DE: In Manila our family was very prominent. My mom taught Hebrew to the other Jewish families. There was about a hundred Jewish families in Manila and most of them wanted to keep some Jewish identity. My mom spoke fluent Hebrew so she taught Hebrew to the kids. Whenever there were Jewish holidays, you know, all the Jewish families would get together and it was a very, very amicable, lots of comradery between these hundred families or so. Even now I think my mother’s best friends, her best times were those years in Manila when she was a young mom and everyone got together.
GG: Was there a synagogue and a rabbi there in Manila?
DE: Yeah, yeah, there was. Although there were some things that we couldn’t get. For example a mohel [someone who performs circumcisions]. When my younger brother was born there was no mohel in Manila and we used to usually fly a mohel in from San Francisco to do any brises that came up in Manila. We had big problem with my younger brother because he was born on Rosh Hashanah and eight days later was going to be the day before Yom Kippur and no rabbi, no mohel wanted to travel that far away and be away on Yom Kippur. But we managed to arrange flights so that he could fly to Manila, do the procedure, and fly back to San Francisco before Yom Kippur started.
GG: Thank goodness for the time zones [laughs].
DE: Yeah. My mother’s side of the family is extremely religious. My grandfather, the one from Krakow, deeply, deeply religious man. He was the shochet [kosher butcher]. And although he was never a rabbi in Trieste he was considered as such. He was the chochem [wise man] of the city. I think the rabbis came to him to ask him for his opinion on things. He’s passed away now but I remember him as a deeply, deeply religious man. And…
GG: Did you know your father’s father?
DE: No, my father’s father died before I was born. So both sides of our family really had a lot of Jewish upbringing and passed it on through the generations.
GG: When your parents came to Vancouver where did they affiliate here religiously?
DE: Well, we left Manila in a bit of a hurry because things started to get rough in Manila in the mid-‘70s politically. Martial law was imposed. The army was running the country and anybody who could get out, anybody who had some money, started to leave. And my brothers and I were reaching high school age so my parents always thought we would end up going to university somewhere in North America. So they thought it was a good time to pack up the family and move. But they really had no ties to any other place in the world. My dad had some family in San Francisco and my mom’s family was in Israel but they didn’t, they weren’t so close that they wanted to live either in San Francisco or Israel. So the whole world was open to us and we travelled around for quite a few months trying to decide where we were going to live. And in the end Vancouver won because Vancouver was everything that they always wanted. It was a quiet place, it was in a quiet country where nothing really happens [laughs]. It was beautiful. Schools were good. It was safe. You know, wars were never going to happen here. I think it was everything that they could not get when they were growing up in Europe and in Asia during the war. So we settled here.
DR: Well, my name is Rome, as you heard, more correctly originally it was Rom, from Vilna, where the family name is rather well known as a publishing house. I suppose at the beginning of the story, during the First World War the family were refugees deep inside Russia, and when peace was declared in Western Europe—because there never was any peace afterwards in Eastern Europe what with wars and pogroms and civil wars and revolutions and things…When peace came in Western Europe we made contact with an uncle, a brother of my father, Aaron Rome, who was living in Vancouver, and he ‘brought’ us was the term that was used, he brought us to Canada in December 1921. I might say that the whole story of our family and every other family in these decades of getting into Canada from Europe after 1914, each story was a saga because of the very tight and tightening immigration rules that were coming into effect in Canada. As a matter of fact, our family, after we did manage to reach Canadian soil legally, with passports and visas and everything, were detained incommunicado in a Halifax, we’ll call it a jail, for seven weeks, and very dramatically, with the assistance of [Lou] Freeman and Archie Freeman, the mayor of Vancouver came all the way from Vancouver to Halifax to help get us out, and eventually, in December 1921, we reached Vancouver as free immigrants, and that’s the real beginning of my life I suppose as far as you would want to know.
In 1938 Margaret Libbert and her family left Czechoslovakia for England due to increasing German aggression in that area.
ML: And then of course the Germans marched into the whole of Czechoslovakia in March, ‘39. We finished our year at school and in April of ‘39, my grandmother on my father’s side, she was, she got out and somehow her chauffeur was driving and German tanks were coming in the opposite direction and she managed to get out and join us in London. And then came the big effort to get her husband, my grandfather, who was the head of the German department Chamber of Commerce, member of the Rotary Club, and all these things and he somehow thought nothing could possibly happen to him because of his position.
