History of Jewish Migration

Project Description


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American Joint Distribution Committee Archives, New York #NY_08763

In 1939, Canada turned away the MS St. Louis ship with 908 Jewish refugees aboard.
Shown here as they docked in Antwerp, Belgium, many of them eventually perished in the Holocaust.

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Ottawa Jewish Archives. 10006. Abraham and Dora Lithwick fonds. (2-036)

Abraham and Dora Lithwick in front of Lithwick’s grocery store, 34 Byward Market Square, 1930s.

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Credit: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin

Moroccan Jews outside airplane at Orly Airport, France, immigrating to Canada,
July 10, 1968, Globe Photo, Orly Airport.

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Photographer: Krongold, London.
Credit: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives | Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin

First group of orphans to come to Canada after the Holocaust, Sept. 1947.

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Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, #751

Curly Gurevitch (R),
the “Cowboy from the Colony”
Rumsey, Alberta, 1930

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Source: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives |
Archives juives canadiennes Alex Dworkin #P02-05

Female textile workers
probably Montreal, 1940s.

History of Jewish Migration

Before 1867, Canada was home to barely 1,000 Jewish people. Their numbers increased as Jews escaped religious persecution and violence in Eastern Europe, joining the huge flow of immigrants coming to Canada after Confederation. Jews in Europe were forced by restrictive laws to remain in what is called the ‘Pale of Settlement’ which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and included parts of today’s Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldavia, Belorussia, Bessarabia and Romania.

Jewish immigrants brought a tradition of establishing a communal body, or kehilla to look after the social and welfare needs of their less fortunate. This was continued in cities and towns in Canada, through community help given to newcomers.  Those who had arrived earlier and were better settled saw it as their social responsibility to help newer immigrants adjust to life in Canada. Jewish community leaders, such as Abraham de Sola, founded the Hebrew Philanthropic Society. But in a large city like Montreal there were occasional disputes between the better-established (‘uptowners’) and the more recent arrivals (‘downtowners’).

A community of about 100 Jews settled in Victoria, British Columbia to open shops to supply prospectors during the Caribou Gold Rush of the 1860s, and later the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. In the early decades of the 20th century, many small towns had a Jewish-owned general store. These country merchants’ stores also served as informal Jewish community gathering places, where the storekeepers often served as interpreters, advisors and confidantes.

Several Jewish immigrants responded to coal mining company advertisements seen in Eastern Europe, and came to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to work as coal miners. After a few years, most became peddlers and retail store operators. Several of them reported learning to speak Gaelic from their customers before they learned English. Many immigrants landed at the port of Saint John, New Brunswick from the 1890s on, and stayed there. The once vibrant Jewish community of Saint John, New Brunswick, boasted more than 80 Jewish-operated small businesses in the 1960s.

By 1914, there were 100,000 Jews in the country. They settled in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and many smaller towns. They worked primarily as peddlers, small shopkeepers, factory garment workers and tradesmen.

While most Jews settled in urban areas, some accepted land grants in the Prairies, forming 11 Jewish farm colonies. Unfortunately, many of these colonies were established on unproductive land; their meagre crops were mostly destroyed by hail, frost and drought. Few of the Jewish colonists had any prior farming experience, and none had ever witnessed the frigid temperatures and blinding blizzards of a prairie winter. Gradually, one colony after another was abandoned, as the colonists relocated to towns and cities.

Immigration halted during the Depression years of high unemployment. Even when Hitler and the Nazis threatened Jewish survival, Canada did not accept refugees. Officials and politicians enforced a strict anti-Semitic policy. “None is too many,” is a quote from Frederick Blair, Government of Canada’s Director of Immigration, when he was asked how many Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe would be permitted entry.

Things changed after the Second World War, when about 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust were permitted entry. A second wave of European refugees arrived in the late 1950s after the failed Hungarian Revolution.

In more recent years, Jews have come from countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, the former Soviet Union and South Africa. The large number of French-speaking Jewish immigrants has transformed the community in Montreal, adding synagogues, schools and an entire flavour that reflects the Sephardic cultures of these latest arrivals. They, too, were escaping persecution in their former homes, settling here as refugees in search of peace and acceptance.

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