Photograph of an internee in a camp uniform, taken by internee Marcell Seidler, Camp N (Sherbrooke, Quebec).

Courtesy Eric Koch / Library and Archives Canada / PA-143492

Introduction

As Nazi Germany drew the world into war, Canada’s discriminatory immigration policies denied entry to those seeking refuge, particularly Jews. In 1940, when Canada agreed to Britain’s request to aid the war effort by taking in “enemy aliens” and prisoners of war, it did not expect to also receive approximately 2,300 civilian refugees from Nazism, most of them Jews.

These men, many between the ages of 16 and 20, had found asylum in Britain only to be arrested under the suspicion that there were spies in their midst. After a brief period of internment in England, they were deported to Canada and imprisoned in New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec alongside political refugees and, in some camps, avowed Nazis.

Although the British soon admitted their mistake, Canada, saddled with refugees it did not want, settled into a policy of inertia regarding their welfare, their status, and their release. Antisemitic immigration policy and public sentiment precluded opening Canada’s doors to Jews, and that included through the “back door” of internment.

The refugees faced the injustice of internment with remarkable resilience and strived to make the most of their time behind barbed wire. Meanwhile, Canada’s Jewish community worked with other refugee advocates in an effort to secure freedom for the “camp boys.”

Through eyewitness testimony and artefacts, this exhibit illustrates a little-known chapter in Canadian history. The internees’ journey – from fascist Europe to refuge in England, imprisonment by Britain and Canada and eventual release – is a bittersweet tale of survival during the Holocaust.

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