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D'var Torah by Bernie Farber, Social Justice Scholar-in-Residence

23/01/2017 01:54:07 PM


I was brought up in the shadow of the refugee experience. Both my parents left their ancestral homes not because they wanted to but as a result of persecution and antisemitism.

My late mother Gertrude was brought to Canada as a child prior to the Second World War. Driven from their village of Zaslav in the Ukraine by violent pogroms, Canada was a welcoming home at that time.

Arriving by Steamship to the Harbour in Halifax must have been a daunting experience for a 6-year-old child who spoke no English; knew nothing about Canada, and being a persecuted minority would add much to her new experience in a new land.

She took well to her new home. Ottawa in the late 1920s was a hodge-podge of diversity. Made up of recent refugees and immigrants mostly from Eastern Europe, their familial home in Sandy Hill was not uncommon. The spoken language was Yiddish (my mother never really lost her accent since she spoke Yiddish at home, maintained some knowledge of Ukrainian and only learned English when she went to public school), Jewish customs and traditions were easy to keep given their small enclave was rich in Jewish families.

My mother and the rest of the family thrived in Ottawa. My grandfather Benjamin opened up a small vegetable stall in the Byward market where the entire family worked.

My father Max and his family were not so fortunate. Just prior to World War 2 a young man from a small Polish village saw what many others refused to see; the real possibility of a war in which Jews would be targeted by the Nazi regime.

Wanting to live, he took matters into his own hands. Through stealth and luck he managed to make his way to the Polish port city of Gdansk, and stowed away on a boat headed to the United States.

Velvel Farber, my father’s older brother, made it across the Atlantic. However, like many others before him, he was apprehended upon arrival and was returned to Poland. Velvel was murdered in the death Camp of Treblinka.

Indeed, my late father Max suffered the brutalities of the Shoah. At its tragic conclusion he had to face the fact that he was the sole Jewish survivor of his small Polish shtetel. Murdered in Treblinka were his first wife, two young children, Shalom and Yitzchak as well as seven brothers and sisters.

Once again, this time following a heartless closed door immigration policy, (Abella and Troper “None is Too Many”) Canada re-opened its borders to the stateless people of Europe amongst them thousands of Jewish survivors like my father.

My father’s journey to Canada was at once adventurous, serendipitous filled with both tragedy and joy.

Interestingly, like today, stateless refugees (mostly Jews and Nazi war criminals) were privately sponsored by Jews in North America to settle in the USA or Canada.

Harken back to Ottawa post war, the small Jewish population sponsored dozens of Jewish Shoah survivors. Amongst the recipients of this largesse was one Max Farber.

With no family, deeply depressed from a 2 year stay in a DP Camp (Pocking), Max Farber boarded the SS Marine Flasher an American immigrant steam line in Bremerhaven Germany in 1947.

Remarkably, He was originally scheduled to board a ship formerly known as the “President Warfield” in a French Port. That ship which later became known as the Exodus made its way to Palestine on its historic voyage. But once again, time and happenstance (a respiratory illness) forced him to change his plans.

Thus, in August 1947, he set sail from Bremerhaven firstly to Ellis Island in New York where a friend from before the war escaped the Holocaust and settled in the Bronx. He stayed there for a few weeks while plans were made to get him to Ottawa Canada.

He left New York by train in late autumn 1947 arriving in Ottawa two days later. His Ottawa sponsor arranged a room for him in a boarding house and a job in the Byward market selling vegetables.

As difficult as it was for my mother, it’s simply impossible for me to comprehend my father’s strength. He was 50 years old; alone in the world, spoke no English, there were no “grief counsellors” there was just him and his inner strength.

In the time that followed he rebuilt a life. One cool early winter evening he and two friends made their way to the Ottawa Folk-Shule. There was a mixer going on…eligible Jewish women perhaps.

As my father tells the story, he was quite shy, thankfully Gert Coopersmith was not…they met, they talked well into the night. Gert saw in him both a tortured soul and the clear blue eyes of a man that needed to learn how to smile again.

Eight months later on August 27th 1948, Gert Coopersmith married Max Farber. One interesting family tale, the Shabbat Gert brought Max home to meet her parents, Benjamin and Nechama, my grandfather had quite a start, Gert’s new boyfriend was in fact the very same man that Benjamin Coopersmith had privately sponsored as a new refugee to Ottawa.

My mother would tell me years later that it took her five years to teach my father how to smile again. But she was nothing if not persistent, and teach him she did.

So then how fitting to recall the words of Former UN Commissioner for Human Rights Poul Hartling who once remarked that “a lasting solution, the possibility to begin a new life, is the only dignified solution for the refugee himself."

My perspectives are that of a Canadian, proud of his country’s standing as a beacon of hope and compassion; and of a man of the Jewish faith, deeply aware of my community’s history and my own responsibilities to that history.

