Interviewer: Rick Marcuse & Molly Winston
In 1942, Dr. Ferdinand Knobloch, a non-Jew, married his first wife Susanne in Prague. This prevented her from being sent to the gas chambers with her parents. However, after their marriage Susanne was caught by the Gestapo. She died on November 25, 1943 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
RM: So is this to say that Susanna’s parents were both very assimilated as well…?
FK: Yes, yes.
RM: Were they practicing Jews do you know?
FK: No, they were not.
RM: Would they have been agnostic? Or atheist or…?
FK: No, I don’t know. But actually I’m, even, I’m not informed, I think they were just…I don’t recall that they ever visited the synagogue so…
RM: Okay. Do you recall Vituzslav’s work? Susanna’s father’s work?
FK: Oh sure. He was owner of a shop in Prague, the, the, the most precious carpets…the Persian carpets. By the way, you know the brother of Susanne after the war who came once to our apartment his first statement was, “This is our carpet.”
RM: Right, that occurred to you recently didn’t it, because you’d forgotten that I think until recently.
FK: Oh well no I didn’t forget. You know, and I was, I could have after the war, I could claim because it was big property, big business the carpets and her parents died earlier than she so she inherited the entire…I could have claimed, I never claimed anything, I could have part of that property, of that business…
RM: Of her family, the family’s estate. Right I understand. Well okay, so you met Susanna at some point when she’s in the communist youth group, you may have been a teenager, you may have been in your early 20s…
FK: Yeah, yes.
RM: You end up later on marrying her.
FK: Yes. I married her when it was clear that if she, I not marry her she would go with her parents, and her parents obviously died in gas chamber, they have the same date, which I have upstairs the dates.
RM: 1942, sometime in June I think, or whenever.
RM: So can you recall the year in which you met Susanna? Or can you recall when your relationship began to become more intimate, because you marry her in ’41, am I right?
FK: ’42. ’41 or ’42 I can’t say but it was obvious that either I marry her or she goes.
RM: Right. And how long had you known her at that point?
FK: How long? I would say ’41, I must say 5, 6 years, I think. So she was probably 15 or so…
JB: And what did your father do when he got to Vancouver as his occupation?
BH: Well he did what everybody did when they first came, he peddled. Which means he went out, got old, used things and sold them to, by the pound, rags or metals or whatever. But many people, men, who came had no education, at first didn’t have any language, stayed with the junk business, but my father loathed it with a passion, and he was very ambitious, worked very, very hard, and in no time he had graduated from a little push-cart to a horse and wagon, and shortly after that, it wasn’t long before he got rid of the horse and wagon and got a motor flatbed, a little motor truck and that’s when he began to go further afield, and he went into the Okanagan, not the Okanagan Valley, the Chilliwack, you know around the Chilliwack area…
JB: The Lynn Valley?
BH: Oh no, Lynn Valley is on the North Shore.
JB: Fraser Valley?
BH: The Fraser Valley, right. And he principally went to buy sacks, used sacks from feed and grain and so on from the farmers, it’s all farm country, and noticed that an awful lot of them had orchards on their farms and the fruit wasn’t being picked. So he asked around and found out that they couldn’t find pickers, it was too difficult for them. So anyway, he was a very enterprising man, he hired pickers and used his truck and transported cases of fruit, picked fruit, into Vancouver, sold them, and this went on for awhile and then he opened a big fruit and vegetable wholesale. And in the summer he’d haul stuff in from the Fraser Valley, and all year round he would import stuff from the States or from wherever it came. And he had, the rest of his life he had a fruit and vegetable wholesale.
JB: And did they come to BC right away or did they…?
BH: Yes, yes they came straight to BC.
JB: Okay, do you remember when that was?
BH: Of course. It was in September of 1923. About three, four days before Rosh Hashanah of that year.
JB: And why did they come?
BH: Why? Because of the revolution in Russia. And my father was a little bit considered of a capitalist and that’s not very good according to the Reds, you know? So there was a sort of an underground railroad, like you know in the States when the Americans had the underground railroad for the slaves, there was that kind of thing going on out of Russia where especially Jewish people were fleeing and that’s how we got out.
JB: Did you come to Vancouver?
