Review of Nazi Germany, Canadian Responses: Confronting Antisemitism in the Shadow of War, edited by L. Ruth Klein (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). 301 pp. Reprinted from the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism vol. 4 no. 2 (December 2012).
In 1982, historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper published an important study of Canadian immigration policy as it applied to Jews during the war years. None is Too Many documented the abysmal record of the Canadian government in responding to the Jewish refugee crisis created by Nazi Germany. One of the questions that resulted from the study was why Canada acted in this manner during the 1930s and 1940s. That is the question this new collection of seven essays, edited by Ruth Klein, attempts to answer.
To provide some indication of the Canadian mindset as it existed during the years of the Nazi regime this collection investigates attitudes in the public sphere through an analysis of an assortment of phenomena: press coverage in a number of contexts, two university administrations, literary works, Jewish advocacy movements, and Canada’s participation in the 1936 Olympics.
The collection begins with a contextual essay by Doris Bergen on the conditions faced by Germany’s Jews between 1933 and 1939, a period during which only 2000 European Jews were allowed into Canada. Following the example of Marion Kaplan’s excellent study, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, Bergen uses the personal testimonies of German Jews (housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) to illustrate the complex realities facing these refugees as they struggled to survive in Nazi Germany and as they fled the regime, a few of them for Canada.
The debate over Canadian participation in the Olympic Games of 1936, hosted by Nazi Germany, is the subject tackled by Richard Menkis and Harold Troper. Despite a boycott campaign led by Canadian Jewish Congress, and a public debate in the national newspapers, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) decided to follow the British decision to accept Germany’s invitation to the Games and passed the motion unanimously. The question investigated by Menkis and Troper is to what degree the Canadian public, and the COC, was aware of Nazi Germany’s racist and antisemitic policies at the time. Their examination of the Canadian press from 1933 to 1935 demonstrates substantial coverage of the new leadership in Germany; however, the editorial views of that leadership ranged widely between condemnation and optimistic respect. The press reported on the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and the resulting discrimination against Germany’s Jews, as well as the antisemitic speeches given by Nazi leaders. The somber conclusion drawn by this chapter is that Nazi antisemitism was not considered by the COC to be an issue of significance in their decision to participate in the Games of 1936. Of higher regard was the desire to follow Great Britain, to support Canadian athletes and their nationalist hunger for medals, as well as diplomatic and economic considerations.
Amanda Grzyb’s analysis of the mainstream Canadian press from 1938 to 1939 is one of the most important contributions to this volume. What exactly did the average Canadian know about the Nazi assault on the Jewish people across the Atlantic? Research into American press coverage of the Nazi period, particularly that of the Jewish-owned New York Times, stresses the lack of detail given to the Jewish identity of refugees and to the antisemitism of the Nazis. Not so in Canada: readers may be shocked to discover the wide and detailed coverage of the plight of Jews in Germany provided by the Canadian press. Focusing on increased coverage during three major events (Kristallnacht, the MS St. Louis, and antisemitic agitation in Quebec), Grzyb analyses the content of articles, editorials and letters published in The Globe and Mail and six other English dailies. Not only was Nazi antisemitism a subject of discussion in these papers, but the genocidal intent of the Nazi regime was also made clear in articles and editorials that quoted Hitlerian rhetoric (extermination, extinction, and liquidation) accurately. Nazism was clearly depicted as both a barbarous threat to civilization and a specific threat to Jews. Editors criticized the failure of Prime Minister Mackenzie King to publicly condemn Kristallnacht, as Roosevelt and Chamberlain did, and the papers covered protests by the Canadian public after November 9/10, 1938. One of the most fascinating discoveries shared by Grzyb is the Nazi response to this Canadian press coverage. In an attempt to minimize and relativize their own criminal behavior, the Nazis used their party paper Völkischer Beobachter to accuse Canada of what they termed similar crimes in its treatment of Aboriginal people. By the summer of 1939, however, press coverage declined to a trickle. Grzyb concludes that the press and public had grown complacent and perhaps, given the indifference of the Canadian government, become “overwhelmed by a sense that Jewish suffering was somehow unsolvable, inevitable, eternal.” (106)
Another innovative chapter covers the Jewish immigrant reaction to the Holocaust by examining the Yiddish media (in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg) and comparing its contents to the English language Jewish press. Rebecca Margolis argues convincingly that the assault on Jewish Europe was a central focus in the Yiddish press (as it was in the United States) and that Yiddish papers demonstrated an obsessive engagement with the fate of Jewish brethren in Europe and a desire to help. The vast majority of Jews in Canada during the war years spoke and read Yiddish as a first language and so the Yiddish press can be seen as representative of the Jewish experience in Canada. The better-known, more muted, approach of the English language Jewish press is relativized by Margolis’s work, which illustrates Yiddish press coverage of the destruction of millions of Jews in detail, often through first-hand European accounts, the attempts of the community to rescue and assist the sheyres-hapleyte (survivors), and community concern over the fate of the Serpa Pinto refugees. The Yiddish press provided insider coverage of catastrophic events affecting family, however extended, from a much more personal and arguably authentic point of view.
