Thursday, March 8, 2007

A little-known chapter in our history

Wednesday evening's edition of CBC's Here & Now featured a touching, eye-opening segment of 'The Finest Kind', by Deanne Fleet. It was the story of Andreas Barban (and his wife), Jewish immigrants who were accepted into Newfoundland in 1947, having escaped from Germany to the Far East. I had certainly heard of Barban, who died in 1993, but - like many others, I suspect - had no idea about the impact he had on the social and cultural fabric of this province. Frankly, if not for this item, I never would have known so kudos to Deanne Fleet for bringing it to our attention. (Why it aired at the very end of the newscast I don't know; it certainly deserved to be higher than that in the lineup.)

Fleet's piece set me to thinking about Jewish immigration, and Newfoundland's place in one of the nastiest chapters in modern history. In the years leading up to World War II, ships carrying Jewish refugees were denied landfall in North America and sent back to Europe, often to certain death. (Shown in photo are refugees on board the "St. Louis", which was denied entry by Cuba and the U.S. in 1939.)

Our acceptance of Mr. Barban and a handful of other Jewish immigrants was noble enough, but was it mere tokenism? Did Newfoundland turn away other refugees by the thousand?

I conducted some Internet research into this question. It took some time, but I came up with a fascinating, thoroughly researched article (citing numerous local sources) from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. It's called "Attempts to Settle Jewish Refugees in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1934-1939", written by Gerhard P. Bassler. You can read it here.

"It may come as a surprise to students of the Holocaust and of Newfoundland history that the Dominion of Newfoundland occupies a place in the history of the Jewish Holocaust," writes Bassler. "Due to its traditionally liberal refugee legislation, low population density, moderate climate, and challenges for immigrants with skills and capital, the island of Newfoundland and the territory of Labrador, which also belonged to the Dominion of Newfoundland, were widely considered a more suitable haven for European refugees than places like Shanghai and the Dominican Republic. In 1934, 1936, and 1939, proposals were advanced for Jewish group settlement, entailing ambitious plans for the economic development of Newfoundland and Labrador. The proposals envisaged spectacular possibilities for the refugees as well as for Newfoundland, and at least one of them came close to fruition. The contemporary public debate on these proposals and on the desirability of admitting Jewish refugees has been forgotten, and the pertinent historical literature contains no reference to it.

"Also unknown, therefore, is the fact that of the thousands of refugees petitioning to enter between 1934 and 1941, the Newfoundland government turned down all but 11 petitions. At the same time, the much smaller, poorer, and far more densely populated Dominican Republic offered sanctuary to 100,000; and the distant, overcrowded, and climatically unsuitable city of Shanghai took 20,000 refugees from Nazi persecution..."

Things were complicated by the fact that Newfoundland was living under Commission of Government at the time, so immigration policy reflected the whims and even prejudices of the appointed commissioners.

"In the 1930s the actions of the Commissioners speak louder than words. Newfoundland and Labrador might have afforded sanctuary to 10,000 or more refugees if the absorptive capacity assigned to the country by settlement experts had become a criterion for admission. Instead, the Commission turned down all the requests and petitions received by and on behalf of more than 12,000 Jewish refugees from Europe. Newfoundland's eight refugee nurses were recruited in London, not because they were refugees, but because they were the only qualified nurses available in 1939 to assume duties in the fishing outports, for which no one else could be found. The search for ways to keep refugees out on grounds other than economic appears to have been one of the chief concerns of the Commissioner for Justice. In their efforts to bar Jewish refugees from the country, the Commissioners looked to Canada as a model. Since British and Dutch farmers continued to be solicited, the systematic exclusion of non-Aryan refugees was clearly discriminatory."

Would things have been different if Newfoundland was an independent country? That is hard to say, and perhaps pointless to debate. However, Newfoundland society has always impressed me as being tolerant and relatively untainted by racism, so I suspect that we would have made a greater effort to save these people. At least, I like to think so.

1 comment:

peter whittle said...

