The 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is a fitting occasion to address the question: what does Newfoundland have to do with the Holocaust? If we ask our fellow Newfoundlanders, most would deny or plead ignorance of any connections. Some might point to the well publicized existence of such Holocaust survivors as Moishe Kantorowitz and the Fermans in this community from the 1950s to the 1980s. How else could Newfoundland possibly be linked to such an unspeakable crime taking place in far-away eastern Europe, a crime that only such barbaric foreigners as Germans and their collaborators seemed capable of committing? Wouldn't any linkage be incompatible with our entrenched faith in the humanitarian tradition of Britain's oldest colony? Haven't we been taught at home, in school, and by the media to believe that Newfoundland's leaders always cultivated the best of British values?
Until some twelve years ago when I began researching the history of 20th-century Newfoundland immigration, I used to share such sentiments. Newfoundland had always had difficulties attracting settlers, I believed, because it was so unknown that not even refugees thought of it as a haven. I had assumed that the proverbial hospitality of Newfoundlanders had formed the basis of the country's immigration policy and that anyone willing to come and settle here had been welcomed with open arms. At first my assumptions seemed confirmed when I discovered that in 1906 Newfoundland had enacted a unique refugee clause as part of its so-called Aliens Act, an act that remained the law of the land until Confederation in 1949. That act prohibited the immigration of criminals, the mentally ill, or those unable to support themselves. But a clause in the act specifically offered asylum to refugees from political and religious persecution, even if they arrived in poverty. The only other country enacting such generous legislation for refugees was Britain (in 1905), and it repealed this law in 1920.
Newfoundland thus had the distinction of being the sole country in the world where refugees from Nazi persecution were legally eligible for admission, simply by virtue of being refugees. Although Newfoundland officials tried to ignore this right to asylum, the law became known to Jewish refugee agencies. As a result, refugee agents approached the Newfoundland government as early as 1934. By 1940, the number of applications by and on behalf of refugees--mostly Jewish ones--had reached an estimated 12,000.
Among the refugees seeking entry were doctors, dentists, and nurses willing to establish traveling clinics and to work in isolated outports needing medical services; there were Jewish manufacturers proposing to locally produce items that were imported at the time; there were farmers, engineers, technicians, accountants, scientists, university professors, etc. The petitions for sanctuary included at least eight significant economic proposals for refugee group settlement. The proposals outlined detailed plans for harnessing the hydro potential of Churchill Falls, developing Labrador's Lake Melville area, and launching fish canneries, furniture factories, and other industries with the eventual employment of thousands of Newfoundlanders. One Jewish refugee organization surveying Newfoundland in 1938 in anticipation of refugee settlement concluded that "the Jews can take little from a country that is practically bankrupt. On the contrary, with undeveloped resources and a small population, much can be contributed by them... Jewish ingenuity will certainly develop these resources."
Although most group settlement proposals came with assurances of generous financial backing, every single proposal was rejected. Rejected were also all individual applications for sanctuary. Time permits me to mention only two examples. Especially telling are the requests from naturalized Newfoundlanders to sponsor first-degree relatives. In 1938 Nochau Goldman from Poland and his starving family of four submitted two unsuccessful petitions to join his sister in Corner Brook. She was married to Ernest Swirsky who owned a local dry goods store. Frustrated at being denied entry, Goldman appealed to the Dominions Secretary in London, in these words:
I would very much like to say that I recently received a letter from my sister in Newfoundland informing me that seeing they had only one child, that both she and her husband were quite willing to take us to live with them, and share with each other as one united family, and that such would not have any effect regarding the employment on the Island.
Lord Stanley, if it's not too much of me to ask, I do plead with you, that you will do all in your power by the help of God and through faith in Him, and your unfailing kindness to assist me, in obtaining papers to immigrate if not to Newfoundland, then please God to England, Canada, or wherever it would be permissible for me to immigrate, and if such could be granted, then my brother-in-law and sister will do all in their power to help us in any way.
Stanley requested a review of the case in St. John's. The Governor of Newfoundland replied that the review did "not disclose any grounds for varying the decision already conveyed."
