After the war, some 1,123 child Holocaust survivors immigrated to Canada in the War Orphans Project - a refugee resettlement scheme, proposed and administered by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) that began in the lead-up to World War II and ended in 1952.
These children were the "lucky" ones that survived the Holocaust. Only 6 to 11% of Europe's prewar Jewish population of children survived (compared with 33% of the adults). Over one million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust.
The seminal work on Canada's response to the plight of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 40s, None Is Too Many, reveals that innocent Jewish children were "not so much trapped in a whirlwind of systematic murder as they were abandoned to it," and highlights how "not one nation showed generosity of heart and not one willingly opened its doors" to those trying to escape persecution and murder.
But there were those here in Canada that fought to save children falling under Nazi persecution.
Despite their best efforts, Canadian Jewish leaders and the CJC were unable to persuade the Canadian government to end its discriminatory and restrictive policies concerning the rescue of Jewish children left stranded in an increasingly deadly Europe.
In October 1942, Frederick C. Blair, the blatantly antisemitic head of the Department of Mines and Resources (the predecessor to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration) begrudgingly granted permission for five hundred Jewish children to enter Canada via Vichy France under two conditions. First, Canada’s Jews needed to provide guarantees for the youngsters’ maintenance and identify suitable foster homes. And second, only orphaned children of deportees, aged two to fifteen years, could apply. Blair left open a window for five hundred additional children to immigrate at a later date. All efforts to implement this plan collapsed, however, with the November 1942 Allied invasion of Vichy North Africa.
It wasn't until some five years later, on April 29, 1947, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King approved Order-in-Council 1647. This decision represented Canada’s first significant effort to help alleviate the Jewish refugee crisis plaguing post-war Europe, and the liberalization of its overall immigration policies and laws.
While we cannot turn back the clock to correct the shameful missteps of our past, lessons gleaned from our inhumane response to Jewish child refugees during World War II might ease the journeys of new child refugees desperately searching for “home.”*
And today, there are more child refugees than ever. As of the latest reports, there are over 28 million children who have been torn from their homes by violence and persecution. The number of child refugees has jumped by 75% in the past five years and will continue to rise, spurred on by new and ongoing conflicts across the globe.
It is urgent that Canada stand with these child refugees by delivering the unprecedented response that this historic humanitarian crisis demands.
Through the stories of Jewish child refugees we get a window into the plight of all children who have lost everything, experienced unimaginable trauma and must now take a daunting journey to find peace and prosperity. Their descriptions of navigating the cold and bureaucratic services available to them, the culture shock, language barriers and trauma of separation and loss reveals and connects us to the traumatic journeys that no child should have to endure.
Below two Holocaust survivors, sisters Kitty and Ellen, recall their journey to rebuild there lives in Canada:
* Adapted from Dr. Adara Goldberg's introduction to Kitty and Ellen's memoir, Never Far Apart
During the siege of Budapest (December 24, 1944 – February 13, 1945), the Arrow Cross rounded up some 20,000 Jews from the Budapest ghetto and murdered them along the banks of the Danube. Those who escaped the executions lived under the constant threat of bombings, seeking shelter wherever possible in underground cellars, emerging only to forage for food at great personal risk. Kati and Ilonka were among 100,000 Jews remaining in the Budapest ghetto when it was liberated by the Soviet army on January 18, 1945, after close to a month of intense fighting. Having barely staved off starvation thanks to Kati’s pluck and resourcefulness, the sisters quickly reunited with their maternal grandparents and members of their mother’s extended family. Their mother, Borishka, did not return. It would be years before the girls learned of the circumstances surrounding her death.
....I was devastated. I wrote in my diary, begging my mother to come to my aid, but there was no answer.
I heard about a place where you could get special treats like canned fruit and chocolates if you were Jewish. This magical place was in an office building in the heart of Budapest and it was called the “Joint.” When I went in and told the staff that my parents had not come back after the war, I was received as a most welcome lost child.
The Joint, I now know, refers to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish relief organization. Set up in 1914 to assist Jews affected by World War I, after the Holocaust it provided assistance to the remaining Jewish communities of Europe. I suppose it was the same idea as the welfare programs of our cities in Canada, but unlike those programs, its ways and spirit were far different. At the Joint I did not need to prove that I was needy, nor did people there show that they were sorry for me. They actually made me feel that I was doing them a favour by visiting and accepting their gifts. Of course, I was not aware that I really was special in their eyes because a million and a half children had been murdered in the Holocaust, and I represented a small fraction of those who had survived.
At the Joint I was like a member of the family, and everybody was like an aunt or uncle.
