.”
Canada’s acceptance of only 4,000 Jewish refugees during the war was the worst in the Western world, Abella said. Mexico took in 20,000 Jews. The tiny Dominican Republic accepted twice as many as Canada. The Depression of the 1930s was partly to blame for widespread anti-Semitism in government and beyond. “People were looking for scapegoats — our politicians, leaders, journalists. They didn’t feel Jews were good for Canada. They wanted people with brawn. Jews were seen as people with brains. We closed our doors to them.” Abella hopes that the theatrical version of “None is Too Many” will have an impact first on the public and then on government policy. “I hope it will be seen across the country — by school groups and others,” he said in an interview. He hopes that will lead to pressure on the government to be more accepting of refugees and others in difficult situations who today want to come to Canada. “Our record is pretty good, compared to the rest of the world, but it could be better,” Abella said. “We have to know our past to confront the present.”