In an even more heartbreaking case, Rose R. Zuber, a prosperous St. John's Jewish businesswoman and naturalized citizen was denied permission to rescue her parents and two brothers from Pruzana, Poland. From 1937 to 1939 she undertook five separate efforts and engaged the leading St. John's law firm of Winter and Higgins. In March 1939, as a final resort, she appealed to the Dominions Secretary in London, pleading:
My family are all Polish Jews, and it is because of their increasing fear of prosecution, and the possible confiscation of their property that they are looking to Newfoundland... They have no relatives or friends elsewhere outside Poland...
I greatly fear that...delay...may be serious or even fatal so far as they are concerned and that they may not be allowed to leave Poland at all, or only after confiscation of the whole or most of their property... I am advised that my own and my husband's status as British subjects should entitle my relations to more favourable consideration than could be claimed by resident aliens, though the authorities here do not appear to take it into account. I might add that there is not the slightest danger of...members of my family... becoming a charge upon the state or of engaging in any business in a way that would be detrimental to any Newfoundlanders...
The reports I receive of the trend of affairs in Poland, and the increasing hostility of the ruling class there towards the people of my race fill me with apprehension , and the fear of what might happen at any moment. If the utmost you can do is ask the proper authorities in this country to reconsider this case, or bring to their attention any aspects of it which might justify prompt and favorable treatment, I shall be most deeply grateful.
Again, London referred the case for review back to St. John's. In July 1939 the Newfoundland government replied tersely that there were "no grounds whatever to justify a reconsideration of the case, and the decision already conveyed...cannot be varied." The Secretary of Justice Brian Dunfield based the refusal on a case heard in Privy Council in 1891 that allowed Australia to turn back Chinese immigrants. This legal precedent, Dunfield argued, entitled the government "to refuse to receive the Polish immigrants in question, and its right being absolute, it need not give any reasons." Dunfield, by the way, served as Newfoundland Supreme Court Justice from 1939-1960. We can only surmise what happened to Zuber's family. In their hometown of Pruzana all the inmates of the large Jewish ghetto were destined for Auschwitz. Our well-known Holocaust survivor Moishe Kantorowitz was shipped from that very ghetto to Auschwitz where his entire extended family of 51 persons went straight to the gas chambers.
The reasons given for the denial of sanctuary did not reflect any consistent criteria and differed from case to case. In February 1939 a petition on behalf of 1,000 Jewish families, headed by farmers, engineers, and young merchants from Hungary, was turned down on the alleged grounds that there was "no prospect of room being found" for them on the island. The refugee clause of 1906, Newfoundland's senior commissioner Lewis Emerson confided to colleagues in 1938, was "simply too liberal in present circumstances." He did not mind that the rejections were in defiance of British policy specifically requesting the admission of refugees on humanitarian and economic grounds. Nor did he care for the wishes of the neglected and tuberculosis- ridden outports. There, the refugees would have been welcome for providing badly needed services.
Responsibility for the wholesale exclusion of refugees in defiance of the legally guaranteed right to asylum rests squarely with Newfoundland's "great" leaders. In the government of the day, Emerson represented the vested interests of the local professional and business community. This small ruling elite of merchants, doctors, businessmen, and lawyers feared competition and consequently considered the refugees a potential threat to their privileged position. Antisemitism reinforced these selfish motives. It was as prevalent among Newfoundland's ruling class and officialdom as in other parts of the western world, as documented in the papers of Emerson and his deputy Dunfield, and as revealed in the editorial policy of the Evening Telegram.
In its relentless denial of sanctuary to Jewish refugees, Newfoundland even outdid Canada, a country known to have cared little and done less. But while Canada admitted at least a token number of refugees, Newfoundland practised what Canada's antisemitic immigration director F.C. Blair preached, namely: "None is too many." Such countries, to quote historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper, "share responsibility for the fate of the Jews of Europe." Newfoundland not only held hope for thousands of would-be refugees from the Holocaust whose rejection and destruction were also Newfoundland's loss. The truly sad realization is that Newfoundland was poised for moral leadership with its sanctuary law. Instead, our past leaders spurned this historic challenge and ensured that solutions to our local problems would remain elusive to this day.
It is hard to believe that some can ignore this harsh reality and keep prodding us to look back with nostalgia to the presumed glories of lost nationhood. We in Newfoundland can never fully appreciate the experience of the Holocaust victims. But we can reflect upon how we could have changed their fate.