During the Second World War, Winston Churchill was concerned about enemy aliens in Britain. Many of these so-called aliens, were Jews that escaped the horrors of Nazi-ism, prior to the Second World War. Churchill demanded that these aliens should be incarcerated, in Canada and other colonies.
Irwin Schild recalls that he was 21 years old and having arrived in Québec City in July 1940, was transported to two camps, one in Québec, and one in New Brunswick. “I was 20 or 21 years old and here I am imprisoned, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. What am I doing here? I didn’t know what was happening to my parents and to my sister. Psychologically, it was very, very difficult.”
Eric Koch, who also was incarcerated at Sherbrooke, was a student at Cambridge University when Churchill ordered the internment of German and Austrian nationals living in Britain, after Holland surrendered. Approximately 7000 civilians and prisoners of war were sent to Canada and Australia. There were actually German prisoners of war who were Nazis, mixed in with roughly 2500 men who actually posed either for a slight risk or none at all. There were also communists and homosexuals who had fled persecution in Germany. Mr. Cox claims that the conditions in Sherbrooke were very primitive and they had to reconstruct the camp. He spent 18 months there and then was released to pursue his studies at the University of Toronto. Jewish community groups pressured the Canadian government to release these innocent people. In a recent interview Mr. Cox stated that it was a hugely important phase in his life. He said that they were many smart and brilliant people and teachers and scientists that were also incarcerated and so therefore he continued his education in the camps. The toughest thing about the incarceration was that they had no idea what was happening to their coreligionists in Germany and in Europe.
Another prisoner, Gregory Baum was a Catholic theologian who had escaped Germany in 1939 as a 15-year-old. He was considered Jewish because his mother was Jewish but he was raised as a Christian. He also stated that the other prisoners were very well educated and so again he spent a lot of time discussing and teaching, and when it was allowed, reading books. He points out that the internees had shirts with a huge red circle on the back which became a target to the many guards that were at the camps.
They were absolutely shattered when they arrived in Canada. They were surrounded by heavily armed Canadian soldiers, many of whom were from Québec and many of whom had never seen a Jew in their lives. Many of the camp population were German prisoners who realized that they were Jews and they were subjected to Nazi songs and beatings. Fortunately, the camp commander saw the problem and these Jewish prisoners were isolated. The prisoners took part in all kinds of labor activity in the surrounding forests, carpentry, farming and even had a hockey team they called the “kosher sector”!
Isaac Romano who is the director the Jewish community center of the Eastern townships has been working hard to try and bring an exhibition to Sherbrooke, but he is having trouble raising money.
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Center has an exhibit, the first of its kind in Canada which explores this internment of Jews. The Holocaust education center in Vancouver is also planning to try and take this exhibit nationwide.
Some of the refugees held in these camps went on to greater things.
Walter Khon won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1998.
Max Perutz won the 1962 Nobel Prize for chemistry.
Fred Kaufman became a justice at the Québec Court of Appeal.
Kurt Rothschild became a well-known Montréal and Canadian industrialist.
Walter Homburger became the managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Helmut Kallman is well known as a Canadian music historian.
Eric Koch became a broadcaster and writer.
In addition to the Vancouver facility another one has opened in the Minto town hall in New Brunswick where there are 600 artifacts relating to this situation.
There are books that have been written about the experience of of these enemy aliens, but to my knowledge not one about Jewish enemy aliens. There is one called the Enemies Within: Italians and other internees in Canada and abroad published by the University of Toronto press. And another one by Lubomyr Luciuk, concerning the incarceration of Ukrainians during the First World War. There is also a lot emphasis on the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, and Prime Minister Mulroney publicly apologized on behalf of the Canadian government to the Japanese Canadians.
I am unaware that the Canadian government has ever apologized to Canadian Jews about the treatment of the internees during the Second World War. It is of interest that the British attempted to redress the situation, but were stymied by Frederick a Blair who later became the director of the Canadian immigration branch, and is the perpetrator of Canada’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees after they were liberated from concentration camps in Europe.