Yet, I should explain that in Czechoslovakia the German minority—because it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—had retained very generous language rights, they had their own schools, and as I said they had their own department of commerce. And there was a large German minority which of course, after the war, was thrown out by the Czechs. But the Germans said, ‘Oh, this minority’s badly treated and so we have to come and help rescue them.’ That was one of the excuses they gave for invading Czechoslovakia.
But as I said, my grandfather just couldn’t believe that anything would happen. And so we had our family and made arrangements and sent over an Englishman, because England was still, you know, not at war with Germany, to try and find my grandfather. And he has written a book, it’s called Epic of the Gestapo, it is out of print but we have copies, our family has copies of this.
AG: Who wrote the book, this Englishman?
ML: The Englishman called Sir Paul Dukes. And he eventually found a man that had died in mysterious circumstances on the border of Czechoslovakia and Germany and we think that that was probably my grandfather, with a different name. So all this was going on and at the same time we were contacting various embassies of countries to see where we could go because we only had a limited visa to stay in England. So I’m finally getting to your question…
AG: It’s very interesting.
ML: …of how we got to Canada.
AG: Of course. It’s a significant part, this background.
ML: And we were very, very, very fortunate to be one of the thousand people, that I believe there were only a thousand people that were let in by Order in Council, that is cabinet making special, for each family a special order during these times. And I must admit that it was probably because we had some funds and probably because my father said he would try and set up a business. A bit like letting the Chinese in, you know, having to have a minimum amount of money now. But that’s how it was, because in those days the only immigration quota was for British or French speaking people. I don’t think anybody else was allowed in until the late ‘40s, ‘50s. I know this because later on in my life I worked for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
AG: I thought you did. And no one of course, there’s lot of books written now about who was not allowed in…the “none is too many.”
ML: Yes, that’s right. So we were, I think we were the first ones to arrive of our family. But in a few weeks, because it was a week before the war started, that we came.
AG: So precisely, what week was that?
ML: It was August, ‘39.
AG: August, ‘39, you arrived where? In Canada?
ML: In Quebec.
KK: When I was 20 I had to go to the army, that was the regulations for the tsar’s time. And it was in that year, in 1914, that was a matter of…like talking that a war would break out pretty soon. So I decided either to go to the army or better go either to United States or Canada. And I left my wife and child and I went to Canada because my mother had a brother in Montreal. To make this story short I would like to say that coming to Montreal I…went to, to my uncle. It was the first day of Pesach. I arrived in Montreal from Halifax. My uncle took me to the shul at Yontif. And introduced me to the Rabbi Garber. He was the chief rabbi in Montreal and I was very much acquainted…At that time my voice was so good I [inaudible], from time to time. And delighted me the way I doven [Yiddish for pray] for Yontif. So one time the Rabbi Garber, Simcha Garber he asked me what I was going to do. Well, I said I didn’t decided yet but, you know, I had something to do. He suggested to me, “You are a yeshiva bocher [Yiddish for young student], scholarly person, and you could sing. I would advise you…How’s about to have some Hebrew lessons, to give Hebrew lessons…”
MF: So he didn’t suggest that you become a cantor? When you said you were a dovening that means in English you were a cantor.
KK: No, not really that. Not a cantor but really a teacher.
MF: A teacher.
KK: A teacher. To take Hebrew and to teach Hebrew. After Pesach he says, “First I’ll give you my two eyniklekh…
KK: Grandchildren. And to give them lessons. And his grandchildren was one of the really famous people in Montreal at that time, Rosenberg, Greenberg, and some others. They had a big family. Even at present time, his son, Garber, was the president of the Congress, of the Jewish Congress, Rosenberg is. And I was, I succeeded in having so many lessons that was really impossible for me to handle them all. I went over to the board of education at the Talmud Torah to inquire if I could change instead of to give lessons to go around to one place to another during the winter time it was very hard and cold, so they asked me to come over to the Talmud Torah, and I was then a teacher of the Talmud Torah in Montreal. Two years later I became principal of the Talmud Torah in Montreal.
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.
SF: And he, your grandparents were also from London?
