The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre developed an online exhibition and ready-to-use teacher guide on the fate of Jewish refugees in Canada during the Holocaust.
Both the exhibition “Enemy Aliens. The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940 – 1943” and the comprehensive teacher guide illustrate the little-known story of Canada and the interned refugees. The concept of “Enemy Aliens” in the title of the exhibit immediately clarifies how these refugees were received. The journey of these Jewish refugees – from fascist Europe to refuge in England, imprisonment by Britain and Canada and eventual release – is a bittersweet tale of survival during the Holocaust.
The educational activities in the teacher guide are recommended for grades 8 through 12. The teacher guide includes readings, photographs, discussion questions (both for individual reflection and class discussions), movie clips of testimonials and assignments for written reflection. The online exhibition is an attractive and easy-to-use resource for students to navigate through the story of these “enemy aliens” and find resources and information for assignments. Some topics and activities that are included in these resources are the following:
- Students investigate primary sources such as prewar photographs of former internees to get an idea of prewar Jewish life in Germany and Austria.
- Students watch testimonials about the rise of Nazism to find out how Jewish life changed during this time. What do these experiences reveal about the early stages of the Holocaust?
- Students research other groups that have been “enemy aliens” during Canada’s wars. Did the policies change? Did the thinking change?
- Students consider the different perspectives of this story: the perspective of an individual trying to flee Nazism, the perspective of the Canadian government classifying and interning “enemy aliens” or the perspective of Canadians witnessing the internees arriving on their shores in 1940.
- Students are also inspired to make a link to the present by reflecting on refugees: what is a refugee? What circumstances might cause somebody to flee his or her home? What circumstances might prevent a person from doing so? What are examples of refugees from the present day?
Canada’s Closed Doors
From 1923 on, Jews were only admitted to Canada if they were British or American, if they had close family in Canada, or if they could muster the political influence necessary to get a rarely issued entry permit. In July 1938, Canada sent representatives to the international Evian conference on refugees, only to ensure that it would not be put forward as a haven for Jews.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the British government established tribunals to determine which German and Austrian nationals over the age of 16 posed a threat to national security. Meanwhile, the press fueled anxieties about “fifth columnists” (enemy spies) among the populace.
The tribunals heard 73,000 cases. Only 569 were deemed “Category A” – a “significant risk” – and immediately incarcerated. The 6,700 classified as “Category B” were designated as “friendly enemy aliens” and a “slight risk”. They were restricted to travelling no more than five miles from their homes and were forbidden to own cameras and bicycles. Approximately 66,000 were classified as “Category C” and judged to pose no risk to national security. Within this group, 55,000-60,000 were Jewish and declared to be “refugees from Nazi Oppression.”
“We [should] discriminate not between Britons and aliens or ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘friendly aliens’ but between those who stand for freedom and those who stand for tyranny in every country. … The real ‘aliens’ are the ‘Nazis of the soul’ of all countries including our own.” – François Lafitte in his 1940 book The Internment of Aliens.
By the end of May 1940, the British government had arrested all Category B aliens in “protected areas” along the south and east coasts and all male and some female Category C refugees. The refugees were caught up in the press-fueled fear of a possible German invasion of England.
30,000 internees were being held behind barbed wire at racetracks, in tent cities and at other makeshift facilities throughout England. Most were Jewish refugees from Nazism. They were told their incarceration was a temporary measure and that they would be released as soon as the “true spies” were weeded out. The internees were also fearful of a German invasion. They had no illusions about their fate if they fell back into Nazi hands.
Canada and Australia, both former British colonies, were approached to take thousands of “enemy aliens”. Canada agreed to take 7,000 “dangerous type” civilians and prisoners of war.
In June 1940, the first ship sailed for Canada loaded with “A” internees and prisoners of war. Three more ships followed. Aboard, however, were large numbers of refugees. The speed of the deportations and the lack of captured Axis soldiers meant that the British used men in the “B” and “C” categories to fill the quota. Canada received approximately 2,300 “B” and “C” interned refugees.
Internment in Canada
In Canada, hostility to Jews was widespread and they were denied educational, professional and residential opportunities.
Upon arrival in Canada, the refugees were spread out in makeshift prisoner of war camps in New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario. While some commandants and guards displayed tolerance for their prisoners, others combined anti-German and anti-Jewish attitudes when dealing with them.
Meanwhile, refugees interned in England were quickly gaining release and most were soon engaged in the war effort. The British, admitting their error, informed Canada that the refugees could be returned to freedom in Britain, although made it clear that they preferred that they be released into the safety of Canada. But Canada had resisted pressures in the past to grant admission to Jewish refugees, and officials were determined not to let Jews gain entry through the “back door” of internment.
Those who wished to join the British Pioneer Corps (a non-fighting unit) were soon able to return to Britain. Also released were scientists who had been working on top-secret military intelligence technology, and a few others needed for war-related work. The rest languished behind barbed wire in Canadian camps; some would stay there for as long as three years. They called themselves the “camp boys”.
To find out more about the stories of these refugees and life in the internment camps, be sure to check the online exhibition “Enemy Aliens. The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940 – 1943”. All information and images in this blog post were extracted from this exhibition. You can download the teacher guide here.
We would like to hear from you! What are your thoughts on the resource we present here? Would you use it as an educator when talking about refugees today? Do you see similarities with today’s responses towards the situation of refugees? We look forward to your feedback. You can share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.