BH: We came directly to—well we were met, when we docked at Halifax, we were met by a Jewish organization, HIAS I believe it was, I don’t know if you know of HIAS, it’s the Hebrew something Aid Society I forget but and, oh, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and, “Why don’t you stay in Montreal and Toronto and Winnipeg, the big Jewish centres?” And my father said he wanted to get as far away from Russia as he possibly could, so where could he go? And they said, “Well you can go all the way to the West Coast.” As it turns out, of course, you realize we are much closer to Russia than we would have been on the East Coast but that’s another story. And that’s why we came here, knowing nobody, having no relatives, no personal connections.
PH: We left at night and woke up next morning, we were going in a convoy of 20 or 30 other boats and on our boat itself we had a very important load of about 50 Air Force officers who completed tours of duty in the Battle of Britain and they were going to Canada to open aviation schools for the members of the Commonwealth. In addition there were about 900 enlisted men, Air Force as well as Navy, going to Canada to take over certain boats, liberty ships and so on. We had about 30 or 40 civilians, some diplomats, two gentlemen from Vancouver—a sales manager from H.R. McMillan and a sales manager for the Seaboard Lumber Sales, who were just returning from England [after] negotiating business with British timber companies,that was our first introduction to the lumber industry in Vancouver.
Also on the boat was a Canadian lady married to a British commodore with two small girls returning to Montreal to spend the duration of the war with her parents. On the boat we noticed the atmosphere was very pleasant, however we left on Friday night from Liverpool but on Monday when we woke up we found that we were outside the convoy already on our own going through but at the same time we felt there was some tension developing, notwithstanding of the blackout—the crew were doubling the blackout, putting lights out and getting ready for extreme conditions—and that night we have seen explosions and battle going in, on the horizon. It turned out later as we found out we were escorted by a plane from the Scharnhorst battleship and this is why there was such tension, also the boat was going at the highest speed ever obtained from that boat, over 23 knots, and it was rolling from one side to another like crazy so many people got sick.
On the boat also the Canadian lady, wife of the commodore, found out that my wife is a concert pianist and requested if she would give a concert for all the enlisted men who had left their families and so on and needed some moral and cultural support. My wife agreed provided that she could practice and she was allowed to practice in the dining room in the off hours and she performed a concert first for the enlisted men and the second night she performed for the officers and other people in first class. I mention that because it was the first time my wife was faced with the reaction of people whistling, whistling in Europe is usually like throwing tomatoes [laughs] and she was terribly upset, it took a long time before some of the people managed to convince her that it was appreciation and not bad ones [laughter] I think of that sometimes.
RS: Do you remember what she played?
PH: No I don’t. [Inaudible chatter]. There was some Chopin as well, Debussy‘s ‘Clair de Lune’, and some other stuff I don’t remember now. By the way, when we arrived to Canada we discovered that the attack we watched on the horizon on that Monday night was an attack by Scharnhorst which attacked a convoy going in the opposite direction to England and a small boat with one gun, Jervis Bay, sacrificed themselves by attacking Scharnhorst and giving time for the other boats to disperse and run away. Naturally the Jervis Bay was sunk very quickly.
PH: After the occupation of France by Hitler and after Petain established himself in Vichy, Hitler started preparations for invasion of Britain, massing different types of boats and vessels in Dutch and French ports and at the same time started bombing the city of…[phone rings], so my mother who was in France lived in Paris managed to escape from Paris before the Germans occupied however she got stranded in the camps in Toulouse and finally escaped from there and crossed to the French Riviera where she went into hiding from the French authorities and survived the war over there.
Meanwhile we had a certain legal problem because some of the assets that we had in London were in my mother’s name and therefore we had to straighten out certain things with our lawyers and I went to see our friend, our lawyer, whom I hadn’t seen for quite a few years because he was very active in politics and he was a member of parliament and became the minister of supplies in the Chamberlain cabinet and was kicked out of the cabinet in May 1940 when Churchill took it over. In our meeting he enquired about what happened to us in the last couple of years and in our discussion came the idea that after escaping from Poland I was thinking about emigrating to another country, I wasn’t interested in going to South Africa but I was told that Canada is closed especially for Jews and the same apparently was for Australia. United States had a quota system and the waiting period for Polish born citizens was about two to three years, so just before we left our lawyer, I don’t want to mention names, our lawyer asked me if I was really serious about going to Canada, I indicated my interest and he said he would try, he may be able to do something about it.