The Shoah (Holocaust) was the defining moment of the modern era for the Jewish people. The genocide of six million Jews was a tragedy, heightened by the indifference of those free countries that refused to admit Jews to safety on their shores.

For decades, Canada’s refugee system worked towards protecting people in danger and other humanitarian goals. We saw investing in refugees as a humanitarian responsibility and a wise investment. Many refugees to Canada have gone on to become citizens, including my own parents and even our former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.

Today Canada offers constitutional protection to refugees guaranteed by our international lauded Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Prior to the last election our refugee policy entered into a period of darkness and decline. Changes by the former government to our celebrated refugee policy went back to the bleak days of discrimination and exclusion.

I for one am proud to stand here today and exclaim that we have gone back to the past to step into the future.

With Canada’s decision to take in over 25,000 Syrian refugees we have announced to the world that Canada the compassionate nation we have always known it to be is back on track.

Canada is now fully entrenched and committed in its goal to rescue 25,000 Syrian refugees. We met our target at the end of February.

Many issues confront government as they continue down the rescue path but possibly the most urgent is one of housing.

All government-sponsored Syrian refugees are recommended by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for settlement in Canada. They are often the most vulnerable of those hoping for a new life. Many are families.

A cadre of top housing industry personalities met with The Hon John McCallum, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, to discuss this very question.

We called it HumanityHouses, a committee of prominent Canadians convened by the Mosaic Institute, a Toronto Charitable think tank. HumanityHouses exists to offer insights to the minister as the government creates solutions to house government-assisted refugees across the country.

The main challenges for swift resettlement are vacancy rates and finances. As we all know, finding housing in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver is difficult, and the rent prices are steep. The government is committed to placing refugees across the country; there are already 23 cities and towns signed up, and the list is growing. But smaller towns lack the social infrastructure of large cities, and large cities lack the space of small towns. Balancing these needs is paramount to ensuring a smooth transition into Canadian life.

Even if available units are identified, rent cost becomes an issue. Funding has been committed, but it will be tough to finance housing at market rates. Rent supplements, or other incentives, are needed to bridge the gap between available funds and cost of living -- regardless of whether the refugees are in large cities or small towns.

In discussion with the minister committee representatives identified a need for constant communication between industry representatives and government planners.

They noted that, in the absence of a national housing strategy, connections between those with available housing and those in need of it must be made quickly, securely, and effectively.

While many in the private sector have heeded the government's call for partnerships, HumanityHouses believes that more can be done. Ideas were presented about how to best mobilize more companies to recognize that the issue of settling Syrian refugees is a humanitarian responsibility, but one that ultimately contributes to building a better Canada.

Ideas raised about online tools, such as newsletters and matching platforms, highlighted that the decision to accept refugees is a national issue that supersedes one ministry, or even one industry. Other Ministries, such as Infrastructure, and other industries, such as education, have their own roles to play.

During the meeting, Minister McCallum noted that the decision to accept refugees is humanitarian in the short-term, but in the long term it is really about building Canada. As refugees settle and adapt to being Canadians, their stories merge with the rest of our immigrant narratives.

The minister's perspective indicates that the government will not sacrifice interests of other Canadians in an effort to welcome Syrian refugees, as some have claimed.

Instead, the minister assured the group that the refugee question is one piece of a larger puzzle of how to best move Canada forward into a new age -- one that includes shorter processing times and more partnerships.

Committee Chair, the Hon Ron Atkey, knows this cycle all too well. He was Minister of Employment and Immigration during the Joe Clark government and one of the people who spearheaded efforts to bring over 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to Canada in the late 1970s. As Mr. Atkey recently noted, "Many of these individuals and their children have made great contributions to Canada, including Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, philanthropist Phan Thi Kim Phúc, and gold-medal athlete Carol Huynh, to name a few."

The Syrian refugees will also contribute positively to Canada. However, safe and affordable housing is the first priority.

In my view this is all about responsibility and fidelity to our past to honour our future.

Indeed, this very matter of how we treat refugees is in fact discussed in this week’s pasrsha Vayera. We read today of Avraham as he is recuperating from performing his own circumcision welcomes three strangers with grace and elegance.

These strangers were in fact angels, emissaries from God to determine how Avraham would treat them.

Known as hachnasat orchim, providing comfort and welcome to the stranger, our sages tell us that God was telling us of the need to be kind to strangers. It is, I believe, one of the values Jews have always held close to their heart.

How else to explain how the Toronto Jewish community reacted with such compassion in sponsoring Syrian families.

Like many other First Generation Canadian Jews, my younger brother Stan and I grew up within this milieu of the refugee experience. We can literally feel the shoes of the new Syrian families as they traverse their new home.

My eldest daughter Gillian is named after her refugee grandmother, Gertrude, my middle son Zachary was named after my father’s little boy who was murdered in the gas chambers and my youngest son Max, is named after his refugee grandfather.

That is how we pass the torch of memory, through words, deeds and stories.

Shabbat shalom

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781