Starting Over

On September 19, 1948, the S.S. Sobieski docked at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Among the passengers on the recommissioned cargo ship were my parents, Béla and Judit Rubinstein, and my uncle and aunt, Dezső and Vera Rubinstein. As the two couples had infant children, they were given priority among the Jewish refugees being brought to Canada to work as furriers. Their childless niece and nephew, Kicsi and Sándor Hofstädter, were to follow a week later.

Judging by the historical record, post-war Canada seemed an implausible haven for homeless Jews. In 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, packed with German Jewish refugees, was denied sanctuary in Canada after being refused entry to Cuba and the United States, and was forced to return to a dismal fate in Europe. During the war, the leaders of Canadian Jewry tried desperately to convince the government to admit Jewish refugees beyond the very restrictive quota then in place. But Canada only let in about 5,000 Jews—one of the worst records of any of the refugee-receiving countries.

Canada was a vast, extraordinarily endowed country whose greatest single challenge was having a population too small to harness its enormous potential.  To be sure, immigrants were welcome—as long as they met certain criteria.

Today, Canadians cherish their image as progressive and compassionate people, drawing to their country immigrants of every race and creed. But back then, it was a very different story. Canada only wanted white Christians, preferably fair-skinned Northern Europeans. Frederick Charles Blair, director of the Immigration Branch, warned that unless “safeguards” were put in place, there was a danger of Canada being “flooded with Jewish people.” He made no secret of his personal dislike for Jews, and he was very proud of his strong record in keeping them out.  When asked by an exasperated delegation of Jewish community leaders just how many Jews he would be prepared to see enter the country, an unidentified senior immigration official responded infamously that “none is too many”.

The Jewish leaders concluded that the only way to get significant numbers of their hapless brethren into Canada was to demonstrate that they could be of value to the country. The garment industry was at the time a mainstay of the Canadian economy, but its growth was hampered by a chronic shortage of workers. This particular industry was heavily Jewish at every level, from business owners to union officials to workers. For once, they all agreed to rise above their customary adversarial relationship. The Canadian Overseas Garment Commission, a partnership between the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Canadian Garment Workers’ Union, was established to bring skilled tailors to Canada from the refugee camps. The Canadian Overseas Fur Commission followed soon afterwards.

The politicians in Ottawa regarded the intensive lobbying as evidence of the well-known Jewish trait of “pushiness,” but it paid off. In October 1947, approval was granted for the admission of 2,136 tailors and 500 furriers. There was no specific mention of Jews in the Order-in-Council; from the government’s point of view, this was to be a strictly pragmatic, economically motivated process.

An eight-man delegation, headed by Canadian Fur Workers’ Union officials Harris Silver and Max Federman, came to Rome in June 1948 seeking recruits from the various refugee camps throughout Italy.  Having arrived early at the Canadian Embassy and finding themselves near the head of a queue snaking several times around the block, the three men in my family were among the fortunate applicants selected. This despite the fact that none of them knew the first thing about furs.

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Representatives of the Canadian Fur Workers’ Union were present at the port of Halifax that day 70 years ago to greet the travelers and accompany them to the train station. On offer were three cities in need of fur-workers—Montreal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Most of the group got off the train at the first destination, Montreal, perhaps in their impatience to put an end to the years of rootlessness. The rest continued on to Toronto. No one chose Winnipeg, which was reported to be too remote from civilization and too cold in the winter to be fit for human habitation.

My father and uncle had concluded that it would be difficult enough for native Hungarian speakers to learn English, let alone both English and French, thus eliminating Montreal. Toronto sounded rather like “Torino”, the Italian city on whose outskirts they had spent the previous three years at United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Displaced Persons Camp No. 17. They eagerly grasped at the flimsiest hint of familiarity in this promising but alien land.

The train carrying the 38 furriers-to-be and their families pulled into Toronto’s Union Station early in the morning on Wednesday, September 22. They were greeted by Miss Tobie Taback, secretary of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society of Canada (JIAS) and some employees of the United Jewish Relief Agencies. Also present was an official from the Canadian Department of Immigration.

