The Holocaust, Refugee Children, and Canada’s National Narrative


Dr Antoine Burgard, University of Manchester

In April 1947, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) was authorized to bring 1000 young Holocaust survivors to Canada through the War Orphans Project. The Canadian federal government required all young newcomers to be placed in foster families. This led the CJC to set up a campaign to find potential foster parents. Bringing together scholarship on humanitarian photography and on post-Second World War childhood, my latest Cultural and Social History article examines the imagery and accompanying narratives of the campaign and explores how notions of victimhood, resilience, and rehabilitation were represented. It aims to assess how these representations and misrepresentations influenced the survivors’ resettlement but also the long-term memorialization of their arrival in Canada. In this blog post, I want to briefly focus on the latter and address the singular place of these young survivors in the Canadian national narrative.

In the spring of 2016, a 4-year multimedia exhibition was launched as part of a series of events celebrating the 375th anniversary of the foundation of Montreal. The exhibition, called Cité Mémoire, was created by two renowned Québécois directors and was composed of 19 tableaux. These three to six minutes videos were projected in various areas of the city and introduced passers-by to key-moments of the city’s history. One tableau, ‘The Jewish Children’s Transport Train 1947’, focused on the arrival of one of these young Holocaust survivors in Montreal and his first encounter with his new foster parents. The fact that the War Orphans Project was chosen alongside the 1849’s burning of the Parliament or the 1967’s Universal Exhibition as one of the key-moments of the city’s history is significant.

The presence of the young survivors in the celebration of almost four hundred years of Montreal’s history has various explanations. First, the War Orphans Project positively links the Canadian national narrative to the history of the Holocaust: the country’s government and Jewish community were quickly involved in the post-war relief and rehabilitation of the most vulnerable population among Holocaust survivors. The optimistic representations of survival, resilience, and integration match the growing needs for making Holocaust history accessible to young students. They also contribute to a positive depiction of children in Canadian history, which had been darkened by several massive scandals about the aboriginal residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the British Empire’s ‘lost children’. Finally, they reinforce the country’s narrative of early humanitarianism and long tradition of welcome, especially in the ways the young survivors’ stories resonate with the arrival and care of unaccompanied minors fleeing the Syrian civil war. Such positive representations ignore the difficulties the young newcomers faced in Canada and, moreover, that their resettlement was a token gesture from a government that was largely hostile to Jewish migration. They were and are now often used to overshadow Canada’s ‘complicated history’ with refugees.

There are obvious parallels to be made with the uses (and misuses) of the Kindertransport in Britain. As demonstrated by Jennifer Craig-Norton in her new book, the celebratory narrative of the rescue scheme similarly overshadows the mixed responses it received from both government and public at the time, the difficulties encountered by the children, and the rejection and subsequent death of their parents. Both projects, while different in scale and context, were token gestures that allowed the British and Canadian governments to turn down adult refugees and migrants. Their celebration as models of humanitarian response, like every official commemoration, has a background agenda. In Britain, the Kindertransport is both used to justify a strict refugee policy (“we have already done enough”) and to call for a more ambitious humanitarian response (“we have to perpetuate the country’s tradition of welcome”). In Canada, the War Orphans Project reinforces the country’s narrative of openness and humanitarianism at a time when the federal government is taking a ‘sharp turn’ in its refugee policy. Both cases strikingly illustrate how, as Jessica Reinisch notes, ‘every political project can find confirmation from history’. They are a reminder that historians need to nuance what Tony Kushner calls ‘the understandable desire for a happy ending’ in Holocaust memory and, more generally, to challenge self-congratulatory narratives and ‘usable pasts’.


About the author: Dr Antoine Burgard is the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester. He has two forthcoming articles with the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth and the London Journal of Canadian Studies. He is currently working on a new project on age determination and migration control, in collaboration with the John Rylands Research Institute and the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester.


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