An Inglorious Chapter

A visit to a rather unlikely outpost of the Diaspora on the northeastern tip of North America.

Pier 21 Museum in Halifax, Novia Scotia (photo credit: Linda Nesvisky)
Pier 21 Museum in Halifax, Novia Scotia
(photo credit: Linda Nesvisky)
Family legend has it that that my grandfather sneaked out of Russia to avoid conscription during the Russo-Japanese war; in one version, according to his mood, he worked his way out as a stoker on a steam ship; in another, he sailed in style from Odessa on rubles he’d liberated from the Louis Dreyfus import-export firm. Ever the lover and not the fighter, a decade later he apparently sneaked out of Glasgow to avoid World War I and stole into Canada. Some years later Gramps then sneaked over the porous border into the US.
Yes, the old duffer was lovable but sneaky, and it was hard to determine the truth about his personal narrative. (During his sojourn in Scotland he’d also developed a taste for Scotch whiskey, which may have affected his attachment to the facts.) All this was in my mind when I recently visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, and learned that Grandpa may well have had good reason for his slippery entry into Canada.
It’s one thing for a nation of immigrants, say the US, to boast a museum of immigration, such as New York’s Ellis Island. It’s quite another thing for such a museum to commemorate the thousands of persons denied the privilege of immigration because of the host country’s policies of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Just such a memorial was recently unveiled at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, in the harbor of Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia. From 1928-1971, Pier 21 was Canada’s equivalent of Ellis Island for immigrants arriving from across the Atlantic. (Vancouver, British Columbia, took in a much smaller number of immigrants arriving via the Pacific.) In all, Pier 21 took in 1.5 million immigrants, or some 20 percent of Canada’s population.
Prior to 1928, immigrants to Canada arrived by ship and were received in Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City or elsewhere.
After 1971 almost all immigrants to the country arrived by air and likewise disembarked at various airports. During Pier 21’s 40-plus years of operation, however, immigrants from across the Atlantic were almost exclusively admitted at that centralized reception facility. And although these four decades came after the great waves of European Jewish immigration to the New World, Halifax’s Pier 21 received as many as 80,000 Jews. Some of these may have been bound for the US – the fare to Halifax was a bit cheaper than the passage to New York – but the vast majority were seeking Canadian residency.
Yet Canada refused entry to thousands of other Jews seeking entry. Among them were the ill-fated 930 passengers aboard the German ocean liner “M.S. St. Louis,” who were seeking refuge in 1939 from Hitler’s Germany. After being turned away from Cuba and the US, the St. Louis made a last-ditch request to land its immigrants at Halifax. Denied a berth there by Canadian government policy, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where perhaps as many as half of its passengers would die at the hands of the Nazis.
Canada, in fact, banned all Jewish immigration from 1939 to 1945. As “The Oxford Companion to Canadian History” puts it, “Indeed, of all the world’s democracies, of all the immigration countries, Canada had arguably the worst record in providing sanctuary to European Jews during the Holocaust.” It was only well after World War II that Canada eventually took in some 15,000 displaced persons from Europe, including some 1,100 Jewish orphans.
This inglorious chapter in Canada’s history is evoked at the Canadian Museum of Immigration by a large mechanical sculpture called the “Wheel of Conscience.” It was designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, an American whose father, a Holocaust survivor, came to the US from Poland via Halifax in 1946; Libeskind is married to a Canadian.
The face of the polished stainless steel drum of a sculpture, which is some four feet tall, is etched with an image of the St. Louis.
Behind the etching are four interlocking and motorized gears; the largest of these is labeled “Anti-Semitism”; the others are engraved with the words “Racism, Hatred and Xenophobia.” Libeskind has suggested the gears symbolize both the drive train of a ship and the inexorably grinding cogs of government bureaucracy and policy.
The memorial was financed with a portion of a grant of $475,000 from the Canadian government to the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The sculpture was unveiled in January in the presence of government dignitaries, Canadian Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors.
Libeskind spoke at the dedication, as did Jason Kenny, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, who told the gathering: “The immigration restrictions experienced by some people of Jewish background mark a dark period in our nation’s history, and we are committed to recognizing the experience of all communities affected by such actions in our past.” But in what may have been a metaphoric moment, the sculpture’s mechanism broke down after two days and had to be sent back to Toronto for repair.
The sculpture was finally reinstalled at the museum in late spring. Alongside it is a “listening station” in which the recorded voices of Jewish immigrants tell their stories. On the adjacent wall is a tall placard telling the sorry saga of the St. Louis. The names of all of the Jewish passengers are also posted, and the list is available to museum visitors as a printout.
In all, the “Wheel of Conscience” is a remarkable contrivance, and no less a remarkable concept, in that it acknowledges the kind of history that museums – and their government sponsors – might otherwise be tempted to ignore or at least downplay. And the memorial is effective. During my visit I watched as Asians, African Americans and members of other ethnic groups stood riveted by the device’s grinding gears and absorbed the story of the St. Louis. The Canadian Museum of Immigration is indeed perfectly situated to receive a world of visitors, as the former immigration pier now serves as the docking point for the vast cruise ships that call on Halifax two to three times a week throughout the tourist season. While I was there, for example, the gargantuan “Caribbean Princess,” a virtual floating suburb, loomed just beyond the windows of the museum, disgorging some 3,000 passengers from its 19 decks.
The 40,000-square-foot museum, which opened a dozen years ago, of course is hardly centered on Jewish immigration. Its exhibits nevertheless emphasize Canada’s diversity, and in one way or another Jews make their presence known throughout the vast former reception shed. The museum’s inauguration ceremony featured Rosalie Silberman Abella, a Canadian Supreme Court Justice and human-rights advocate who was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, in 1946, and was brought to Halifax by her parents in 1950. “I will never forget how lucky we were to be able to come to Canada,” Abella told the gathering, “but I will also never forget why we came.”