Interesting and thought provoking article. However I must take exception to the opinion expressed in the final paragraph for a number of reasons. I believe that this ideal of an independent Newfoundland making other decisions is romantic nationalism that helps us wash our hands of a matter in which we might have been more complicit and less tolerant than you may wish for. I am not an expert on the matter, nor have I researched it a great deal.
The Commission of Government, established in 1934 consisted of the governor and six commissioners. Half of which were native Newfoundkander’s. This group had full legislative and executive control. The Commission was overseen by the British Secretary Of State for Dominion Affairs. So the local decision making power was very much in the hands of local people with very strong ties to the local business class. The individuals responsible for immigration were native Newfoundlanders . So the decisions had to have been based on some sort of local input, formal or informal that had to have been influenced by local opinions.

Sir John Hope Simpson left the country in 1936. He was an advocate for the establishment of a bunch of agricultural land resettlement schemes and saw great potential for the forestry, mining and electricity. After his departure from Newfoundland he became a leading advocate for the relocation of European Jews to Newfoundland and other British Colonies. As a former Commissioner he should have had some sway with the other British commissioners. This makes me speculate about the amount of local concern about allowing large volumes of jews into the country. Considering the status of some of the significant Jewish bankers and industrialist in the United Kingdom I can not imagine the British Government was opposed to any scheme that would see great amounts of no government money invested in agriculture, electricity, fishing, herring, oil facilities and the like in Newfoundland. The Commission had embarked on a campaign of development of infrastructure and to open up the interior of the province but it was to expensive for the mother country to subscribe to.

I think one would have to look at the motivations ad religious leanings of the Newfoundland Commissioners at the time to try and get a handle on why more jews were not offered a home here. In particular when you consider the huge amounts of capital backing them. Aderdice, Howly, Winter, Puddister,, Emerson, Winter, Walsh, Quinton and Pottle may have been more sintrumental than you suggest.
From the same article by Bassler “ A stinging editorial in the Evening Telegram of 7 July 1939 noted the disembarkation in St. John's of two or three refugee doctors who had been hired to serve as district nurses in the fishing outports. The editor criticized the admission of these refugees on every conceivable ground. "These foreigners" were suspected of taking away jobs from eligible Newfoundlanders, of lacking proper qualifications as doctors and nurses, and of being spies and fifth columnists entering the country under the guise of refugees. They were reproached for not being immigrants with the capital and skills necessary to establish a badly needed new industry or a rare trade that would not interfere with any local industries. The editorial warned:
Who vouches for the bona fides of these newcomers, and what steps are taken to prevent the entry of persons who in the capacity of doctors or nurses would have a great opportunity-in fact the best opportunity-to inculcate ideas inimical to the best interests of a British community?"
In the public debate over the admission of Central European refugees, the overwhelming majority of the comments were opposed to admission. In the absence of unambiguously antisernitic utterances in the local press and in the government documents examined, hostility toward Jews in Newfoundland is not clearly identifiable among the manifestations of a widespread xenophobia toward non-British immigrants.”
Thus the historic record, at least from the opinion pages of the day we were indeed very anti-refuge. There seemed to be a belief that instead of creating opportunity that existing jobs would be snatched up. Was the ruling class, who no longer had to worry about pleasing the masses, fearful that a new immigrant class might develop and perhaps challenge the status quo in the future or usurp the precarious merchant hold on the province? These are all worthy of further exploration.

You ask the question “ Would things have been different if Newfoundland was an independent country? That is hard to say, and perhaps pointless to debate. However, Newfoundland society has always impressed me as being tolerant and relatively untainted by racism, so I suspect that we would have made a greater effort to save these people. At least, I like to think so.”. I fear that the public record and the actions or inaction of the Newfoundland Commissioners may defeat your tainted view that we were a tolerant society. In closing I leave you with another quote from Bassler. (please pay attention to the last two lines”
The seriousness of the Commission's stillborn endeavors to recruit refugee industries in 1939 is difficult to gauge. However, the three proposals for group settlement suggest that challenges for more than eight Jewish newcomers existed, despite the Depression and despite the exodus of Newfoundlanders to the North American mainland. The failure of all attempts to settle Jewish refugees in Newfoundland in the 1930s, regardless of their economic merits and their first-degree family relationship to Newfoundlanders, is inexplicable without identifying antisemitism as a motivating force. "How else," to quote Simon Belkin, "can one interpret the refusal of proposals which would have been so beneficial to the country?"