By Kim Quinn, FSWC Educator
Strand A. Heritage and Identity: Communities in Canada, Past and Present:
A3.7 describe significant events or developments in the history of Jewish communities in Canada, including some of the ways they have contributed to Canada
Canada entered the Second World War on September 10, 1939. Among the Canadians who enlisted were 17,000 Jews – almost 40% of military-aged Jewish men in Canada. They fought, as Prime Minister King would later write, against a double threat: fascism and the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish people.
The dangers of battle were not the only risk Jewish soldiers took – if they were captured or detained by enemy forces, they risked becoming victims of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Many found themselves in prisoner of war camps, hiding their identity to prevent a relocation to the death camps of Nazi-occupied Poland. Reflecting the gravity of the situation was Canada’s own stance towards the Jewish plight: following the Evian Conference of 1938, Canada resolutely closed its doors to almost all Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazism. Indeed, Canada accepted less than 5,000 Jewish refugees, one of the lowest numbers of all democracies during 1933-1945.
What’s more, threats of capture were not limited to the Western Front. Allied forces, worried about potential enemy spies. German, Austrian, and Dutch men studying or travelling through Great Britain and Canada were routinely rounded up and imprisoned in holding camps, similar to the Japanese internment camps in Canada and the United States. In Canada, approximately 2,300 Jewish boys and men were held in captivity across Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, many of whom were housed alongside Nazis who had fled military responsibilities, but still eagerly believed in a world cleansed of Jews.
Although Jewish refugees remained largely closed off from entering Canada, by 1943 those awaiting news in internment camps were gradually released into refugee status and placed in halfway housing. The situation remained tense, as it was all but stated that deportation could occur at any moment – even back to war-torn Europe. Nevertheless, the process afforded some respite from proximity to Nazi co-prisoners, and many of the Jewish “enemy aliens” would join the growing outcry against Canada’s restrictive refugee policy.
If you wish further information on the history of Jewish Canadians in the Canadian military, as well as other resources about Jewish history in Canada, the education team at FSWC is compiling an online database for educators, which will provide source materials and information to support the new Ontario Social Studies curriculum. Please keep an eye on FSWC updates for more!
Bessner, Ellin. “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, The Military, and World War II.”
Koch, Eric. “Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder.”