Several of the museum’s stories of individual immigrants are conveyed via wall displays or videos and concern Jews. In addition, a driving force behind the establishment of the museum was Ruth Goldbloom, who served as president of the Pier 21 Society and who crisscrossed Canada to help raise $4.5 million to match a government pledge of the same amount to get the museum under way. Goldbloom is honored by a sculpture at the entrance to the museum as one of its “nation builders,” about half of whom have Jewish names. The museum’s cinema, which features a fine 30-minute multimedia presentation on Canadian immigration called “Oceans of Hope,” was provided by Andrea and Charles Bronfman.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a volunteer museum docent named Marianne Ferguson, who arrived at Pier 21 from Poland as a child with her Jewish parents; Ferguson’s mother, Meta Echt, eventually became the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society’s representative at Pier 21.
The museum houses an array of artifacts ranging from newcomers’ suitcases to an actual railroad car of the sort that transported immigrants from Halifax harbor to distant points throughout Canada. The former immigration hall includes re-creations of baggage inspection and medical examination areas.
Special exhibits deal with the 48,000 war brides who entered Halifax during and after World War II, and the refugees taken in (and temporarily housed at Pier 21) following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968.
The museum also boasts a research center replete with a print library and data bases that may be accessed by academics, genealogists and the public. It is here that a personable young historian with the muscular name of Steven Schwinghamer serves as research coordinator. Schwinghamer enthusiastically helped me scour the records for evidence of my grandfather, who may or may not have passed through Halifax around World War I as he scarpered from one country to another, just one step ahead of the law. I knew he had entered Canada from Europe, but I wasn’t sure it was via Nova Scotia.
“He may have been traveling under a different name,” Schwinghamer mused, as he scrolled fruitlessly through numerous electronic archives. “Or he may have somehow bypassed Halifax and landed, say, in Quebec.
Or, like some immigrants, he may have wanted to circumvent the conventional immigration procedures. We know of all sorts of anomalies.” Yep, sounds like Gramps.
Halifax is still known as the Gateway to Canada and is a lively port and tourism center. It has a population of about a quarter million, which includes about 2,000 Jews, not counting several hundred Jewish students, mostly from Toronto and Montreal, who attend Halifax universities. Jews from Newport, Rhode Island reportedly first settled in Halifax in 1749, a year after its founding.
Today the city has one Conservative synagogue (Shaar Shalom), one modern Orthodox congregation (Beth Israel) and two Chabad institutions. A notable site is the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, which contains the graves of 10 victims of the sinking of the “Titanic” (although today it is believed that many of those buried there were not Jewish). I also seem to have a talent for stumbling across Jews in the most unlikely places. During my visit to Halifax, for example, I stayed at the historic Waverley Inn, which once played host to, among other Victorian and Edwardian luminaries, Oscar Wilde. The Inn, I soon learned, is owned by Abe Leventhal, a genial host who is quick to fill in visitors on the hotel’s history – and its ghosts.
To be sure, most of the Jewish immigrants who disembarked at Pier 21 did not linger in Halifax, preferring to move on to larger metropolitan areas with more vibrant Jewish communities, such as Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and elsewhere. But some found Halifax and the rest of Nova Scotia congenial enough.
At the turn of the 20th century, neighboring Cape Breton Island drew European Jews to its steel mills and coal fields; the Glace Bay Coal Company even offered free passage to immigrants willing to work in its collieries.
Some Jews did just that, while others pursued more traditional careers as peddlers, fur traders, tavern keepers and dry goods merchants. This rugged island, battered by the North Atlantic, once supported several thousand Jews.
Shirley Chernin, an unofficial historian of Cape Breton Island’s Jews, told me in an email that the community there “probably numbers today around 100 – no one is certain.”
One remaining synagogue, the Conservative Temple Sons of Israel, in the island’s capital city of Sydney, lacks a permanent rabbi and offers services only sporadically.
The synagogue in the Whitney Pier section of Sydney is now a historical museum that partly commemorates the Jewish community.
The 110-year-old Orthodox Congregation Sons of Israel in the nearby mining town of Glace Bay recently closed. “Most of the young Jews move away to Halifax or Toronto or wherever,” Chernin wrote.
Yet like Chernin, some Jews cling as tenaciously to Cape Breton Island as the island clings by its fingernails to the mainland of North America. One such stalwart is Leon Dubinsky, a poet and songwriter noted for his lyric “We Rise Again,” which has become something of an anthem among Nova Scotia’s Jews. Then there’s Ronald Caplan, an American ex-pat who fell in love with Nova Scotia several decades ago and has stayed on ever since. He edits “Cape Breton’s Magazine,” which features interviews with representatives of the island’s various ethnic communities – Micmac Indian, Acadian French, Scottish and, now and again, Jews.
No more than two dozen Jews meanwhile reportedly live in Nova Scotia’s Prince Edward Island County, and perhaps the same number cluster around St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland. Such small numbers are not surprising. Much of Canada’s Atlantic provinces after all are chilly in summer and ice-bound in winter – even the Vikings didn’t linger. And while Nova Scotia’s fishing boats do scoop up herring, the greater part of the economy is built on the area’s vast beds of mussels, oysters, lobsters and other decidedly un-Jewish fare. The local McDonald’s even offers McLobster sandwiches in season.
More significantly, as made clear in Halifax’s Museum of Immigration, a period of overt hostility to Jews made this northeastern tip of North America a rather unlikely outpost of the Diaspora. But then again, in some ways Jews are a rather unlikely people.