04 February 2014

Canada: a History of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador

Theodor Herzl, World Zionist Council president, sought support from the world’s great powers for the creation of a Jewish homeland. At the Sixth Zionist Congress at Basel in 1903, it seemed as if it would take too long to save all the Jews in Europe by establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. While waiting for the great powers to act, the was a risk that the 6 million Jews in Russia and the 3 million Jews in Poland could be put in dire peril. A temporary refuge was desperately needed.

So Herzl proposed the British Uganda Programme as a possible refuge for Jews and sent a commission to examine the territory.  The Uganda Programme was finally rejected by the Zionist movement at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, largely because the British found it impracticable. 

Attention was turned to possible settlements in other extremely remote territories in Canada and Australia, Iraq, Libya and Angola; but little came of these commissions. A project that did have some success was the Galveston Scheme which contemplated the settle­ment of Jews in Texas. The project received assistance from an imp­ort­ant American banker, and some 9,300 Jews arrived in that area between 1907-1914.

After WW1, the search continued in remote territories. In 1930, the General Executive Committee of the Russian Soviet Republic accepted the decree "On formation of the Biro-bidzhan national region in the structure of the Far Eastern Territory". Birobidzhan national region, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway close to the border with China, would become a separate economic unit. In 1934, the Presidium accepted the decree on its transformation in the Jewish Autonomous Region within the Russian Republic. The number of Jewish citizens peaked at 30,000 in 1948, a quarter of the region's population.

The provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland in far NE Canada

The Madagascar Plan of 1940 was a suggested policy of the Third Reich government of Nazi Germany to forcibly relocate the surviving Jewish population of Europe to the island of Madagascar. Perhaps we can call the Madagascar plan a Search for a Jewish Homeland, even if it was not the Jews who were doing the planning.

The Kimberley Plan was first considered by the Freeland League in the 1930s; it was to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in the NW Australian desert. In July 1944 the Prime Minister John Curtin informed the League that the Australian government would not "depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia". That was the end of that plan!


When I saw Robin McGrath’s book Salt Fish & Shmattes: A History of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador (published by Creative Book Pub., 2006), I assumed it was going to be another search for a remote place of safe haven for potentially millions of Jews in the inter-war era. But no. It is a history of the Jews in Britain’s oldest col­ony, tracing the waves of settlement of Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador. The history of the Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador follows the same basic sequence as in the rest of Canada and North America. The first to settle were Span­ish Sephardi traders who began arriving after the English conquest of Eastern Canada in 1761.

During the 1890s, Russian and Polish pogroms brought a diff­erent group of settlers to Canada - Ashkenazim who were peddlers and tailors, merchants and farmers. They were ready and willing to open up the isolated Canadian towns to a new form of re­tail trade. In Newfoundland, most of the first members of this group became ped­dlers who travelled throughout the island. Mer­chants traded salt fish and textiles with Newfound­landers in outlying areas. Shop owners, textile workers or manufacturers worked in the small garment industry of St John’s. St. John's was and is the capital and largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland was officially incorporated in 1909. The first free standing synagogue was built in Henry St, St John's in 1931. Never huge, the Jewish community of Newfoundland grew slowly from 215 in 1935 to 360 in 1971; the majority of the congregants lived in St. John’s itself. The current synagogue on Elizabeth Avenue at Downing St was constructed in the 1950s.

Beth-el Synagogue St. John's, Newfoundland

Many schemes were put forward by citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador to provide a safe haven for European Jews and to service the needs of Canada’s eastern most provinces. One proposal, put forth in 1934 by Simon Belkin, could have solved Newfoundland’s des­perate shortage of medical professionals at a time when the territory was struggling to control TB epidemics. Belkin, who headed the Canadian office of the Paris-based Jewish Colonisation Association, suggested that 50 German Jewish doctors could be housed in isolated fishing ports, if they were willing “to answer calls using open boats in the summer and sleighs in the winter.”

But the Newfoundland government, ruled by a joint council of British and local commissioners because the province was not yet federated into Canada, ultimately rejected these proposals. Appar­ently the Newfoundland Immigration Commiss­ion­ers followed the decision of a small group of 300 British merchant fam­ilies who controlled the fishing and lumber industry. Despite the desperate need for population growth, they opposed the admission of anyone who was not of British stock.

Worse still was the reply these commissioners gave to a proposal made by Budapest lawyer George Lichtenstern in 1939. The plan was to bring 1,000 highly educated and skilled Hungarian Jewish farming families to the region. The Immigration Commission, without any sense of irony, wrote that “there is no prospect of room being found on the island for new settlers”. Irony because Labrador and Newfoundland have a land mass twice the size of the entire United Kingdom yet even today have a population of just 525,000.

