As I listened to Canadian Holocaust survivor Marie Doduck being interviewed on the CBC recently about her memoir, A Childhood Unspoken (2023), I heard her refer to Mackenzie King and the now commonplace expression ‘none is too many.’
Doduck was one of a group of 1123 Jewish orphans brought to Canada from Europe in late 1947, when Mackenzie King was prime minister of Canada. None is Too Many is the title of a widely praised book by Irving Abella and Harold Trope (1983), which documents Canada’s indifference to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution before and during World War II.
Today, Canada, a country of 40 million people of widely diverse origin, is home to almost 400,000 Jews, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world. In 2022 alone, almost 440,000 immigrants (plus tens of thousands of refugees) from all over were admitted to Canada. But it wasn’t always so – particularly for Jews – and minorities.
Because of the Depression and a struggling economy, but largely because of antisemitism, only 5000 Jews were admitted to Canada from 1933 until 1945. (Only 500 were admitted from 1939 to 1945, when sanctuary was most desperately needed.) Admitting Jewish refugees to Canada was not popular politically, and the frantic efforts of the leaders of the then 160,000 member Jewish community were largely futile.
Abella and Troper assert that the Canadian response was “arguably the worst of all possible refugee receiving states.” But, in fact, Canada was in good company. There were very few sanctuaries available to Jews anywhere.
The title is an intriguing feature of the book. While the book deals extensively with the barriers faced by Jews applying for refuge in Canada before and during the war, the title actually refers to a reply made toward the end of the war, in early 1945, by an unnamed Canadian bureaucrat, to the question of how many Jews should be admitted to Canada after the war.
The reply is no exaggeration. Very few Jewish refugees were admitted to Canada during the immediate post-war period (1945-48). One Jewish leader declared that it was easier for Nazi war criminals to get into Canada, than Jews.
In 1941, Jewish leaders had prevailed on the Canadian Government to admit 1000 Jewish orphans from Vichy France, all costs and foster care arrangements to be borne by the Jewish community. The plan came to naught when Vichy was occupied by German forces a year later. But it was resurrected in 1947, and it was these orphans, including Marie Doduck, that were among the first Jewish Holocaust survivors allowed to enter Canada after the war.
The sad truth is that the attitude toward Jewish immigration to countries such as Canada was not changed by the war. Despite conferences about Jewish refugees at Evian (1937) and Bermuda (1943), despite knowing about the Nazi extermination agenda since 1942, and despite the genocidal evidence on the ground after the German surrender, Canada still didn’t want Jews.
Even after the war Jews were still not welcome
AND, WHICH Jews are we talking about? After all, six million were murdered during the Holocaust. It is about the survivors, about 250,000 Jews in European DP camps. No one wanted them.
There were no homes to go back to. They were not welcome in the US, Canada or other Western countries; and British policy barred them from entering Palestine, their preferred destination. The title of a popular Yiddish song, “Vu ahin zol ikh geyn?” (“Where Can I Go?”), first recorded in 1947 by Leo Fuld, says it all.
Then, in late 1947 and into 1948, the doors opened, at first just a crack and later to larger numbers. Why? Here is the answer:
William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister – 21 years – including 1935 to 1948. He kept a daily diary for over 50 years, the bulk of which has been transcribed, digitized and made available online by Library and Archives Canada. Many of his comments about Jews display the casual antisemitism of the times.
But, on March 27, 1944, he wrote “Had a lengthy interview with Dr. (Nahum) Goldman, (Chaim) Weizmann’s representative… Was immensely relieved by his strong advocacy of having the Jews returned to Palestine, instead of knocking at the doors of other countries after the war. Really the plight of these people is unbelievable.”
In 1947, the future of Palestine was placed in the hands of the newly established United Nations. A committee, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, made up of representatives from 11 countries, including Canada, conducted an inquiry and recommended that Palestine be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. The recommendation was adopted by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947, by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions and one absent member. The vote was close. Adoption required a two thirds majority of those for and against. Canada voted for partition. Britain abstained.
Once the State of Israel was declared in May 1948, the pressure was off. Most of the Jewish DPs ended up in Israel.
When I first read None is Too Many, I was both moved and upset. While I was born and raised in Canada, my parents were immigrants who came to Canada from Eastern Europe in the mid-1920s, barely 15 years before the outbreak of World War II. The Jewish communities that each came from were obliterated during the Holocaust.
In the introduction to their book, Abella and Troper submit that the antisemitism that once defined and constrained Canadian Jews is gone. I wonder if they would feel the same way today, 40 years later. Recent hate crime statistics suggest that they were optimistic.
The writer, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, University of Waterloo.