Irving Abella, historian who wrote about Canada’s denial of Jewish refugees, dies at 82

Historian Irving Abella, co-author of a seminal book on the Canadian government’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, has died.

Abella passed away on Sunday, the day after her 82nd birthday, after a long illness.

He was born and raised in Toronto, and completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Toronto.

His 1982 book “No One Is Too Much: Canada and Europe’s Jewry 1933-1948,” co-written with Harold Troper, shed light on the largely untold story of Canada’s anti-immigrant policies toward persecuted Jews and helped persuade future governments to welcome migrants fleeing war.

Between the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Canada accepted just 5,000 Jewish refugees, a legacy that Abella and Troper called “the worst record of any nation in the world.”

This was especially evident in the case of the MS St. Louis, which in 1939 was denied the right to disembark its passengers in Cuba and the United States. Some Canadians tried to convince Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to allow the ship to dock in Halifax, but Fredrick Blair, an official responsible for the government’s immigration service at the time, refused. Abella and Troper revealed in “None Is Too Many” that Blair had a particular distaste for Jews and was the architect of highly restrictive immigration policies, made with the full support of the liberal King government.

By Abella’s own admission, “None Is Too Much” was never meant to be more than an academic text detailing a particularly dark period in Canadian history. Since then it has become much more than that, most notably the entry of the phrase “none is too much” into the Canadian lexicon. In Abella’s own words, the book became “an ethical yardstick against which contemporary government policies are measured.”

To that end, advance copies of some of the book’s chapters were sent to former immigration minister Ron Atkey in the late 1970s, just as Canadians were debating what the country should do, if anything, about the crisis. of the Vietnamese refugees who became known as Boat. People. After reading those chapters and learning of Canada’s deplorable treatment of Europe’s Jews, Atkey vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and Canada welcomed tens of thousands of new citizens.

The book won the 1983 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category.

Abella was also highly critical of Canada’s post-war acceptance of thousands of Nazi collaborators and war criminals, particularly members of the Galicia Division of the Waffen-SS, which was made up of Ukrainian nationalists and fascists.

In a 1997 interview with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes”, Abella stated that entering Canada was relatively straightforward for members of the SS, as their trademark tattoo indicated that they were reliably anti-communist.

Abella was also the author of “Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada”, an important text chronicling the history of the Jews in Canada, as well as several key texts on the history of the labor movement in Canada. She spent her career teaching history at York University and held the position of Shiff Professor of Canadian Jewish History towards the end of her career.

Abella was also active outside of academia, as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995, and as president of VisionTV, a channel specializing in religious television.

“Irving Abella was a quintessential Canadian Jewish leader,” said Bernie Farber, former executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress and currently president of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “He was wise, eloquent, engaging, bold and forward-thinking. His inspirational leadership has become his legacy. To me, he was my mentor and teacher. May his memory always be a blessing.” .

Abella was married to Rosalie Silberman Abella, a former Supreme Court Justice of Canada, who was not only the first Jewish woman but also the first refugee to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. They have two sons, Jacob and Zachary.

Abella was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and a Member of the Order of Ontario in 2014. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 4, 2022.

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