The CJC, working together with JIAS, had made a commitment to the Canadian government to secure housing for the newcomers. The immigration official was present at the train station that morning not so much to welcome the new arrivals to Canada as to ensure that they not set up camp in the manner of “Gypsies”. No one was permitted to leave the station before Miss Taback established that each person had a place to live. Finding accommodations was a real challenge in those days of rapid population growth in Toronto, and few landlords were prepared to rent to families with small children.

The famished travelers were taken to Goldenberg’s Kosher Restaurant for breakfast. Afterwards, they were brought to the Labor Lyceum for processing. Once all the paperwork was completed, a CJC employee accompanied each family to its new home. My parents carried me, together with the two knapsacks containing all their earthly possessions, up a dark staircase to a dingy two-room apartment in a badly rundown building. Before handing over the key, the chaperone explained that the CJC had already paid the first month’s rent. My father was expected to repay this amount, as well as the cost of the train tickets from Halifax, as soon as he started earning wages. The breakfast was complimentary. My father was also informed that he was entitled to a loan of $100 for the purpose of acquiring some basic furniture, but he was too proud to accept this.

Inside, the cockroaches were in command, and a single reeking bathroom served all five tenant families. My mother stared at the grimy floor and sobbed quietly. Had she survived the camps and endured being a refugee to end up living like this?  Her first activity in Toronto was to get down on her hands and knees to scrub the floor. She was determined to raise her son with dignity in a clean home, however modest it might be.

Three days later, on Saturday morning, my father and uncle set out in search of their fellow Jews. Spotting a well-dressed gentleman with a velvet bag under his arm, they asked him whether he might be going to shul. Yes, he was, and they could follow him if they wished.

The regulars at the synagogue did not greet the strangers joining them for services. New arrivals from Europe were an increasingly common sight those days. Who knew what these people might demand? Best to just ignore them.

In a radio broadcast explaining to the Toronto public why it was so important to help the immigrants, an unidentified Jewish community leader quoted the typical complaint: “Why are we going out of our way to do all this for the refugees who have been coming to our community? Did anybody provide me with this help when I arrived here years ago?”

On occasion, things could take an ugly turn: When swastikas and antisemitic slurs were found one morning daubed on public buildings, many old-timers blamed the greeners for provoking the gentiles with their foreignness.

As soon as they could afford to do so, my parents moved to a better apartment. Their landlady, who had come from Poland in the ‘20s, ceremoniously pointed out the flush toilet, explaining its purpose and demonstrating its operation, on the assumption that the newcomers shared her primitive shtetl background. My parents nodded politely.

The tragedy of European Jewry stood as a yawning chasm between the two groups. A curious neighbour once asked my mother what had brought her to Canada. She responded matter-of-factly that almost her entire family had been murdered by the Germans during the war. She herself managed to survive Auschwitz and her husband survived Hungarian forced labour camps. It was impossible for them to return home and resume their old lives as if nothing had happened. Since at the time no country was interested in absorbing homeless Jews, they languished in a refugee camp until finally, Canada opened the door.

A long, awkward silence was followed by a deep sigh and a plaintive lament: “Oy, Mrs. Rubinstein, you can’t imagine how hard it was in Toronto during the Great Depression. We didn’t even have butter to put on our poor children’s bread!” At a loss for words, my mother brought the conversation to an abrupt conclusion. She decided that henceforth, she would keep the memories to herself.

As soon as they had fulfilled their contractual obligation to work for a year as furriers, the three entrepreneurially-minded men in my family opened their own small fur shop in Toronto’s garment district. By the mid-‘50s, recognizing the opportunity presented by the critical dearth of housing in the rapidly-growing city, they decided to become builders. Their lack of money, connections, education, and experience did not deter them. Together with many other survivor-immigrants, they became part of a uniquely Jewish new industry in Toronto, the construction and management of high-rise rental apartment buildings. In the years to come, this industry proved to be a key factor in Toronto’s dramatic evolution into a major metropolis. It is a remarkable story of resilience, courage, resourcefulness, and hard work on the part of people who counted their blessings every day to be living in a wondrous land of freedom and opportunity like Canada.

And that is why, 70 years on, amid the heated controversies raging in a new era of global demographic dislocation, I come down squarely on the side of the immigrants.

About the Author
Robert Eli Rubinstein, a businessman and communal leader in Toronto, Canada, is the author of An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada, an award-winning account of his survivor parents’ reconstruction of their shattered lives after the War.
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