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June 3, 2018 8:57 am

The Shameful Record of the Church and the Holocaust in Canada

avatar by Jacob Sivak


Pope Francis walks through the main gate at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Kacper Pempel / File.

I’m sure that I was not the only one who watched the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer — including the chanted slogan “Jews will not replace us” — and thought of an earlier time during the 1930s and ’40s when fascism and antisemitism were in vogue.

As a reminder of that period, I reread the book None Is Too Many by Irving Abella and Harold Troper. First published in 1983, it documents efforts by the Canadian Civil Service to bar entry to European Jewish refugees trying to save themselves from the Holocaust.

The book’s title, a reply by an unnamed bureaucrat to the question of how many Jews should be admitted to Canada after World War II, is no exaggeration. Few Jewish refugees were admitted to Canada during the immediate post-war period (1945-1948) and only 500 were admitted from 1939-1945, when the search for sanctuary was most desperate.

Abella and Troper make it clear that the civil servants involved were complying with the wishes of the political establishment, from Prime Minister Mackenzie King on down. Due to widespread antisemitism, there were no votes on admitting Jewish refugees to Canada and the frantic efforts of the leaders of the 175,000 member Jewish community were useless, even in exceptional cases related to family reunification or when affluent applicants offered to transfer substantial assets to Canada.

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Yet one area not fully addressed by Abella and Troper is the role of the Canadian churches.

While individual representatives of the United Church and the Anglican Church lobbied the government for a more humane policy toward Jewish refugees, in general, the book says, “the churches remained silent.”

Some attention has been directed on to the antisemitism encouraged by the Catholic Church in Quebec in the 1930s and ’40s, a topic more fully examined by Mordecai Richler in Oh Canada! Oh Quebec and Esther Delisle in The Traitor and the Jew.

An important and complementary book, Haim Genizi’s The Holocaust, Israel, and Canadian Protestant Churches was published in 2002. Genizi, a professor of history at Bar Ilan University, uses primary sources and interviews to examine the response of various Protestant denominations in Canada to the Holocaust and the creation of Israel.

To Genizi, the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish state are linked, and the Christian response to both has been largely the same: apathy and even hostility.

The book is introduced by citing a traditional Christian belief that “the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the subsequent Jewish exile was a divine punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus” and “the Jewish people were destined to wither away and be replaced by Christians.”

In relation to the Holocaust, the evidence cited by Genizi, much of it dealing with the United Church (a 1925 merger of four Protestant denominations), is disturbing.

For example, the reverend of an important Toronto church writes in a December 1939 Globe and Mail piece that “The Jews’ denial and crucifixion of Christ was the reason why God’s curse rested on them and why they would continue to suffer even more.”

Moreover, “instead of confessing their sins, the Jews were expecting the World’s sympathy.”

Quoting from a book by Davies and Nefsky titled How Silent Were the Churches?, Genizi writes that to Canada’s church establishment, the Jews “were not worth rescuing.”

He goes on to note, as did Abella and Troper, that a number of ministers were active on the Canadian National Committee on Refugees, a non-sectarian group that tried to influence the Canadian government to accept Jewish refugees. However, in 1939 an editorial in the New Outlook, a United Church magazine, castigated the churches for their silence on the issue. Genizi cites a former United Church moderator who notes that “while many individuals stood out as exceptions, Canadian institutions, by and large, were silent.”

While the bulk of the book deals with the United Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, smaller sections refer to Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. In relation to the Holocaust, there is little to distinguish one group from another.

For example, Genizi notes that “some Presbyterian ministers … stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was divine punishment for the Jews’ refusal to accept redemption.”

While None Is Too Many has been published in multiple editions, has been reviewed by publications such as The New York Times, The Economist, and The Washington Post, and was the subject of a Canadian television program, the Genizi book has received very little attention in our community beyond reviews by Arnold Ages in the Jewish Independent and Richard Menkis in American Jewish History.

Today, in light of events such as Charlottesville and widespread reports of increased antisemitic incidents, it is appropriate to revisit the events that took place in Canada not all that long ago.

Jacob Sivak, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry, University of Waterloo, where he continues his research interests as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He has a lifelong interest in the history of the Jewish people.

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