There, I found a way to escape from all my sorrows. They told me that if I wanted, I could leave Hungary and be adopted by a family in another country, and my sister could, too. This offer was part of a program sponsored worldwide by Jewish organizations that sought to find and help the children who had survived. Jews in many countries were asked to, or offered to, take in these orphans and bring them up as their own children.
This opportunity appeared to answer my prayer to my mother for help. I would not have to live among people who did not accept me and whose polite indifference I did not trust. I would not have to avoid my cousin Rudi at home. And I would not have to chop up dead chickens and geese to sell after I finished Grade 8! I could have a chance to become an artist in a faraway country where no one would ever call me a “dirty Jew.” I told the staff at the Joint that I wanted to leave. They said I had a choice: I could go to Australia, South Africa or Canada.
I decided on Canada...My knowledge of Canada was quite limited, since my interest in reading did not include social geography. I knew that Canada was a very large country, it was very cold, hardly any people lived in it and they spoke English. It seemed to me the perfect place to get away from everyone.
My sister had not really planned to go anywhere. The only reason Ilonka was willing to leave this loving home for a strange and distant place was that she did not want to be separated from me.
Kati did not want to stay. She had heard there were people in Canada who wanted to adopt children, support them and pay for their education just like real parents. With tears in her eyes, Aunt Margaret gave her permission and let us go, thinking that it would be in our best interests for a better future. My sister wanted to take a chance, and although I suppose that, at eleven, I could have said that I wanted to stay, I did not wish to be apart from Kati. I loved my aunt and uncle, and I did not want to leave them, but I did not want to leave my sister either.
It took a whole year of waiting while doctors examined Kati and me and officials filled out all sorts of formal documents and sent them back and forth between the two countries. Finally, in the summer of 1948, we got the visas that allowed us to leave Hungary and be admitted to Canada. Kati and I looked forward to this trip as a big adventure. We could hardly wait to go by train to Paris, then by boat to London, then to board a ship, a real ocean liner. It was so exciting!
At last the day arrived. I said goodbye to my friends, helped my aunt put my clothes into a suitcase and tied it with a rope. On the way to the train station, Aunt Margaret held my hand tightly and gave me a small bag of candy to sweeten the parting, while Aunt Gizi told Kati several times to take good care of me. At last we climbed the steps into the train and each grabbed a seat by the window before anyone else could. Leaning out, we waved our final goodbyes. The whistle blew and slowly the train moved forward, leaving the Nyugati Railway Station for the unknown.
As the train whistled, we left Budapest and kept waving with smiling faces to people along the way until we reached Újpest. The train sped up, and to me it seemed to be flying. I observed that in our group of children, there were some kids who looked quite grown up. We arrived that evening at the Austrian-Hungarian border, but nobody examined our luggage. The train stood for two hours in Vienna while other people’s bags were checked. Unfortunately, we had no chance to get off the train to see anything of Vienna, but I did hear some people make comments about us in German, which I understood. They said that while their children were starving, we were still alive. I was happy when we finally left that station to continue on to Switzerland. As we travelled through that country of mountains, waterfalls and green pastures toward France, I wrote a note in my diary that those people were the reason I had lost my parents and had to leave my home to go to a strange place far away from everything that I had ever known.
At thirteen years of age, I had a long life of many more wonders and discoveries ahead of me. Just like the other orphans in our group, I had high expectations – because of the promises that people at the Joint had made – of what life would be like once I was adopted and living in my new home.
My number one priority at that age was to find substitute parents, since I very much missed my mother and father, who had doted on me because I was the baby. In their eyes, I could do no wrong, and I was admired and praised for whatever I did. Kati tried to act as a substitute parent, but it was not the same; she just told me what to do and not do. I knew she cared, but she was too bossy. I tried to listen and do as she told me, but sometimes, when she wasn’t around, I didn’t.
Food was priority number two. Even though I was not really hungry, I somehow thought that I might soon feel starved. Just like some of the other kids with whom I was travelling, I worried that sooner or later the ship’s hospitality would stop. So after we finished our daily meal, we would hoard what we didn’t eat under our shirts or in our pockets to take back to our cabin, in case food was not given to us the next day. In the cabin, I would hide the smuggled food under my pillow.
The air in Halifax on August 23, 1948, was extremely hot and humid, not at all like what I had expected from my readings about the Land of Ice and Snow. That should have given me a clue that life in Canada for Ilonka and me might not turn out to be all that we had been led to believe.
In Toronto we were met by yet another lady, who took us to a large house in the middle of the city, on the corner of Harbord and Markham streets. It was the property of the Jewish community and at times had been used as a Jewish library, but now it was housing the newly arrived survivors of the Holocaust. I learned from some Hungarian-speaking young people that, just like those who were already housed here, we would be staying in this residence temporarily, only until our social workers found us a place to live. I noticed that there was only one child, a boy younger than Ilonka, and he had an older brother and sister along with him. I also noticed, with some concern, that while we were treated very well by the adults who prepared our meals, nobody talked about adopting any of us.
