The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre is currently hosting an exhibition called, "’Enemy Aliens’: The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940-1943.” Incorporating eyewitness testimony and artefacts from the period, the exhibit tells a sad story in the history of Canadian immigration policy and Canadian Jewish relations.
In 1940 Britain requested Canada among other nations to accept and imprison German prisoners of war and enemy spies until the end of the Second World War. By mistake, mixed in with the “Category A” prisoners sent to Canada were some 7,000 innocent Jewish refugees. When they arrived in Canada these Austrian and German Jews were imprisoned in eight camps across Canada at least two of which also held Nazi prisoners.
Despite British officials alerting Canadian authorities to the error, it took three years before all the legitimate Jewish refugees were freed.
How could Canadians incarcerate for three years Jewish refugees who were guilty of nothing more than fleeing almost certain death in Europe?
According to “The Jewish Daily Forward” there are two answers to this question.
The first reason so many Jews remained unjustly imprisoned on Canadian soil was Frederick Charles Blair. He was the Director of the Government of Canada's Immigration Branch from 1936 to 1943. Blair apparently “believed an international Jewish conspiracy was trying to skirt Canadian immigration policies by sneaking the refugees into the country.”
But it is the second reason for this miscarriage of justice in the 1940’s that is the most troubling and that belongs on a Canadian newspaper’s Religion page. “The Jewish Daily Forward” claims that, according to UBC historian Richard Menkis, “anti-Semitic attitudes among Canada’s Protestant elite had hardened in the run-up to World War II,” giving rise to the belief that “ethnic minorities lacked Canadian values”. As a result Jews in Canada “faced quotas in universities, were blocked from various professional fields and barred from certain neighborhoods.”
There is little doubt that there is a deeply disturbing link between some teaching in the Christian tradition and the most virile antisemitism.
To take one small example among a tragic litany of writings from Christian tradition, Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in his posthumously published Pensées, wrote, “It is a wonderful thing, and worthy of particular attention, to see this Jewish people existing so many years in perpetual misery, it being necessary as a proof of Jesus Christ, both that they should exist to prove Him, and that they should be miserable because they crucified Him” (PenséesSection IX “Perpetuity” #640).
Christians must never deny the terrible legacy of antisemitic hatred and violence that has its roots in the bad theology that has characterized far too much of our past reflections on the nature of our faith.
If the human community is going to forge a future that avoids the pitfalls of the past, it will only be as we acknowledge and repent of our tendency toward violence, discrimination and enemy formation.
The curators of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre should be applauded for helping hold the mirror of truth up for us to look more honestly at the tragic legacy of which even in Canada we are guilty heirs.
The “Enemy Aliens” exhibit remains on view through June 2013 at 50 - 950 W 41st Ave Vancouver.
Christopher Page is the rector of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay, and the Archdeacon of Tolmie in the Anglican Diocese of B.C. He writes regularly at: www.inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com
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