CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005
Canada's immigration policy in World War II is a primary topic in the journal of Devorah Bernstein, a young Winnipegger whose 1941 diary has been created by author Carol Matas, also a Winnipegger. In Turned Away, which is part of the “Dear Canada” series, Matas writes about events and attitudes of people during World War II when Jews were being rounded up and murdered in Europe and were the target of anti-Semitism in Canada as well.
A war is a large topic to cover. Matas has captured the thoughts and expressions of a 12-year-old very well. Devorah is caught up in the maelstrom and confides everything in her journal, recording every event - including IF Day, the internment of the Japanese and community activities. Matas’s research has been thorough, and she portrays Winnipeg in 1941 accurately. More importantly for young adolescents who are trying to figure out the world, Devorah also confesses her questions about the policies of the government and her previous acceptance of the existence of God.
Devorah is a girl from a family that has just moved literally from "the other side of the tracks" as her dentist-father, the first Jewish dentist in Winnipeg, begins to prosper. Jews from Eastern Europe had immigrated to the North End of Winnipeg in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but some moved away when they became established in business or were finally allowed to enroll in professional faculties at university. Most, at the time, though, simply moved farther north. Devorah misses her friends at Aberdeen School where the class was full of first and second generation Jewish children, just like her. Her new school has many children of Anglo-Saxon heritage, a situation which she finds intimidating at first.
As she records issues that arise in her daily life, Devorah worries about the fate of her French cousin, Sarah, who had visited Winnipeg only a few years earlier. Letters from Sarah tell of Jews being thrown out of school, denied the right to hold a job, arrests, persecutions and transports to death. Matas does not spare young readers the details of what happened to these people, many of whom could have been saved by other countries.
The grim truth is that the Canadian government refused to take in French children who had visas to come to here, and they perished at Hitler's hands. In the novel, Devorah's mother is part of the committee that lobbied the government unsuccessfully.
The position of the Canadian government, headed by Mackenzie King, was tacit consent, since they knew the dangers people faced and chose not to save them. Canada took in only 5000 people Jews between 1933-1945, compared to 200,000 by the Americans. Even South American countries took in more people than Canada.
Anti-Semitism existed in Canada as an unofficial policy and practice. Jews were restricted from medicine, dentistry, law and other professions. They were excluded from neighborhoods, resorts and clubs. Daily, Jews were often the target of insults and attacks which escalated with the rise of fascism in Europe. Devorah and her family also have unsettling experiences because of their religion.
Matas has Devorah get involved in many activities to support the war effort. The war brought people great risks, but also great excitement and change after the soul-destroying Depression. Devorah is excited by all the initiatives, but worried over her two brothers and a cousin who have enlisted. One brother and cousin are captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong, a happening which causes great consternation in her family. Matas includes newspaper headlines about the plight of the men in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Many died from barbarous treatment, overwork, starvation and disease. This is an important chapter of Canadian history that is brought to life, which has particular relevance to Winnipeg, since the Japanese captured an entire regiment of soldiers from this region.
Fighter pilots risked death with every foray, and Devorah's brother Adam is feared dead when his plane is shot down. Happily, he survives and is aided in his escape back to Britain by the French Resistance. His experience gives Devorah the opportunity to discuss how those who enlisted lived and fought in Europe.
Devorah's writing and thoughts are expressed authentically. Readers will absorb a lot about the life of children, their leisure-time activities, how life went in Winnipeg and in general during World War II. The book also reflects the changing attitudes of the Jewish community as it became part of the mainstream.
An epilogue wraps the story up realistically, and an Historical Note summarizes succinctly the events touched on by the novel. Several pages of photographs and a map add weight to Matas's words, making this a valuable addition to any book collection.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.