The Montreal Stetl

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 29 Jan 2019

Member Reviews

This is a very important read, and while it pertains to a very specific time and specific group of people I think it helps provide an important focus on current events, divides, and thoughts. (I will expand on that more below). 

The Montreal Shtetl is a deeply researched book with the aim to provide an insight into the lives of Jewish refugees who ended up in Montreal, Canada, after the war. While the narrative does provide an overview of lives before and during the war, the main focus is on the arrival of refugees after the war, how they were treated, and how their lives were during the first few years of resettlement. It also provides an excellent overview of Canadian immigration policies at the time, and how difficult it was for anyone to immigrate to Canada before, during and even after the war, especially for Jewish refugees, due to a strict closed border policy.

The authors, Zelda Abramson & John Lynch, interviewed many different people, adult survivors, child survivors, children born in displaced person camps before arriving in Montreal, families, orphans, second generation immigrants, as well as Canadian Jews, and social workers. A ton of research into immigration policies, social worker documents from the time, and different institutions was done too. The book is divided into three parts, before, during, and after, and contains parts of different narratives in order to provide the reader with an overview of who people were, how they ended up in Montreal, and how they felt when they started to settle in.

There are so many books (important books) to read on the Holocaust, on what people endured, and on why we have to make sure that this never happens again. Most of those books end with the end of the war. There are very few that detail what happened afterwards, and what people had to go through to find a home again, and the difficulties they faced when they made it to this new home. The Montreal Shtetl provides great insight into this, and while it does focus on Montreal specifically, it’s quite easy to imagine how similar it was in other cities and countries.

Jewish survivors arrived in Montreal at different times between 1947 and 1954, due to the strict constraints of the immigration policies. They were provided with some help from different organizations depending on how they arrived (refugees, sponsorship, immigration for jobs etc), but most were expected to settle in and find jobs and housing within a few days. They faced Antisemitism from Canadians, but they also faced resentment and fear of the “other” from established Canadian Jews, who called them by disparaging nicknames. Integration was therefore difficult and they ended up often not integrating with Canadians. However, for the most part this didn’t stop people from making lives for themselves and being super resourceful. It just goes to show that life wasn’t suddenly much easier for immigrants when they arrived in Canada - it was still very hard. Can you imagine surviving the camps and then facing Antisemitism in a place where you thought you were supposed to be safe?

I didn’t know this, but many survivors stopped talking about how they got through the war mainly because people didn’t want to listen, and/or would use it against them. Or people just had no idea and would make remarks that made people think that they didn’t deserve to be alive. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and beyond that it became “OK” to discuss experiences during the Holocaust with people who had not lived through it. I can’t even begin to imagine surviving hell and then being made to feel like you were a lesser being because you didn’t die.

There is so much more to this book than the above and I do suggest everyone give it a read. It’s easy to take the experiences of European Jews during the Holocaust and afterwards and compare it to what refugees from Syria, Yemen, certain African countries, etc, are going through today. Our countries are limiting immigration, banning asylum, looking at these people as “the other” rather than learning about their countries and what they are going through. People who flee their country on foot usually don’t want to leave their homes, they have no other choice. I’ve never understood why we can’t help people, respect where they come from and who they are, and make them feel at home in our own countries. There is more than enough space for everyone.

The Montreal Shtetl is important, not only to understand how immigration often (still) works (I can personally attest to this), to how life for Holocaust survivors was often a continuous journey of survival for many years after the war ended, and in how we need to expand our empathy and views to start accepting everyone as human, no matter where they come from, what language they speak, what they eat, what they have lived through, and why they do not want to stay in the country they were born.

Also: now is the time to continue talking about this. Within the next 10 years or so there will no longer be any Holocaust survivors alive to tell their tale, so it is up to us to continue to talk about them, about the Holocaust, and about their legacy.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy of this book!
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Interesting and informative resource book. It is evident that the author put a lot of effort into educating the readers about this subject. Highly recommend.
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While WW II concentration camp survivors are now seen as highly courageous and resilient individuals, that was not the case when they were new immigrants to Canada and other countries after the war. They were not particularly wanted in Canada, and often had to have specific skills to enter the country with their families. Some survivors lied about their skills and had to learn quickly, or they lost their jobs and had to find other employment. Nevertheless, they did find other employment, as well as housing and schools for their children. Some had the help of relatives, some had the help of friends or other concentration camp survivors. Most, however, appeared to have had little, if any, help from Canadian Jews, except through organizations; at least not the 60 plus survivors interviewed for this book.

For the most part, survivors were looked down upon by the Jews who were Canadian citizens. Some citizens saw them as uneducated and uncultured, an embarrassment to Canadian Jews. Some believed survivors must have done terrible things to survive the camps, and thus were terrible individuals. Some obviously simply had no idea what the concentration camps were like, as apparent by a question one of the survivors was asked by a Canadian Jew. The question? Why couldn’t the Jews have started a union in Auschwitz and gotten what they wanted? Moreover, many in the field of psychology were claiming concentration camp survivors were “damaged goods”, people who were going to be unable to move forward in life in a normal fashion.

Yet move forward so many of them did. They hit the ground running as soon as landing on Canadian soil. There were Jewish organizations that helped them when needed, but most appeared in this book to not want much or any help, unless absolutely necessary. It’s truly astounding how these individuals experienced the most horrific things imaginable in the camps; had to walk back home after they were freed, where, according to one survivor, “everyone was looking for somebody, and there was nobody left”; went into displaced persons camps; immigrated to foreign countries where they had to learn new languages, find employment, housing and schools for their children; and, finally, had to create new social groups, including new families where all previous generations were gone.  Astounding stories, a worthwhile and educational study.
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An excellent ethnography of the Shoah survivors who settled post-war in Montreal. Researched with care and respect, and with ethics and a thoughtfulness and intellect not often found in today's non-fiction, The Montreal Shetl is an important and beautifully crafted book about Jews in North America, their lives as immigrants and outsiders, and the power of their testimonies.
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THe Montreal Stetl is an enterprising and insightful look at how  Jewish refugees made it to Montreal, Canada after WWII. THe authors do an excellent job at selecting the narratives and sharing those stories. The book is divided into three parts. Personally, I would have liked the stories to have been continuous for each of the people  interviewed. The Format they used was a bit choppy. The authors conducted many interviews and also provided a plethora of end notes for the avid reader to peruse. I found this book a fascinating read and applaud the authors for capturing these stories before they were permanently lost.
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