1950 Ladies Auxiliary Tea - United Jewish Welfare Fund
Oil on Canvas 16x20
Original Image Taken: 1950
When my parents immigrated to Montreal after the Holocaust, they (like so many survivors) were absorbed by the established Jewish community. I never really thought about the task of welcoming thousands of refugees, many (if not most) of whom arrived in Canada traumatized by the events of the second world war. How did the established Jewish community prepare to help these people whose needs were so profound? I have nothing but gratitude for the types of women, like those pictured here, who came together to fundraise, collect material donations, volunteer at clothing banks and provide scholarships to young refugees who couldn’t afford tuition for Jewish summer camps and schools. I am certain that in the early 1950’s, my family benefited from these efforts and generosity.
In many ways, however, Montreal’s Jewish community (like so many established Jewish communities in North America) was strained by the sudden influx of Jews from the ‘old country’. While united by a common code of religious practice and customs, these Jews couldn’t have been more different from each other. It was nearly impossible for the survivors to talk about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, and frankly, the established community was not all that interested in hearing about it (at least not back then). It was beyond overwhelming for both sides.
Furthermore, the arrival of the refugees altered the landscape of the established Jewish community and thus brought a sense of insecurity for them: would the very presence of these immigrants threaten the equilibrium and tentative acceptance the ‘Canadian Jews’ had worked so hard to achieve, living quietly in suburbs alongside the larger Gentile Canadian community?
The Canadian Jews had their own history. They were the descendants of parents and grandparents who fled the pogroms in Russia. At the turn of the century, these people arrived on boats only to be greeted by a Canadian society that had restricted neighborhoods, hotels and beaches, quotas for higher education and outright disdain for the Jewish immigrants and their ways. It took 50 years for the Jews in Canada to respond to this brand of anti-Semitism and build their own parallel institutions, like the Jewish General Hospital, social clubs, the YMHA and various Jewish Community Centers. As these early Canadian Jews amassed wealth, many wanted to simply ‘fit in’- to look and act like their Gentile neighbors and deflect any negative attention. The presence of the Holocaust survivors must have reminded them of their grandparents and the obstacles they overcame. The Canadian Jews definitely cared about the well-being of the Holocaust survivors and took responsibility to help them. But they didn’t always want to socialize with or live in the same neighborhoods as the refugees. Perhaps it was too painful, or it was snobbery, or maybe a little of both.
Time is a funny thing though. Within a generation, the children and grandchildren of the refugees and those of the ‘established’ Canadian Jews almost immediately became indistinguishable. I know this firsthand. Most of my friends descended from the ‘established’ Canadian Jewish community. We freely and happily socialized in each other’s homes, we went to the same summer camps, high schools and universities, attended the same parties, dated each other, got married and built life-long friendships together. For better or for worse, this pattern repeated itself when the influx of Russian Jews arrived in Canada and the US in the early 1990’s.