Canada and the Holocaust

The Holocaust is defined as the systematic persecution and murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, including Roma and Sinti, Poles, political opponents, LGBTQ people and Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. Jews were the only group targeted for complete destruction because Nazi racial ideology considered them subhuman.

Bodies in a Grave, Belsen
Painting by Alex Colville.

Though Jewish Canadians did not experience the Holocaust directly, the majority experienced anti-Semitism in Canada. Jewish Canadians were only one generation removed from lands under German occupation from 1933 to 1945 and maintained close ties to Jewish relatives in those lands. These ties affected the community’s response to the Holocaust, including, for instance, the disproportionate representation of Jews in the Canadian armed forces. Jewish Canadians were also heavily involved in postwar relief efforts for displaced persons and Holocaust survivors in Europe.

Anti-Semitism in Canada

Prejudice towards people of the Jewish faith, or anti-Semitism, was a socially acceptable part of mainstream Canadian society. It was a form of open and blatant racism that predated Confederation — before the community had a significant presence in what became Canada.

In the years leading to the Second World War, Jews continued to face quotas on enrollment in educational institutions, restrictions on participation in various industries — including medicine and law — and were prohibited access to property and vacation sites. Signs that read “Gentiles Only” and “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” were posted well into the 1930s and 1940s, a time when discriminatory immigration policies denied sponsorship requests to nearly all Jewish applicants. To an overwhelming extent, Canadians supported government policy that classified Jews as inassimilable foreigners and potential threats to national health.

Jews were especially vulnerable in Quebec. For instance, Roman Catholic priest Lionel Groulx, the “father of French Canadian nationalism,” espoused racist and anti-refugee rhetoric from the pulpit, on the radio, and in such journals as L’Action Nationale and Le Goglu. Journalist and Nazi sympathizer Adrien Arcand established the anti-communist and anti-Jewish Parti National Social Chrétien (Christian National Socialist Party). Arcand later led the National Unity Party of Canada, an offshoot of anti-Semitic fascist groups that were organized in many towns and cities across the country. These included, for instance, a number of “swastika clubs” organized in Ontario.

Throughout the Great Depression in Alberta, the governing Social Credit Party disseminated anti-Semitic sentiment, similar to Nazi state practice, through radio broadcasts and racist literature such as the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text first published in Russia in 1905 claiming to outline a plan for Jewish world domination.

Christie Pits Riot
Anti-Semitic riot at Christie Pits park, Toronto, 16 August 1933.

On 16 August 1933, a rare incident of actual Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic violence occurred at Toronto’s Christie Pits Park during a baseball game. Fighting exploded after members of a local pro-Nazi youth group unveiled a flag bearing a swastika, provoking an angry response from the opposing Jewish club and fans. Although no fatalities occurred, the “Riot at Christie Pits” was a warning for most Jewish Canadians: they were made to feel that they were only one step removed from the tyranny many had escaped only one generation earlier, and to which a growing number of their friends and family were once again being exposed to overseas.

Refuge Denied

Threatened by the rise of Nazism, hundreds of thousands of European Jews sought refuge abroad. However, anti-Jewish sentiment was commonly found among senior members of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government, which informed political decisions regarding the growing refugee crisis. Mackenzie King heeded his blatantly anti-Semitic director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources, Frederick Charles Blair, on matters of immigration and refugees.

At the time, Canadian immigration regulations categorized Jews among the “least desirable” immigrant groups, regardless of nationality. In addition to a longstanding discriminatory and racially-based quota system (targeting not only Jews but also Chinese, Sikhs and Blacks), additional qualifications such as required proof of $15,000 in investment capital or agricultural skills, further limited eligibility for Jewish immigrant applicants.

Two events prefigured Canada’s shameful record during the Holocaust: the country’s approach to the Evian Conference; and its role in the MS St. Louis affair.

Evian Conference

Convened by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Evian Conference (6 to 15 July 1938) was a gathering of world leaders to discuss the mounting crisis of German and Austrian Jewish refugees from Nazism. Fearful that Canadian participation might be misinterpreted as a willingness to accept Jewish refugees, Mackenzie King opposed attendance. Key factors motivating his opposition included the belief that letting in more Jews might “creat[e] a new problem here” and the Prime Minister’s racist concern that an “intermixture of foreign strains of blood” might tarnish Canadian society.

Conceding to US and British pressure, Mackenzie King reluctantly agreed to send Canadian representation to the Evian Conference, but with reassurance that no country would be forced into action. In the end, the Dominican Republic was the only Evian country to offer Jews asylum.

The St. Louis Affair

On 7 June 1939, 907 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, were denied entry to Canada. Fleeing Nazi Germany, the passengers were refused entry to Cuba, numerous Latin American countries and the United States before passing by Canadian waters.