After a few days at this reception centre, our English education started. Our group was walked to a nearby school, where a pleasant-looking teacher gave us some picture books and proceeded to teach us some simple but important verb forms in the language. I parroted them – “I am, you are, he is, she is, we are, you are, they are”– and eagerly copied down everything in sight. Then, in the wisdom of the Jewish Family and Child Service, after this crash course in English, a social worker came for my sister but not for me. We were told that Ilonka – whom the social worker now called Ellen – would be placed in a permanent home with a family and would be their daughter. So after all those terrible years when I so fiercely protected her and she clung to me for love and security, those “wise” social workers separated us, leaving us each to manage on our own in a strange environment.
I was so glad to be on land and not feel seasick anymore. On the train, I sat by the window to see Canada. We passed lovely, picturesque sights. I saw acres of corn, lush green trees and fields of flowers painted in many colours. Nature is an artist! I could hardly wait to arrive in Toronto; I was so excited. When Kati and I got to our destination, a trim social worker headed our way with a friendly smile on her face. She welcomed us pleasantly, shook our hands and spoke to us in English. One of the older kids translated for us because we couldn’t understand a word she said. The lady told us that we were going to go shopping at Eaton’s and be spruced up with new outfits. I guess we looked shabby, and we had to look attractive when we met the people who would be taking us in. The ladies who had reached out to the war orphans and were going to meet us belonged to a Jewish sisterhood. Their show of kindness and sympathy was reassuring, since I had just started to feel fearful and many questions had come to mind as I realized the problems I could have here, where nobody spoke Hungarian: How would I manage at school if I didn’t understand English? How would I ask people on the street for directions if I got lost in a strange city?
Once we were in our temporary shelter in a former Jewish library, ladies from the sisterhood arrived to choose one of us to take home. I hated being scrutinized, but the ladies all smiled and we all smiled back. Nobody wanted to take two sisters, but I was chosen alone right away and went to the home of a Polish family with two sons, the Goldbergs.
It seems that the Joint’s staff members in Hungary were unaware of what would happen to the orphans in the various countries they were sent to. I am sure that the Joint officials, who were caring and sincere, did not mislead my mother’s sister on purpose. However, they had no idea that the prospective adoptive parents in other countries were under the misconception that the children who had survived the Holocaust would be adoptable babies and young children. People in Canada, even after the horrific conditions during the Nazi persecutions became known, did not quite comprehend that most young children could not have survived without a parent, unless they were hidden. A small chance of survival was more likely for older children, who could possibly fend for themselves without adults. Thus, the children who survived and came to Canada were not lovable little boys and girls but troubled youngsters with memories of their lost families as well as of the circumstances surrounding their survival. Three years had passed since the end of the war, and having lived as orphans since then, they were now entering their teenage years. This stage of life is turbulent for most adolescents, let alone those who had experiences as traumatic as the ones of some of the people in my group. Not surprisingly, not many families in Toronto were ready to adopt a distrustful, independent and rebellious teenager who could not even speak English. Many of the orphans were not at all concerned about being adopted. Most – as old as seventeen, even older
One day the Goldbergs told the social worker that they had to have my room for a relative who needed a helping hand, and she should find me another home. They did not seem to care what would happen to me.
...I learned what it was to be disillusioned and not to trust. I felt lonely, and being in a new school again, with new classmates in a new neighbourhood, I felt like a fish out of water. I was unhappier than I had been with Mama and Papa Goldberg, because I lost even the hope that I could become accepted as part of a real family, so far away from my own. I knew that I had no choice if I was not to be sent away for complaining, and I tried to fit in among these strangers by smiling a lot, while my heart was aching.
I think that the social worker who placed me in three such insensitive environments must have thought of me not as a young girl in need of care, love and guidance, but as just one of the cases in her portfolio. I am sure that if she had thought of me as her own little sister who was only thirteen years old and separated from her family and home, she would have taken more care in finding out how I was coping and how I could get more support both academically and emotionally.
...I was also still suffering from shock at the unexpected forced separation from my sister, for whose sake I had left my home at Aunt Margaret’s in the first place. In addition, every move the first year of my life in Canada caused me more and more stress because it involved not only a change in language but also the need to adapt to the ways of the variety of people I was introduced to, both in the foster homes and in the new schools I was sent to. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to be loved and accepted, I never bonded with any member of my foster families. Whenever I was introduced as Ellen, the refugee child, I cringed. It made me feel like a charity case. I thought my foster parents said this to show people how charitable they were for taking me into their home, when I knew that they would not have kept me if the agency had not paid them.