On a sunny June day last year, an elderly man and his wife wielded beribboned shovels as they turned the first sod for a major addition to the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. What was unusual about the event was not so much the magnitude of the planned theatre-cum-lecture-hall as the background of the man who was donating $6 million to have it built.
Alfred Bader landed in Canada 60 years ago, a penniless 16-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna. Since then, he has graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., earned a chemistry doctorate from Harvard and started a Milwaukee-based business that he built up into
A unique group of Jewish refugee immigrants has contributed greatly to life in Canada
one of the world’s foremost suppliers of research chemicals. Later, he established an international art dealership, which now handles some 200 paintings a year, including multimillion-dollar masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens. In addition to Bader’s g generous donation to Victoria & College, his wife’s alma mater, he has given, over the years, some $30 million to Queen’s.
Bader’s success story is one of many experienced by a group of men, now in their 70s and 80s, who will hold a casual reunion in Toronto on May 13. They are among the most unusual immigrants to arrive in Canada. For one thing, they did not ask to come. In fact,
they did not even know where they were going until they found themselves sailing up the St. Lawrence River in July, 1940. Nor did the Canadian government know what to do with these German and Austrian nationals, who the British government had rounded up as potential fifth columnists from their coastal area homes and shipped across the Atlantic. Ottawa was expecting prisoners of war—instead they got a handful of Nazi sympathizers, plus nearly 2,300 refugees, most of them Jewish, many of them in their teens.
“What we have to do,” warned the
immigration director at the time, F. C. Blair, “is protect Canada against the release of these people here.” No doubt Blair would be surprised to learn what became of “these people” after the government released them from the internment camps in Quebec, Ontario and
New Brunswick two to three years later, to go to school or assist the war effort. More than 70 became university professors, including two Nobel Prizewinners, and collectively they received more honorary degrees than anyone has cared to count. Of the nearly 1,000 who chose to remain in Canada, dozens have contributed to Canada’s cultural life as authors, musicians and scientists, and at least nine have been named members or officers of the Order of Canada. The list includes Gregory Baum, one of the country’s foremost theologians, former manager of the Toronto Symphony
Walter Homburger, Vancouver architect Peter Oberländer and Helmut Kallmann, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Inevitably, the number of those still alive is dwindling. Gone are McGill University’s dean of music Helmut Blume; University of Alberta English professor and author Henry Kreisel; Franz Kraemer, the former head of music at the Canada Council; and piano virtuoso John Newmark, considered one of the world’s top accompanists. Also long gone is Max Stern, who virtually discovered Emily Carr, exhibited 60 of her paintings in his Montreal art gallery and sold 54 of them.
Among the surviving “camp boys,” there are three in particular who exemplify the career paths of the prominent ex-internees. All were Austrian born, all were teenagers at the time of their arrival, and all became math and science graduates of Canadian universities.
A pioneer in the development and application of computer software, Josef Kates, 79, joined the University of Toronto’s brand-new computer centre after graduation in 1948, then went on to found a company which developed Metropolitan Toronto’s computerized traffic-control system, the first of its kind in the world. “Most people thought computers could do some things,” says Kates. “I thought computers could do everything. ” That included working out a way of eliminating the huge bottlenecks that plagued the St. Lawrence Seaway in
the early days of its operation. To top his career, Kates became chairman of the Science Council of Canada and chancellor of the University of Waterloo.
For Fred Kaufman, 76, the highlight of his working life so far has been heading the commission of inquiry into the reasons for the wrongful murder conviction of Guy Paul Morin, who was twice convicted of murdering a nineyear-old girl outside Toronto before being exonerated as a result of DNA evidence. Having failed to find a job related to the B.Sc. he earned at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., Kaufman landed work as a reporter for the Montreal Star. After watching lawyers in court, he decided he could do equally well, maybe better. Despite the fact that, in the 1950s, one could not practise law in Quebec without a BA, he went to McGill to get that degree and attend law school at the same time. It was, he recalls, a brutal couple of years. He practised law for 18 years, then was appointed to the Quebec Court of Appeal and, following his retirement in
1991, went to Tanzania on behalf of the World Bank to recommend improvements to the country’s law society. In 1996, he and his Ontario-born wife, Donna, decided to move to Toronto to be closer to their adult children. A month later, the province asked him to take on the Morin inquiry. Now, he heads a Nova Scotia inquiry into sexual and physical abuse at provincial youth training and residential centres.
An 18-year-old just out of camp, Walter Kohn had to be tutored in 1941 to catch up to his University of Toronto math and physics classmates. Yet after graduation, Kohn went on to a doctorate at Harvard and eventually a professorship at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he won the 1998 Nobel Prize for chemistry and remains a professor emeritus.
“There is,” says ex-internee Eric Koch, a former CBC executive turned novelist, “a mythology about the camp boys having been exceptional—actually the vast majority are ordinary people leading ordinary lives.” Perhaps, but many of their achievements are far from ordinary. Still, most ex-internees reject any suggestion that their success was triggered by a determination to succeed in the face of adversity. “I would not call Canadian camps adversity,” protests Edgar Sarton, an economic consultant, writer and one of many who lost their parents in the Holocaust.
Forgotten, it seems, is the frustration at being held against their will and against all reason, the lack of understanding and, sometimes, outright hostility on the part of individuals assigned to guard them. Instead, the “boys” at their reunion will no doubt remember the camaraderie, the opportunity to meet people from different walks of life, the lectures provided by some of their most brilliant fellow inmates. “I became a man there,” recalls Baum. “I discovered I was intelligent.” Adds Sarton: “It was like Oxford and Cambridge rolled into one.” A slight exaggeration, no doubt, but why quarrel with nostalgia?
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