He did apparently, he wrote a letter to the High Commissioner of Canada in London introducing my brother and myself as young Polish Jews, Cambridge graduates, and this letter apparently was sent to Mr. Little the head of the immigration office in London who made an appointment for us one day at nine o’clock in the morning. The meeting was very interesting, very friendly in his office until the moment that in discussion he discovered that we were Jews, at that moment his face changed, he gave us forms to be filled out and to be sent to Ottawa. We did fill out those forms later and the case went to Ottawa, that was July 1940 and we haven’t heard for a couple of months. About a month later a friend of ours went to Canada on government business, he enquired in Ottawa and was told, I don’t know by who but it was indicated that the chances of us getting immigration visa were practically nil.
Meanwhile the middle of August the real Battle of Britain started, at that time I sent Edwina [Paul Heller’s wife] to Cambridge to stay with some friends of ours from Poland, he was a professor of law at Cambridge University, and I was to travel on weekends spending weekends together with her. My brother sent his wife Sella to Minehead with another group of Polish refugees and also he travelled over there on weekends. About the middle or end of September on a Monday morning when I came to the office I received a call from Canada House, immigration department, that in connection with our application they would like to see us two days later for medical examinations, both families. We arranged those things and that Wednesday we passed the medical examination and another few…about a week later we were notified formally through our lawyers that the Canadian government is willing to allow us to come to Canada as permanent immigrants on certain conditions providing that we will be able to transfer certain amount of funds and to have possibility of starting business in Canada.
RY: So I was very lucky and both my parents were crackerjack communicators, so we moved out to a village called Ituna in Saskatchewan, population four hundred, and one of the conditions of my parents’ employment was that my mother would run a school…
BB: In English?
RY: No, no, not in English, teaching the kids Jewish and Hebrew so every day after school from four to six she ran a school, there were eight Jewish children in the village and they all attended school and of course the pride of all these parents was for the rest of their lives was the kids would write home in Yiddish. Her least successful student was yours truly, there was no time for me because come six o’clock she had to make dinner for my father, but I picked up everybody’s lessons along the way but my way of rebelling was “So I don’t read Yiddish,” that was my way of rebelling. But I found it very interesting when I was out in Ituna, the Anglican minister came to my mother one day and he said to her, “I understand you are teaching Jewish and Hebrew.”He says, “I would like to read the bible in the original Hebrew, I’ll make a deal with you…you teach me Hebrew, I’ll help you with your English.” So every Saturday noon they had an appointment where they would get together and exchange language skills. So I had a very interesting childhood and luckily picked up good communication skills, my mother was also a poet, used to write poetry and it was published in the Jewish paper in Winnipeg and I think she once submitted something to [The Torgen], New York.
MW: Now, how this started...Sid Zbarsky and I very often met at lunch time, we would bring bag lunch and then go for a walk through the trails at UBC, it was safe then and there weren’t huge developments of high rises and low rises and condominiums and so on, it was really wooded and we really enjoyed walking there. And one day Sid said to me, “Do you know I just noticed that a little university in Windsor has just started a Judaic Studies department.”
BN: What year was that?
MW: 1973 in the fall. “And they’re popping up all over the United States and Canada and we don’t have a thing here.” So I said, “Well Sid, why don’t we start one.” So that was the beginning [laughing]. It took quite a while. The two of us started to approach the university, I believe it was then Dean Will, no they came later, I can’t remember who it was we first talked to, they said, “Well, see where you can put a program and then we’ll talk.” So we visited a number of departments, the History department. They were very much interested but at that time they were looking for one or two positions in intellectual history and they said that when we’ve filled those, come and talk to us. Well we weren’t going to wait, we went to the Philosophy department and although the head of the department was very, very interested he was very democratic and he called all the faculty together and Sid and I made a presentation, or it’s possible by that time Rob Krell who was a professor of Psychiatry at UBC had joined us, he had heard we were starting this and he wanted to help out so the three of us probably talked to the Philosophy department and it was the faculty that said no such thing as Jewish philosophy...that, by the way, was a Jewish professor. Talk about ignorance, anyway we were pretty upset. Then I got a phone call from Professor Bill Nicholls who had not too long before that time, this was ’73, had been made head of a Department of Religious Studies which he founded, he was the first head of that department and he said, “I hear you’re looking for a home for a Judaic Studies program, what’s the matter with Religious Studies?” Well we knew about Religious Studies but we had decided not to pursue that because we didn’t know, it was such a young department, we didn’t know what academic and scholarly credibility it had. However we were desperate and so we met with Bill Nicholls and he was absolutely...he was just so enthusiastic about the idea of having a professor of Judaic Studies on his faculty, in his department.