St. Louis Passengers
Refugees aboard the St. Louis as they arrive in Belgium, 1939

Though prominent Canadian citizens asked the government to provide sanctuary for the refugees, the matter was disposed of quickly, with Frederick Blair refusing to consider the request on the basis of policy. “No country,” he publicly declared, could “open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.” The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers were murdered in the Holocaust (s ee MS St. Louis).

Only 5,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Canada from 1933 to 1947, the poorest record among Western countries.

Outbreak of the Second World War

Throughout the 1930s, Canada’s Jews — numbering 170,000 — responded to the rise of Nazi Germany with collective vigour. Jewish newspapers published scathing editorials condemning the devastating impact of Nazi race laws on German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews. Editorial opinion also targeted the Canadian government’s lack of action in challenging those oppressive laws. Winnipeg Jews spearheaded boycotts against Germany; while Jews across the country joined anti-Nazi rallies and lobbied Parliament to allow sponsorship of relatives facing persecution under fascist regimes. Women’s groups and landsmanshaftn (mutual aid societies) pioneered campaigns to deliver money, food and resources to suffering family and friends in Europe. The Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, charged with immigrant resettlement, assisted with sponsorship applications.

Canada joined Great Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany on 10 September 1939. Canadian Jews, many of whom were children of European immigrant parents with ties to family and friends overseas, raced to sign up for military service. Approximately 17,000 Jews — roughly one-fifth of the country’s Jewish male population — enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, a figure disproportionate to any other minority ethnic group. Of those who served, 421 Canadian Jewish personnel died in service and 1,971 Jewish personnel would receive military awards.

“Enemy Aliens”

Having absorbed tens of thousands of mostly German and Austrian Jewish refugees since Adolf Hitler’s 1933 election, Great Britain declared them “enemy aliens” — along with all persons from Axis countries — following the outbreak of the Second World War. Britain turned subsequently to Canada and Australia to temporarily accept this group of foreign nationals for the duration of the war. The Mackenzie King government reluctantly agreed.

In the summer of 1940, more than 3,000 refugees — among them 2,300 German and Austrian Jews aged 16 to 60 — were transported to Canada and interned in guarded camps in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. The “accidental immigrants,” as the Jews in the group came to be known, were initially interned in prisoner of war (POW) camps alongside actual POWs. This difficult situation was protested loudly by the internees, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and Victims of Persecution, an agency comprised of prominent non-Jewish Canadians. Senior Canadian officials realized that the Jewish internees did not constitute a threat to national security and were not safe living among Nazi POWs. As a result, separate camps were established. Nevertheless, the Jewish internees’ legal status remained uncertain: after their POW status was lifted and replaced with that of “refugees of Nazi oppression,” their legal status in Canada remained ill-defined for years to come.

War Diary of the Canadian Provost Corps, Camp N, Sherbrooke, Québec, February 1941.

Many of the internees continued their secular or religious studies in the camps, or learned new skills. With support from rabbis in Toronto and Montreal, interned rabbis organized camp-wide services for holy days, observed the Sabbath and laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary law and custom).

A Jewish internee sitting beside his cupboard made out of packing cases, location unknown, c. 1940\u201343.

The Jewish internees were later given the option of remaining in Canada or returning to England. Walter Kohn, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Fred Kaufman, judge in the Quebec Court of Appeal, and philosopher Emil Fackenheim were among the 972 who remained in Canada after the camps closed in 1943.

Reporting Atrocity

Press reports from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, provided many non-Jewish Canadians with their first glimpse of Nazism. Reports of Adolf Hitler and his totalitarian aspirations continued throughout the Second World War, when the Canadian government and major media outlets commissioned journalists, photographers and filmmakers to document military advances (see Documenting the Second World War). And while major newspapers reported on wartime atrocities in Europe, mention of Jewish victims was minimal.

In 1943, the Canadian government launched its official war art program to document and report on wartime atrocities through first-hand artistic perspectives (see War Artists). The 31 recruited artists selected for the program — among them Alex Colville and Aba Bayefsky — created visual depictions of the war (photographs, sketches, paintings) for military records as well as consumption by the Canadian public.

Remembering the Holocaust
Painting by Aba Bayefsky.

Across these mediums, reporters and artists struggled to describe what they witnessed, including human remains at concentration and death camp sites. Such unprecedented accounts of mass, state-sponsored, anti-Jewish violence challenged comprehension. Few Canadians could begin to fathom, or believe, the extent to which Nazi Germany had systematically decimated European Jewry.

First Encounters with the Holocaust

In the final months of the Second World War, First Canadian Army forces played prominent roles in the liberation of Nazi transit and concentration camps in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany that had been used to transport Jews to death camps in occupied Poland. Military personnel chanced upon Jews who emerged from their hiding spaces. In December 1944, Toronto-born Jewish chaplain Samuel Cass and his soldiers threw a bittersweet Chanukah party for the few Jewish orphans remaining in Antwerp, Belgium.

