Why you should care
Refugees’ struggle for recognition and acceptance is nothing new.
Erwin Schild was just 20 years old and had already survived Dachau concentration camp when he boarded a military ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec. When the SS Sobiesky docked in Canada in July 1940, the Cologne, Germany, native hoped the imprisonment and discrimination he and other Jewish refugees had faced in Europe were at an end. Instead, the Canadian government placed them into various prisoner-of-war camps, where they would reside for two years.
As refugees make headlines in North America today, it’s worth looking back at a moment when Jewish refugees of World War II — many of them children — were mistakenly classed as enemy aliens and forced to live alongside POWs. Schild, who later wrote books about his experiences, including The Crazy Angel, had fled Nazi-controlled Europe for the U.K. with the help of his mother. He began studying at a London yeshiva in 1939. But the climate of fear surrounding German-born immigrants led to the roundup of Schild and approximately 30,000 others — some of whom had fled the Nazis — just one year later. After living in hastily constructed internment camps on the Isle of Man, detainees were offloaded to Canada and Australia.
When Schild’s ship arrived in Canada, refugees and POWs alike were classed as “enemy aliens.” As the men were being processed, one Canadian sergeant realized he was among fellow Jews and spoke to them in Yiddish. The man promised to notify his community that Jews were being interned as well. Meanwhile, the German POWs were also quick on the uptake. Schild recalls them singing Nazi songs to intimidate the men who would become their campmates. To guarantee the safety of all, Canadian wardens erected a barbed-wire barrier between Jews and non-Jews, placing them in separate camps a few weeks later. The internees would spend the next two years moving between camps, caught in a strange gray area. “We refused to be identified as German prisoners, and the authorities refused to acknowledge us as refugees,” Schild wrote.
The broader climate of Canadian anti-Semitism — reflected worldwide at the time — and the more pressing condition of Jewish refugees in Europe meant the misclassification of these refugees was a low priority. Sentiment among Canadians, in the grip of economic recession, also had grown increasingly anti-immigration. “They didn’t want to know. They were not interested,” Schild, now 99 years old and a rabbi, says.
And while the Jewish-Canadian community and other advocacy groups began to organize, Canada predominantly didn’t want Jews coming in through front or back doors, says Paula Draper, a historian and writer who has collaborated with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. “Until the camps were reclassified, it was perilous to publicize their plight and give ammunition to anti-Semitic canards about the loyalty of Jews,” she says. In retrospect, Jews were far more secure in Canadian camps than their brethren abroad, where the Auschwitz death camp was already operational. Internees in Canada, by comparison, had adequate food and water, along with access to books and a democratically elected camp administration. “The fact is that they were safe even if it was behind barbed wire,” says Draper. In 1941, they were reclassified as interned refugees.
But community members still worked behind the scenes to secure the refugees’ freedom. Work-around solutions eventually emerged: Internees could be released to study if sponsored by Canadian families, farmers could request internees for help, and skilled workers could be released for war work, Draper explains. By the end of 1943, all Canadian camps were closed, and 966 refugees were allowed to stay in Canada for the remainder of the war.
As the postwar world grappled with the enormity of the war crimes committed against Jews and other marginalized communities in Europe, the internees’ story got lost in the Holocaust’s dark shadow. “It was but a footnote because it was dwarfed by the Holocaust — and therefore remained relatively unknown — and yet it is related to the Holocaust as a footnote to a text,” Schild wrote. Many internees, most of whom have since died, went on to become distinguished professors, artists, historians and philanthropists in Canada, Israel and the U.S.
This side plot echoes other wartime choices that remain blemishes on North American history. The internment of more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry in camps throughout the American West is one example — for which more than 81,000 Americans later qualified for reparation payments in the 1990s. Another overlooked stain was an Army camp in Oswego, New York, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to detain roughly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy. They too lacked official standing in the U.S. and were detained for seven months after the war’s end before they could apply for U.S. citizenship.
The refugees, Draper explains, were treated as enemy nationals due to their German and Austrian births — not as stateless people fleeing a desperate situation. Still, many Canadian internees expressed a sense of loyalty and gratitude toward the country that saved them, even if it did not welcome them outright. “I don’t think [the experience] … damaged my life,” says Schild. On the contrary, he says it taught him “that you can build your life” under difficult circumstances.