Saturday, August 19, 2017

Nobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked (2015)

Post-War Jewish Montreal

“Gey redt tsum vant!”
Yiddish expression

Nobody Was Interested. Nobody AskedThe Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), by Max Beer of Montreal.
Via: Youtube

INobody Was Interested. Nobody Asked The Holocaust, the Montreal Jewish Community and the Survivors (2015), a one-hour documentary of the Montreal Jewish community, Max Beer shows how those who survived the Holocaust were marginalized by those who arrived before. Montreal’s Jewish community is unique in North America, one reason being that the Jews had to find a place in a city and a province that was long dominated by tensions between the English and the French.

Montreal after the war become home to Canada’s largest community of Holocaust survivors; and after New York, the second largest in North America. Equally important, Montreal by the mid-1950s became home to the third largest community of Holocaust survivors in the world, after Israel and New York. This is an important to know, because it is important to know that many Holocaust survivors made Montreal their home. With this in mind, Beer explains his reasons for making the documentary film:
In 2006 I completed my thesis What Else Could We Have Done?: The Montreal Jewish Community, the Canadian Jewish Congress, The Jewish Press and the Holocaust. which focused on the reaction or lack thereof to the Jewish tragedy by the Jewish community and the leadership during the war years. I then gave presentations on this subject to various groups.
One of these talks was to the Association of Child Survivors and Hidden Children of Montreal. After the presentation and the Q&A session, a survivor told me that the indifference to the fate of European Jewry continued in the postwar period. There appeared to be little interest to what had happened to these people in Europe. Survivors were sometimes told to get on with their lives and to forget the past. People could not comprehend the enormity of the tragedy.
One of the reasons I decided to make this film was to counter the long held conviction in the community that the refugees were unconditionally welcomed to Canadian shores. There was also a belief that somehow all the survivors were silent about what they had gone through in Europe and refused to talk to the locals. When I began to interview survivors and members of the community who had witnessed their arrival, I realized that the story was much more complex. The film shows the history of Holocaust awareness and how it took years for the community to come to terms with the Shoah and gradually accept the survivor population into Montreal Jewish society.
I should add that my interest in this subject also stems from the fact that I am the son of survivors who came to Montreal in 1949. I too remember the divide in the community between the local Jewish population that had come to Montreal before the war and the European immigrants.
I find that the most visceral response I get to the film is from the survivor community and their families. Many remember well the prejudice that existed in the postwar period. Many remember the terms Mocky and Greener, derogatory words used to describe them by members of the local Jewish community. Among Jews who were born in Canada and had no links to their European coreligionists the Jewish catastrophe seemed to be a sideshow, overshadowed by the war itself. While the film tries not to place blame, it hopefully clarifies a very difficult and tragic period in time.
And break the silence, long overdue; although I am younger than Max Beer, I share some of his experiences and views. His father and my father were friends, as much as I remember such things. In a great sense the Holocaust and the Second World War that produced it created a dividing line. Much of this was due to the Jewish ethos at the time to “keep a low profile.” Sha Shtil! was implicitly said, lest more trouble arise. Anti-Semitism was still prevalent in the province of Quebec, including in its largest city, Montreal, where most Jews lived.

The Jews were between “the two solitudes,” the British on one side and the French on the other. In response, Jews in Montreal built a third solitude, which in the post-war period did not immediately allow any discussion of the Holocaust, possibly because of the history of anti-Semitism that permeated Quebec culture. The newcomers from Eastern Europe were initially unaware of the history and just wanted to build a better life, so they focused on this. Yet, there was a history.

In many ways, this film is a sobering look at how people were inadvertently marginalized, possibly as a result of the communal fear of repercussions, of the fear of making the majority culture angry, notably if they were in any way“forced” to look seriously at uncomfortable truths of their past (e.g., French-Canadians embracing Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s [see also here, here and here]; truths that have long been buried). This was also the waning days of British snobbery and elitism, which naturally would exclude the Jews.

How much further from acceptance were these post-war European Jews. These men and women were not the aliens (with strange foreign  accents) they became in the eyes of many, but heroes who overcame great obstacles, yes, greater than those who preceded them before the war. My father was one of those European Jews who arrived in Montreal during this post-war period (1947–1952) who never spoke about his life in Europe, and who rarely complained about life in Canada. I guess that he got the general message that it’s “time to move on” and that the ”past belongs in the past.”

In many ways, this is good advice, but it can’t apply for everyone. I don’t remember my father being bothered or concerned about fitting in or belonging to the broader Jewish community of “the locals.” He seemed fully content immersing himself in Yiddishkayt, and di Yidisher velt. Language is partly to explain, but not fully. I, on the other hand, wanted then to integrate and assimilate into Canadian culture. My father had other desires, and perhaps I disappointed him in this area of life.

Nu, this is the way it was. Even so, this does not mean that it has to stay this way. I have decided to make some  personal changes; and I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, other than to say with a bit of figurative language, to which only Yiddish can do justice: Es iz a veytik in meyn harts.

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