SHERBROOKE, Quebec — The town of Sherbrooke, located about two hours east of Montreal, is a pleasant place to visit, especially in the temperate summer. There is a waterfall, and a promenade around a lake. In a nearby park, walkways have been built through the swamp to give city-dwellers a chance to enjoy birdsong and admire waterlilies. The town’s small history museum has recently reopened — with hand sanitizer and masked tour guides.
But nothing in the museum informs visitors about a bizarre part of Sherbrooke’s history: a camp where German and Austrian Jews were held as prisoners during World War II.
In 1940, biochemist Reinhart Pariser was a student in his early 20s at the University of Cambridge in England when one day police knocked on his door and gave him 10 minutes to pack, his son, David Pariser, told The Times of Israel.
He was put on a boat crammed with German Jews and German Nazis — both labeled by the British as “enemy aliens.” Some boats went to Australia, others to Canada; he ended up on the Canadian boat by sheer coincidence.
According to Pariser, who heard the story from his father, the German soldiers were housed on the upper deck, protected by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war. The approximately 1,000 Jews were locked in the ship’s bottom compartment. Some got hammocks, others had to sleep on the metal floor. There were no toilets there, not even a bucket. On the third day of the transatlantic journey, dysentery started raging among the men.
“The guards who looked after the German Jews were nasty, too,” Pariser said. “Someone told [my father] to go up and serve the German prisoners of war in the canteen. They hit him and kicked him because he refused to do that.”
In Canada, Reinhart looked out of the window of the train and saw signs that read, “No dogs or Jews allowed,” his son said. His memories of the camp included being forced to dig holes in the snow and then fill them in again.
“It was just to keep them busy,” Pariser said. But worst of all was the camp commander, who had a sadistic streak. According to Pariser, this commander would call the men over, informing them that they received letters from home. He looked at each letter and ripped it up – without letting the prisoners read them.
“[My father] never forgave the son of a bitch who ripped up the letters. He had a recurring dream where the guy steps on the bus and my dad shoots him,” Pariser said. “One of the ships with Jewish refugees was hit by torpedoes and his parents didn’t know which ship he was on. For six months, they thought he might be dead.”
The men wore uniforms with a big circle on the back that looked like a target
In Sherbrooke’s Camp N, the men were housed in an old train repair yard. It was cold. There was one water faucet for roughly 900 people, and only nine toilets. The men wore uniforms with a big circle on the back that looked like a target. There was barbed wire and watch towers. One prisoner lost his nerve and ran for the fence. The guards shot him.
“My dad saw someone get shot. He didn’t speak English and they shot him,” Pariser said.
About a year later Reinhart was released. He went back to England and joined the war effort. But other men spent years locked up.
Of the 2,284 Jewish men and boys who were held in Canadian camps — the British never arrested the women — 966 were eventually allowed to remain in the country, according to Paula Draper, a historian who wrote her PhD thesis on the Canadian internment camps for German, Austrian, and Italian Jews during the war.
Interestingly, many prisoners went on to become extremely successful. Walter Kohn and Max Perutz received Nobel prizes in chemistry. Walter Homburger became the director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Freddy Grant (named Fritz Grundland at birth) was a jazz pianist who, while imprisoned, wrote a song with the lyrics, “You can scream and you can shout, they’ll never let you out.” It became a popular hit in Canada during the war, called “You’ll Get Used to It.”
“This small group of refugees and the enormous contributions they made is an example of what could have happened if the world had opened its doors to Jews trying to escape the Holocaust,” Draper said.
In general, Draper said, the story about the Canadian internment camps for Jews is a “complicated story.” For one, she said, the Canadians were told by the British to expect “dangerous enemy aliens.”
“The military comes to the docks expecting prisoners of war and they see these 16-year-old yeshiva boys,” she said. “The Canadian government knew before they even landed, but they didn’t tell the people who were meeting them on the dock and they didn’t tell the military. And the [military] didn’t know what to make of these young people from yeshivas getting off these ships.”
But, on the other hand, it is also a story about anti-Semitism in Canada, and the country’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees, Draper said.
