Preserving our history

by Jordan Desai

As a young Canadian Jewish woman, I believe that it is my responsibility to research and write the history of Canada’s Jewry in order to preserve our unique history for future generations. My grandfather is Canadian-born, but his family immigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1920s with little trouble. My grandmother immigrated to Canada during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution after all of her family, with the exception of her mother, perished in concentration camps around Europe in 1944. Upon her arrival, she and her mother were greatly aided by local Jewish organizations in Toronto. It is my interest, as a Canadian nationalist and historian, to understand what happened between these two periods and ultimately question, why did Canada turn her back on Jewish refugees? This project was conducted for my MA research, a project that is still underway.

With an interest in foreign relations during the World War II era, I was drawn to understand what the role of William Lyon Mackenzie King was during the Jewish question of the 1930s and 1940s. King was a complicated man, and as he prepared himself to lead Canada through another war, he was focused primarily on one thing: national unity. King was so afraid to spark an anti-Semitic riot in the province of Quebec that he and his government turned his back on several thousand Jewish people seeking asylum in Canada, many of whom were women and children. King often expressed his sympathies for the Jewish people of Europe and even had personal and professional relationships with Jewish people. Within his private diaries, King expressed his conflict quite often.     

With Canada going through an economic crisis, the country was preparing itself for another war, and was increasingly becoming anti-Semitic, it is evident that many people advocated to keep Jewish refugees out. In February of 2019, I found myself at the Ontario Jewish Archives searching for some insight, and in a way, justification for Canada’s neglectful role in the refugee crisis. While I cannot say that Canada should be held solely responsible for the atrocities in Europe or the fate of 6 million Jewish people that perished at the hands of Nazis, it is evident that Canada’s handling of the issue was indeed horrific.

What I learned at the Ontario Jewish Archives was the importance of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). Annually, JIAS met in order to discuss strategies for i) assisting and sponsoring Jewish refugees from Europe, ii) aiding Jewish people in Europe iii) advocating for Jewish people on the home front. Upon reading through the minutes from annual JIAS meetings, I was able to discern that the organization was hopeful, yet realistic about Jewish immigration. Moreover, I learned about their strategies in aiding Jewish people around the world, which I was then able to apply to my own family’s history. However, the most notable aspect of JIAS was their dedication to the Jewish people. With insufficient funding and as Canada’s doors remained only slightly open for over a decade, the organization never gave up in their advocacy and support for the world’s Jewry and that, to me, was extremely admirable.

Upon arriving at the archives, I was met by an extremely helpful archivist who expressed much interest in my topic. She had files already set aside for me and continued to help me locate more files as I made my way through my research. Faye provided me with important documents including immigration records, minutes from notable organizations, and propaganda. It is at this point that I stress the importance of not only preserving any historical documents that you may possess, but to donate them to the appropriate archives. The organization and preservation of history is extremely important for future research into complex and sensitive issues and ensures that we can learn from our past.

Jordan Desai

MS candidate, History Department, Wilfred Laurier University