The Jews that Churchill deported to Canada

Persecuted in Nazi Germany because he was a Jew, deported from England because he was a German, saved from the Holocaust because of a legal loophole in Canada, Herbert Kahn cheated Hitler and built a new life for himself in post-World War II Montreal.In advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations, Kahn’s son, local lawyer Norman I. Kahn, spoke to me about the remarkable life of the refugee-businessman-taxi driver he called Dad.

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MONTREAL – Herbert, the son of a kosher butcher and relative of the famous poet Heinrich Heine, grew up in the German city of Frankfurt am Main during the tumultuous post-World I period known as the Weimar era. Runaway inflation, political turmoil, and rising antisemitism made for uncertain times for Germany's 500,000 Jewish citizens.
The nation’s economic chaos of the late 1920s compelled Herbert to drop out of college to take over his father’s business. Soon after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, however, numerous Jewish businesses – including the Kahns’ – were seized by the new regime.

“Jews were prevented from working in most professions,” Norman recalls. “Survival became a daily struggle. My father told me that sometimes he would scrounge in the fields for potatoes for dinner.”

On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a nationwide pogrom that was known as Kristallnacht – the night of the broken glass.  Thousands of synagogue windows were smashed, Jewish shops were ransacked, Jewish homes were set afire and thousands of Jewish men were hauled off to concentration camps. Herbert watched with horror as the synagogues in Frankfurt were burned to the ground. He went into hiding to avoid arrest.

“The Gestapo came to the family home, looking for him,” Norman says. “They told his mother, ‘If he doesn’t come back, we’re going to take you and your daughter. To protect them, he surrendered himself.”

Wincing at the memory of his father’s description of those awful days, Norman describes how his father was savagely beaten and stomped by the arresting officers, who threw him into a truck that headed to a nearby stadium. “On the way, people on the street, people he knew personally and counted among his friends, jeered and spat. Some yelled, ‘Why give the Jews a ride in a truck, why not make them walk?’” In the stadium, the prisoners were forced to run for hours without interruption. “Some of them literally dropped dead from exhaustion,” Norman notes.

From there, Herbert and the other prisoners were taken to the Dachau concentration camp. “They endured constant dehumanization,” Norman says. “They were starving, freezing, beaten at random and humiliated. My father recalled how on one winter day, they were forced to stand outside for 24 hours straight. An elderly man collapsed, and when his son reached to help him, the German guard said, ‘If you help him, we will shoot you.’ The son tried to help him anyway. They shot both the father and son dead.”

But Herbert Kahn, prisoner number 25709, was one of the lucky ones. He had previously applied for a visa to the United States and although he was on a long waiting list, his turn finally came in April 1939. He was released from Dachau on condition that he leave the country immediately.  Herbert took the next available ship to England, where he would wait for passage to the US.  

“I can’t imagine what he was feeling,” Norman says. “He left his whole world behind. His father had passed away years before, and now his mother Nanette and sister Gutta were trapped in Nazi Germany. He had a fiancée in Germany; he had to leave her behind. He never saw any of them again. He never spoke a word about his fiancée; I don't even know her name.”

World War II broke out in September 1939, as Germany invaded Poland. Obtaining cross-Atlantic transportation suddenly became extremely difficult. Worried sick about his mother and sister, his meagre savings dwindling rapidly, all Herbert could do was wait and hope.

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On May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain. The next day, in one of his first official acts in office, Churchill ordered the mass arrest of all “enemy aliens,” mostly Germans, between the ages of 16 and 70.  Many were taken away on a few minutes’ notice, not even given time to say goodbye to their loved ones. The recent British failure to repulse the swift German conquest of Norway and Denmark had provoked a wave of public fear of Nazi fifth columnists within England’s own borders. Even “the paltriest kitchen-maid” might turn out to be a spy for Hitler, one British diplomat warned.  

As a result, about 30,000 residents of England, most of them German-Jewish refugees were hauled off to makeshift internment camps. Herbert Kahn was taken to a detention centre on the Isle of Man. Incredibly, the Churchill government made no real effort to distinguish between German Jews, who were victims of the Nazis, and other German citizens, some of whom were indeed Nazi sympathizers. In a June 4 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill justified this policy:

“I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time, and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do.”

In July, the Churchill administration began deporting the internees to Canada and Australia.  

“The voyage was very, very difficult,” Norman notes. “Not only were the conditions on board primitive, but Dad contracted tuberculosis. By the time they reached Canada, he was in pretty bad shape."

Herbert and the other deportees were taken to Camp I, later known as Camp 41, on Ile-aux-Noix, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It was one of 26 detention centres set up by the Canadian government to house what they called ‘enemy aliens.’ “It was absurd that the government designated Dad and the other German-Jewish refugees as ‘enemy aliens,’” Norman points out. “They were German-born, but they were not even German citizens – the Nazis had stripped them of their citizenship. Many of them offered to serve in the Canadian army, but they were rejected. In general, Dad was not a bitter person, but being treated as if he were a Nazi was one of the few things he was bitter about.”

