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Exhibit Sheds Light on Canada’s Internment of Jewish Refugees

By Seanna Martin

The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s (VHEC) current exhibit, “Enemy Aliens”: The Internment of Jewish Refugees in Canada, 1940 – 1943 is the first of its kind in Canada. The exhibit explores a little-known chapter of our national history: Canada’s wartime internment of approximately 2,300 civilian refugees of 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. The internees’ journey – from Nazi Germany and Austria to refuge in England, imprisonment by Britain and Canada and eventual release – is a bittersweet tale of survival during the Holocaust.

Recording the testimonies of the few remaining internees and gathering their precious artefacts became a matter of much urgency for the VHEC, which has become known for innovative exhibits that explore Canada’s relationship to the Holocaust. The VHEC’s interview team travelled across Canada and to California to video-record the reflections of 15 individuals. Researchers gathered treasured photographs, documents, notebooks and artworks related to internment that were for the most part hidden in closets and cupboards in the homes of the internees’ families.

These remarkable stories, and the significance of the internees’ subsequent contributions to Canada, have national resonance. Many of those “deemed suspect” later assumed influential positions, several were awarded the Order of Canada and two became Nobel laureates.

Of particular interest in the exhibit is the significance of the arts, and the role it played in boosting the morale and daily lives of the internees. This is a thread that runs throughout “Enemy Aliens”, and is also a theme that is reinforced through the artistic work of internees worldwide. A wonderful complement to the exhibit is the music of Hans Gál, an established composer who was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp before being interned in the United Kingdom in 1940, and whose pieces will be featured during the 2013 Chutzpah! Festival. Like the internees transported to Canada, Gál showed resourcefulness and innovation during this time of hardship, composing unconventional pieces that made use of the limited instruments and skilled players available within the camps. Gál’s conducted performances were met with great success, conveying the experience of internment in a moving and poignant way.

Adults and children 12 years of age and older can learn more about this little known chapter in Canadian history through the video testimony, historical documentation and original artefacts featured in the exhibit by visiting the VHEC downstairs at the Jewish Community Centre. The VHEC is open Monday through Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Fridays 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The VHEC is the only non-profit museum and education space in Vancouver dedicated to promoting human rights, social justice and genocide awareness, and to teaching about the causes and consequences of discrimination, racism and antisemitism through education and remembrance of the Holocaust.

As a teaching museum and a leader in Holocaust education in British Columbia, the VHEC reaches over 15,000 students annually. It produces acclaimed exhibits, innovative school programs, teaching materials and online exhibits, many of them with a focus on Canada and the Holocaust.

The VHEC and the Chutzpah! Festival receive funding from the Federation Annual Campaign, as part of Jewish Federation’s commitment to supporting Jewish arts and culture in Vancouver.

Watercolour scenes from internment on toilet paper, by Wolfgang Gerson, Camp N (Sherbrooke, Quebec), circa 1940-1942. – Courtesy the Gerson family