Friday, August 18, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Halifax’s Pier 21

Post-Holocaust Jews in Canada
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

“Alts ken der mentsh fargesn nor nit esn.”
Nahum Stutchkoff
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the first place in Canada many immigrants saw. Between 1928 and 1971, when travel by ship was still common, one million immigrants disembarked at Pier 21. A subset of this figure are displaced persons (DPs or war refugees). Between 1946 and 1952, during the post-war period, Canada received about 160,000 displaced persons from Europe, or about 16% of the one million DPs post-1945 who were not repatriated to their native lands.

But the chief victims of the Second World War were not the ones who were most welcome: the estimated 250,000 European Jews who survived the war, the Khurbn Eyrope (חורבן אײראָפּע; “Destruction of Europe”), as it is called in Yiddish. Canada accepted no more than 8% of them (the “them” being our people, my people), or no more than 20,000 Jewish individuals. But then again there was already a precedent in place. Between 1933 and 1945, for example, Canada accepted only 5,000 Jews from Europe, and even then with stringent economic conditions.

In truth, Canada then was not too welcoming to Jews, reflecting a desire to maintain its white Christian identity. The situation changed only decades later, starting in the 1970s, two decades after the war and a decade or so after Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1959), Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) were translated from their original languages and published in English. Afterward, fact-based stories written in a personal and approachable literary style helped to change people’s sensibilities in the English-speaking world about racial identity and people-hood, particularly as it applied to the Jews.

But that was decades later; immediately after the war, there was not much sympathy shown for the European Jews, despite having lived through a nightmarish 12 year reign of terror, which included the Holocaust, a central piece of The Second World War. Lest we forget, this was a war started by Nazi Germany (1933–45), whose purpose was military expansion, notably of Europe and ethnic cleansing, notably of the Jews. Its ideology of domination and destruction, based chiefly on racial superiority—as evil an ideology as have ever existed—was thankfully defeated by the combined might of the Allied armed forces.

Even so, the end of war brought with it new urgencies, new imperatives, leaving little time to mourn and reflect; that might come later. In its place is an urgency to move forward, shown in the human spirit of tenacity and perseverance, and reflected in the belief that things will soon be better. The first steps, the return to humanity began in the DP camps, which despite their many shortcomings were already better than what preceded it.

From that point onward, for the survivors, the displaced persons, the refugees, the persons without a home, it was about “building life,” about finding a place to “build a new life,” which many did after arriving in Canada, at times with unimpeachable success. One such shining example is found in The Canadian Encyclopedia, which writes:
One war refugee, Rosalie Abella, summarized what Pier 21 meant to her: “Opportunity, generosity, and idealism is what this Pier stands for — Canada’s best self. It is the Canada that let us in, the Canada that took one generation’s European horror story and made it into another generation’s Canadian fairytale.” Abella was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1946 and arrived in Canada with her parents in 1950. She would go on to become the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
How far she has come: Yasher Koach. This is a great success by any standard and all the more so knowing the humble beginnings of Rosalie Silberman Abella, to wit, having started out life in a DP camp in Stuttgart, Germany, symbolically on July 1, 1946. She was appointed to Canada’s highest court by Prime Minster Paul Martin in August 2004, where she continues to serve honourably.

In a powerful commencement speech Justice Abella made to graduates of Brandeis University in Massachusetts (on May 21, 2017), she recounts lessons learned from her childhood, post-war, which no doubt influenced her thinking: “Indifference is injustice’s incubator; it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

What a gute neshome she has. This is as true today as it was 70 years ago. My father was another of these Jewish displaced persons (displaced from his home in Poland) fortunate to be allowed to come into Canada; he was 40 when he landed at Halifax’s Pier 21. He made his way via train to Toronto (a trip that likely took another few days), but he decided shortly after to move to Montreal, which then had the largest Jewish community in Canada and where there were more persons like himself, Yiddish speakers from Poland, his landslayt. After New York City and Israel, Montreal had the largest number of Eastern Europe Jews who survived the war.

One of the first things my father did after coming to Montreal was join The Workmen’s Circle, for which he had a lifelong commitment. With their help, it was in Montreal where he quickly found work (as a cabinetmaker); it is also where he met and married my mother, in 1952, a year after arriving in Canada. It was about building a new life, replacing the one that was destroyed in Europe.

My father made his life in Montreal, which was far better and safer than the Europe he left behind. I don’t remember him saying anything about “missing Europe.” He was successful in that he did more than survive; he built a new life, worked hard and raised a family while imbuing us with a sense of purpose and identity, with Yiddishkeit. He simply followed his view that “the past belonged in the past,” while quietly maintaining the culture with which he was familiar.

He seemed content enjoying Montreal and the surrounding countryside and making trips to the American border towns in New York and Vermont, where we often spent summer vacations, in the 1970s, in cheap motels that had kitchenettes where my mother did the cooking. We didn't venture more than an hour away from home; we never for example visited New York City. He enjoyed the America he saw, as I did then, having many fond memories of the people and the places we visited.

Pier 21 closed in 1971, when air travel supplanted ship travel. There is now a national museum, The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which tells the stories of immigrants who arrived in Canada via ship, who started their journey here, as my father did in Halifax, in the 1950s, where he made a new life in a new land. This is never easy, but it is made easier when the process of integration is helped by those who arrived earlier.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, August 18, 2017

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