Ideas and Impressions: How we ‘welcomed’ Holocaust survivors

By Jason Moscovitz

They say you are never too old to learn – and learning later in life is worth so much more when it completes a circle that began when you were young. My thanks to the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) at Carleton University for making it possible.

I was born a mere six years after the last Nazi concentration camp was liberated. I grew up in middle-class Jewish Montreal. I went to school with the daughters and sons of Canadian-born parents. The Holocaust survivors, the more than 40,000 who settled in Montreal, mostly lived on the poor side of Mount Royal. They arrived with nothing but their lives and their hopes.

I learned about the horrors of Nazi roundups, the ghettos, the cattle cars, the death marches and the death camps exclusively from books. I often wondered why survivors didn’t come to my public school or my Hebrew school or my synagogue to talk about what they actually survived. I can’t speak for all schools and synagogues, but I know it never happened where I went.

Forty thousand survivors of the Holocaust, living in my own city, fellow Jews who had suffered so much, and yet they were almost invisible to me. So near and yet so far away. What was worse in those early postwar years was hearing disparaging remarks about survivors. As a youngster, I heard a lot about their shrewdness, how they were cunning, and dare I say, the narrative from Canadian-born Jews that the European newcomers were tough to do business with. I am deliberately using polite language to make my point.

There was even uglier talk, like suspicion around those who did not have a number tattooed on their arm. “What did they do to survive?” many Canadian-born Jews asked. Terms like “mockies” and “greenhorns” burned my ears, but I don’t remember ever talking about it to anyone. I thought it was a deep dark Jewish secret that the outside world didn’t need to hear about.

Last month, when I attended a Holocaust Education Month event organized by CHES, a light went on in my head when I realized the secret was out.

The expert speakers, survivors, and survivors’ family members talked about the importance of involving the second and third generations to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive by becoming the living voices of survivors.

One of the experts, Zelda Abramson, published a book earlier this year entitled, The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust. A sociologist, Abramson interviewed people she understood: Holocaust survivors like her parents living in Montreal.

The interviews and research point to the hard life survivors had when they arrived in Montreal. They had no close family, no jobs, most didn’t speak English or French, and they had no money. While the book touches on many aspects of resettlement in Canada, my ears perked up when I heard about the total disconnect between survivors and Canadian Jews.

Abramson confirmed my recollections of harsh judgement and so little outreach from Canadian Jews to help fellow Jews who survived the Shoah. She described what Jewish Montreal was like in the 1950s. Basically two different worlds. Hers and mine.

She writes of Canadian Jews showing visiting newcomers how to flush the toilet as they thought these often highly cultured survivors were ignorant peasants. She told the seemingly never ending tale of survivors, like her parents, seeking help from Jewish social agencies but getting turned down.

Abramson puts forward reasons for the walls that went up. Canadian born Jews in Montreal, often second generation, knew of the antisemitism their parents suffered earlier in the century. Antisemitism didn’t end in the 1950s, but it was waning and there was a palpable fear the 40,000 newly arrived European Jews would create a new wave of hatred of Jews.

There was another basic reason for the unease. Both sides may have had the same religion, but language difficulties and cultural inconsistencies kept them apart. The differences fed on themselves and created the monster of indifference from those who had everything to those who had nothing.

More than a half-century later, the dark secret of Canadian born Jews being so callous, so unhelpful and so critical of fellow Jews is documented history. Not all history is good.

But for me, facing an old childhood demon is entirely positive, because now I can finally understand it.