Conditions at the Ile-aux-Noix detention camp were harsh. The prisoners were not given adequate clothing for the winter months. They were given non-kosher food, prompting a hunger strike. Moreover, Norman notes, “some of the Canadian soldiers who served as guards were openly pro-Nazi and mistreated the Jewish prisoners.”

A few years ago, Norman dug through the archives of the Department of External Affairs, hoping to find more information about his father’s experiences. On page 18 of a long list of interned refugees from the United Kingdom, there he was: Kahn, Herbert, prisoners 5590. “In Nazi Germany, Dad was reduced to a number,” Norman remarks. “In free, democratic Canada, he was again reduced to a number.”

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Somehow Herbert’s name was included on a list of detainees who were going to be deported to Germany in exchange for Allied prisoners of war. “Fortunately a sympathetic camp official recognized that as a Jew, if my father were sent to Germany, he would be persecuted or even killed,” Norman recalls. “I wish I knew the official’s name, because he saved my father’s life. He contacted Senator Cairine Wilson, a leading activist for Jewish refugees. She intervened and had Dad’s name removed from the POW exchange list.”

Meanwhile, the tuberculosis that afflicted Herbert had caused an infection in his arm, which resulted in some permanent damage. But in a way, it also saved his life. Informed of his illness, a local organization, Jewish Community Aid Services, arranged for Herbert to be released into its custody so he could be treated for his TB. He was sent to the Mount Sinai Sanitorium, north of Montreal.

Meanwhile, British public opinion had started turning against the policy of deportations and internment abroad. The shift began when German torpedoes sank a Canada-bound internee ship, the Arandora Star, on July 2, 1940, drowning more than 800 of its passengers. That was followed by press reports of Jewish internees in Canada and Australia being housed alongside Nazi supporters. An additional scandal erupted when Orthodox Jewish deportees were compelled to work on the Sabbath, after a British official in Canada decided they were “using their Sabbatarian principles as a means of avoiding work.”

In response to criticism by the press, members of Parliament, and others – including the author H.G. Wells, who said deporting German Jewish refugees was “doing Goebbels’s work” – the Churchill government reversed itself. Over the course of the next year, most of the remaining internees were freed and the majority of the deportees were brought back to England. Many of the ‘enemy aliens’ whose arrests Churchill ordered subsequently enlisted in the British armed forces.

Herbert’s hospitalization kept him from being sent back to wartorn Europe. He ended up staying at the Mount Sinai Sanitorium for the entire duration of World War II. There he met Rose Ostroff, the secretary at nearby a kosher hotel. They were married on Nov. 18, 1946.

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Amidst the joy of the war ending and getting married, Herbert Kahn slowly came to grips with the tragic reality of what had happened to his family. Only a few letters from his mother had managed to get past the Nazi censors and reach a family friend in New York City in 1940-1941. In the one letter that survived, dated Oct. 10, 1941, his mother wonders plaintively why she has not heard from Herbert in many months. She did not know he was languishing in Churchill's Isle of Man detention camp, prevented from communicating with the outside world.

“Dad never spoke about the fate of his mother and sister,” Norman explains. “There was this black hole in his life that he just could not bear to talk about.” In 2008, Norman made an emotionally wrenching visit to Poland and the Czech Republic to find out more. He found his grandmother’s name on a list of Jews who died of disease in the Theresienstadt camp in December 1942. The name of Herbert’s sister, Gutta, showed up on a list of women transported to the Merkershausen concentration camp. Nobody on that train survived the journey.

Herbert and Rose moved to Montreal, where, following in his late father's footsteps, Herbert opened a kosher poultry store in the kosher section of the old Farmer’s Market, a portion known as Rachel Market. Their first child, Nanette, named after Herbert's mother, was born in 1948; Norman followed in 1951; their brother David, in 1956.

“Ours was the typical life of an immigrant's family.” Norman says. “Our parents worked hard to give us a comfortable life and put us through college. When the poultry business began to falter, in the late 1950s, Dad became a cab driver. He never liked it, but after all he had been through, he had a real appreciation of what it meant to just be able to make ends meet and build a future for your children.”

Herbert Kahn was a quiet, modest, unassuming man who took great pleasure from the little things in life, the things most of us take for granted – a sunny afternoon, dinner with your family, a child’s laughter. And his deep religious faith never wavered, contrary to some stereotypes of Holocaust survivors. When he passed away in May 1984, at age 77, Herbert left behind a legacy of resilience in the face of suffering and tragic loss. His life represented a remarkable  triumph over adversity – adversity inflicted not only by the Nazis who tortured and exiled him, but also, sadly, Allied governments whose sense of humanity left much to be desired.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C.,  and the author of 12 books about the Holocaust, Zionism, and Jewish history.

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