AV: Well my great grandmother was from Wales but they moved to London, so then she was put into service to a Dutch Sephardic family and lived in Amsterdam. She was put into service when she was twelve years old and the cook taught her to read and write. It was a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish home, a Sephardic home and so she had the same pronunciation that we have in our congregation which is Sephardic, and so when I found Jews and they had the Ashkenazi pronunciation it was like different languages and I didn’t understand it. But she had taught me some Ladino that I had learned too but that wasn’t until shortly before she died and we came to Canada the year after when I was 18.
SF: And that was in what year?
SF: And you went to?
AV: Halifax, the infamous Pier 21 [laughs], and I’d love to go back and see how they’ve made it into a museum. So we came across by train and even though we’d paid for first class tickets we were put onto a special immigrant train, and we didn’t know we had any choice, we could have stayed overnight and got into Calgary a day earlier than we did because the porters, the staff, all these nice young black fellows that you know, we weren’t used to speaking with—there had been some black people in Wembley where I grew up but they weren’t close, you know, they weren’t part of our life—and they were saying that they had never seen a train so old and weren’t they lucky, “ha ha,” to be given that job! [Laughs]. So they were only on for a day and then they deadheaded back or they got a train back and so they didn’t do the whole trip and we kept getting new people as porters and people.
SF: And you made your way to Calgary?
SF: Why Calgary?
AV: Well we had to be sponsored and my father had come from a family where his father’s generation had spread out across the Commonwealth. Well, the thing is that my mother and I thought we were going to go to New Zealand so we spent two and a half years studying New Zealand, we went to illustrated lectures, we had library books and whatever we could find out about New Zealand we were studying. And then immigration was cut off to families because there was a housing crunch and they said only single men can come and my father refused to go on his own because he had left us during the war with no choice and he didn’t like the way my mother was independent when he wasn’t around so he wasn’t let that happen again so my mother said, “Find us another country.” And he went around Trafalgar Square to all the colonial houses and Canada was the best option, but we had contacts—Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, so he wrote to all of these uncles and aunts that he found out where they were and my aunt, his aunt Frances in Calgary...
AC: And they said that if you want you can go work a physical job. Abe said to me, “If you wanted to go to work with me on the truck…” I went out with him a couple times and I said to myself, “How this man is pulling this heavy drums with copper with things like that, you know.” But he handled this. So I went to, was a guy by the name of Charlie, Charlie…
AC: Davis. Number 2 Road. Number 2 and 2nd Avenue there. So he gave me a job to cut the copper. There’s a big, like a press, you know, and you had to cut because there were long stretches of copper, some cables, some plates, you know. So I was cutting them and filling up drums, you know. And then would come a big truck to lift them up and wherever they were sending, I don’t know it was not my business. And this was my beginning with him. And then again I went to the hospital to get in my profession [Arthur Chinkis had trained and worked as an x-ray technician in Russia]. I was already talking a little bit because there Charlie…were also people, immigrants, they were from all over the world. Polacks, Hungarian, everybody. But everybody tried to speak English that’s the way of communication. With Charlie I spoke Yiddish, you know, it was okay but with the workers you had to speak English. And at night I went on number 12th and Oak there was…
GA: The Jewish…
AC: In the olden days there was a school. That was a school for immigrants, at night, in a trailer…
GA: Was that on King Edward, King Edward campus?
AC: On 12th Avenue and…
AC: Oak Street.
GA: That’s where King Edward…
AC: King Edward is 25th Avenue.
GA: No, no, no, King Edward High School.
AC: Oh, King Edward High School.
GA: Yeah and there was across from King Edward was a Jewish Community Centre.
AC: Yeah, yeah, on 12th Avenue was it, yeah, on Oak Street. So at night I was going there taking courses in English. Made me, writing, reading, conversational, you know. I learned something and I went to this Vancouver General Hospital for an interview. I had my papers, all the papers, you know, everything good papers. The doctor said to me, “Everything is good but you don’t speak too much. You have to communicate with patients. A sick person is coming you have to ask him questions, you have to write it down the story and then do the job, do the x-rays.” I said to the doctor, “I have a suggestion for you and I think you will go for it. Put me for six months in the darkroom. I’ll work in the darkroom.” When you take a picture and go to the darkroom you have to develop it, and then dry it, and then cut the corners, and give it to the doctor to come, and doctors and put on his screen, viewing screen, you know. And he [did]. And that not required too much talking, just work.