Michael Brown and Norman Ravvin cover the exclusive environments of the Canadian campus and literary establishment. The thirties were a time of Jewish student quotas and exclusion from faculty ranks at Canadian universities. Brown’s examination of policies and official administrative correspondence at McGill and the University of Toronto reveal an Anglo-Saxon elite committed to excluding Jews from its ranks and limiting their effect on Canadian society based upon common stereotypic associations between Jews and materialism, on the one hand, and communism, on the other. Ravvin examines the most important novels, poetry, and writing in Canada between 1935 and 1945 to discover that there is almost no literary response to the key political crises of the day. His chapter discusses the work of some exceptions: the work of A.M Klein; three important figures of the 1940s who do address Jewish themes (Ralph Allen, Hugh Garner, and Gwethalyn Graham); and Mordecai Richler and Gabrielle Roy as the dominant voices from Quebec and French Canada.
The last chapter, written by James Walker, is a detailed study of the establishment and development of Jewish defense organizations in Canada and their principled struggle for Jewish inclusion. From 1930-1945 Jews were excluded from hotels and beaches, university programs and occupations, clubs, neighborhoods, and resorts. Like Margolis’s chapter on the Yiddish press, Walker’s work upends the notion of a quiet, deferential, submissive Jewish community and in its place presents a discussion of their legislative initiatives and legal challenges, public campaigns and coalitions as well as episodes of direct conflict. Both Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith are discussed in this fascinating chapter as helping to lay the groundwork for the advancement of general human rights legislation in the postwar period with a distinct critique of “racial” inequality in Canada. Walker’s work illustrates how British justice and the rule of law, both universalist in nature rather than practice, were available to Canadian Jews as the vehicles through which they could remedy discrimination against their own people and all other (non-British) Canadian citizens of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
While no chapter in this book states it explicitly, Jews simply do not matter in these decades in Canada. The elites of the country were Anglo-Saxon Christians who had a profound religious-cultural bias against Jews and Judaism, which led to the exclusion of Jews from many aspects of society, including entrance into the country itself. This was not simply some kind of generic racism or xenophobia but a deeply ingrained way of thinking and feeling about Jews that was part and parcel of Western culture, resting on the bedrock of the Christian religious imagination. The general sensibility in elite Canadian circles was that of English antisemitism, which is characterized primarily by feelings of contempt for Jews and a knowing superiority over them. Like in Great Britain, the Canadian establishment worked hard to exclude Jews, regardless of their specific backgrounds, talents, or abilities, from their social and professional circles and to prevent them from entering these same circles in the future. Quebec is a more complex, multi-layered case given its British Protestant elite and its large French population, which fell under the determinative influence of the Catholic Church and harbored a more fear-based form of continental antisemitism. Reading this book reminds us of the frustrating inadequacy of the word antisemitism when we use it to explain so many different types and manifestations of anti-Jewish hostility and hatred.
That, of course, does not mean that people in Canada were without compassion for Germany’s Jews who were being brutalized and threatened with extermination. It is quite possible to hold traditionally negative views about Jews and never dream of physically assaulting a Jewish person or trying to force them out of the country. That is precisely what these chapters demonstrate. One should not make the assumption that the principled criticism of Nazi Germany that we see throughout Canada during this period has anything to do with a fondness for Jews or a lack of antisemitism. While the latter may have existed on an individual basis, as an organized society dominated by a British cultural elite Canada was exclusionary and discriminatory and that reality was to be maintained at all costs.
Dr. Catherine Chatterley is the Founding Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Manitoba. Her first book Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization After Auschwitz (Syracuse University Press) was a 2011 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her second book is entitled The Antisemitic Imagination.
The Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) is an independent national academic organization committed to the scholarly study of the millennial phenomenon of Antisemitism in its classic and contemporary forms. CISA is a registered Canadian charity committed to the uprooting of hatred and stereotypes through progressive education and by working cooperatively to build a more humane future for all people.