Hanukkah Party, 1944
Children at a Hanukkah party in Antwerp, Belgium, with Canadian servicemen, chaplain Rabbi Cass. Canadian Army Photo, 17 December 1944.
Canada in the Netherlands
Corporal M. Freeman, Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC), and H/Captain Samuel Cass, Jewish chaplain, presenting a gift to a Belgian girl during a Chanukah celebration, Tilburg, Netherlands, 17 December 1944

For Canadian military personnel, the starkest encounter with the Holocaust and its survivors took place at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, liberated by the British Army on 15 April 1945. Several Canadian military units encountered the camp within the first 48 hours of its liberation, assisting in feeding, providing medical attention and translation services for the skeletal camp survivors, the majority of whom were Jews. Canadian Jewish airmen and soldiers, many of whom spoke Yiddish, played significant roles in providing informal aid to the survivors. Soldiers collected and dispersed food, clothing and surgical supplies from military stock with their superiors’ silent approval. In total, well over 1,000 Canadians — airmen, paratroopers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, chaplains, dieticians and food experts, photographers and war artists — encountered Bergen-Belsen, either through formal service or informal visits.

Bodies in a Grave, Belsen
Painting by Alex Colville.

Evidence of the gross inhumanity that had earned Bergen-Belsen the title “Horror Camp” was everywhere: rampant starvation, typhus and tuberculosis, along with the crematoria and piles of unburied corpses. According to historian Mark Celinscak, the suffering the Canadian military personnel and volunteers witnessed at Bergen-Belsen “became their defining moment of the Second World War… for some it was an awful recurring memory, while for others it altered the course of their lives.”

Yellow Badge
Star of David (yellow badge) given to Edward Sheppard by an elderly Jewish man on the day Sheppard's troop came across Westerbork Concentration Camp on 12 April 1945, the day after the Germans abandoned the camp.

Legacy: Holocaust Survivors in Canada

Despite awareness of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews in the Holocaust, anti-Jewish attitudes persisted among Canadians well beyond liberation. In 1945, discussing how many Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter Canada after the war, an anonymous Canadian government bureaucrat offered the now-infamous reply, “none is too many.” A 1946 Gallup survey of Canadian popular attitudes about immigration revealed overwhelming anti-Jewish sentiment. Among those polled, 49 per cent opposed Jewish immigration, the least desirable immigrant group second only after Japanese. Only German nationals ranked higher, albeit not former members of the Nazi Party.

Jewish immigrants on board the General Sturgis (Halifax, NS), 6 Feb. 1948. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 628.

The shift in popular attitudes, and government policy, toward Jewish immigration was a principled response to the largest refugee crisis in modern history. It also fit a practical demand for skilled cheap labour to support Canada’s booming postwar economy. The gradual liberalization of policy began with Order-in-Council P.C. 2071 on 28 May 1946, and culminated with the amended immigration policy announced 1 May 1947. These measures marked a sea change in Canada’s law, and popular attitude toward immigrants and refugees. These changes were especially meaningful for Canadian Jews, as they permitted them to sponsor European Jewish refugees through “close relatives” and “labour” schemes. Between 1947 and 1955, the Canadian Jewish community sponsored and resettled approximately 35,000 Holocaust survivors plus their dependents.

Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants have contributed to all aspects of Canadian Jewish and secular society. In spite of these contributions, Canada is the last country in the Western world to erect a national Holocaust memorial monument. On 20 January 2011, the Canadian Jewish Congress and Citizenship and Immigration Canada jointly unveiled The Wheel of Conscience, a monument commemorating the MS St. Louis refugees, and featuring the passengers’ names and the words hatred, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. It is currently housed at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax (see Pier 21). The National Holocaust Monument, entitled Landscape of Loss, Memory and Survival, was unveiled in Ottawa on 27 September 2017. It recognizes the Holocaust and its Jewish survivors’ contributions to Canada.

Further Reading

  • Mark Celinscak, Distance From the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp (2015)

  • Franklin Bialystock, Delayed Impact: The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community (2000)

  • Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–48 (1982)

  • Adara Goldberg, Holocaust Survivors in Canada: Exclusion, Inclusion, Transformation, 1947–55 (2015)

  • Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller, Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust (2006)

  • Janine Stingel, Social Discredit: Anti-Semitism, Social Credit and the Jewish Response (2000)

  • Lita-Rose Betcherman, The Swastika and the Maple Leaf (1975)

  • Paula Draper, “The Accidental Immigrants: Canada and the Interned Refugees,” PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1983

External Links