The military comes to the docks expecting prisoners of war and they see these 16-year-old yeshiva boys
“They were kept interned because the Canadian government knew they were Jews and didn’t want them in the country,” she said.
Still, she said, most of the former internees are not bitter about what happened to them because, after all, they survived the Holocaust.
“Japanese Canadians were interned on the West Coast, and that was ‘a disgrace.’ But when people say we have to make amends for interning Jewish refugees [it’s a different story],” Draper said. “They look at it as the British and the Canadians saved their lives. They were were fed and clothed.”
When asked about Jewish refugees who say they were locked on the ship without toilets, while the Nazis were eating in the cafeteria upstairs, Draper was skeptical.
“I don’t buy that story,” she said.
Changing attitudes in Canada
In 1962, an article was published in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine under the title “The Welcome Enemies.” Written in an upbeat tone not the least apologetic, and never mentioning anti-Semitism, the article describes the prison camps in a way that almost makes the reader wish to have been there:
With comparably high-class talent to draw on, the men staged endless concerts, revues, debates, mock trials, parties and bull sessions. Clad in PW issue — blue uniforms marked by a twelve-inch red target patch between the shoulder-blades and a three-inch stripe down one leg — the many scholars gave regular lectures: in English, Spanish, Greek, Arabic, philosophy and electronics, among other subjects… The internees managed to pursue their individual interests as well. Fitness fans got up early and did physical jerks in the compound, the writers formed a literary club, moodily named The Blind Mirror, and read their esoteric poems and essays to each other. One of the men was a juggler and spent a good deal of his time keeping in practice with tennis balls and kitchen plates.
The article even finds some humor in the absurd situation wherein Nazis were imprisoned together with Jews:
By now “incidents” — even a Nazi kangaroo court and the hanging of a Jew — were being reported from all the temporary camps so an attempt was made to sort out the men. It was fairly naïve, since it consisted of a request for the men to declare themselves either Jews or non-Jews. Not only did the men resent this echo of the Nürnberg racial laws but they had grown cynical. As one of them reports it, “We Jews said to each other, ‘Listen. So when did any nation do any good to a bunch of Jews?’ So we signed up as Aryans. But the other boys were saying, ‘Listen. If we say we’re Jews it’ll convince them at last that we’re anti-Nazi.’ So they signed up as Jews.
The articles about the camps that were published in recent years in large Canadian newspapers present the story in a less positive light. A Globe and Mail article was headlined, “The friends Canada insisted were foes.” A Montreal Gazette story states that anti-Semitism was a factor in why these men were interned for so long, and brings up the famous 1939 story of the ocean liner MS St. Louis, which carried 900 German Jewish refugees and was refused entrance to Canada (the ship returned to Europe and many of the passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.)
In 2013, a temporary exhibit about the internment camps was put together by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center. The exhibit, which can now be accessed online, states that Canada kept the Jews behind barbed wire even after it became clear that they were neither Nazis nor a threat to the war effort.
“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,” reads the online exhibit.
Isaac Romano, a Seattle native who founded and runs the grassroots Jewish Community Center of Eastern Townships and Montreal, was involved in bringing that exhibition to Sherbrooke. He actually went on a two-week hunger strike — only drinking juice, he says — because he wanted the city to cover the cost of the exhibit.
There is still unfinished business in the city of Sherbrooke
“I believe there is still unfinished business in the city of Sherbrooke because the city of Sherbrooke should have funded the traveling exhibit. It shouldn’t have been left to the Jews to fund,” Romano told The Times of Israel.
Romano also believes that the city should apologize for the prison camp, and that there should be a plaque on the spot where it was located.
“The mayor of Sherbrooke and the City Council should provide a formal apology for allowing the city location to imprison young Jewish men who did not harm anyone and should have been allowed to become citizens,” he said. “All of it is associated with the anti-Semitism in Quebec during that period.”
But not everyone is asking for an apology.
Rabbi Erwin Schild, a 100-year-old former German-Jewish internee who now lives in Toronto, is not worried about a plaque or an exhibition in the museum.
“I don’t think about monuments. We only need fair immigration rules,” he said.