The only refugees who were admitted were some female German and Austrian Jewish doctors who'd already escaped their homelands and had arrived in Britain. As desper­at­ely as doctors were needed in Newfoundland and Labrador’s remote fishing ports, those Jewish women were given jobs as nurses. [Canada was not alone in its self-defeating nastiness by the way. Australia was probably worse].

Robin McGrath’s book Salt Fish & Shmattes

Thus McGrath showed that just before, during & after the war, there was no safe haven here; few Jewish immigrants were allowed into Canada at all. The few German Jews who got to Newfoundland were treated badly by the authorities who suspected them of being German spies. Only in 1948 did Canada began to open its doors to the European Jewish survivors who had been located in Displaced Persons camps to wait for a visa. But 1948? A bit late!

Robin McGrath’s book Salt Fish & Shmattes is a very welcome addition to a history library. If you cannot find a copy, you might like to read Bernard Dichek’s discussion in the Jerusalem Report (21st Oct 2013).

Perhaps someone can help here, since I have not read S Medjuck's book Jews of Atlantic Canada, myself. It was published in St John’s by Breakwater Books in 1986.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Amazing--I never knew about most of these plans. One is reminded of various schemes in the US, such as Liberia, to repatriate Blacks to Africa.

These attempts to help the Jews in a time of utmost crisis serve as a litmus test for local attitudes. After reading all this, we are very clear on the meaning of the phrase "a friend in need..."

Your cousin said...

Hey Hel

what a shame the Atlantic provinces didn't actively recruit Russians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, like Manitoba did. I went to a family reunion in Winnipeg where our cousins were very well treated. They thrived.

Unknown said...

Dear Hels,
This is an interesting post which reminded me of a programme I saw on CNN about Jewish settlements in Zambia (or northern Rhodesia as it then was).


Hels said...


Before reading the book, I had never heard of the plans for Atlantic Canada either.

I imagine that Newfoundland and Labrador were so badly in need of business people and professionals that it would have been mutually beneficial - providing a safe haven for European Jews at the same time.

Hels said...

Cousin hey!

After 1900 a surging export-oriented wheat economy initiated massive migration to what Canadian immigration pamphlets called the Last Best West. Prairie population leaped from 5% to 22% of Canada's total population. Free land for farmers and prairie prosperity persuaded emigrants NOT to settle in the eastern provinces.

It worked very well, welcoming our family and so many others to the central provinces!


Hels said...


Absolutely true. That reminds me of thousands of Christian Armenians who saved their families lives and were welcomed in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Fearful communities will emigrate to countries we may not have first thought of, to be safe. And in return they become productive citizens of their new nations.

Ann ODyne said...

If I was a highly cultured and educated Jewish person I would rather starve than live in places famous for dogs and bashing baby seals to death.
When I was researching my Waddesdon Cowell ancestors I am sure I read something which noted that right up to 1854 it was actually illegal to practice Judaism in England. 1853 was the year Ballarat's large emigrant group from Hesse-Darmstadt built it's synagogue. Directly opposite HungryJacks on the main road in, if you ever come this way.

Ann ODyne said...

I hope you saw the Most Excellent TV drama Spies Of Warsaw Sunday Night on SBS. Setting is between WW1 and WW2 and our handsome aristocrat war hero officer David Tennant was bundled into a car by the evil team and the end of part 1. Don't miss the part 2 final this Sunday. The script by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement is a superb 'up the evil a notch' on Foyles War's recent look at spies.

Hels said...


I love Ballarat's synagogue and have been there a number of times.
Bendigo and Geelong had lovely synagogues too, but only Ballarat's survived.. and thrived. By the way 1853 is spot on for Ballarat's first services.

But if I lived in central and eastern Europe from 1933 on, I would have grabbed a visa to escape out of there _at any price_. As it happened, half my relatives came to Melbourne and the other half went to Winnipeg. Naturally the Canadian cousins are fiercely proud of their country.

Hels said...


normally I would not watch Spooks-type spy stories, but you are 100% right. I am fascinated with the inter-war period in Europe, as in Foyle's War and Spies of Warsaw. What a very hopeful, yet disastrous era it turned out to be.

Mind you, we in Britain and Australia had our own horrible dramas. Think of Egon Kisch http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/my-all-time-greatest-hero-in-australia.html
and Sir Oswald Mosley

Unknown said...

I don't know if you are Jewish or not , however you are certainly not cultured nor educated. That is evident by what you wrote. Newfoundland is so much more then what you described you ignorant , deplorable , uneducated degenerate. We wouldn't welcome your kind here. Please fester in the sewer you reside in and stay far away from us troll.

Hels said...


I hope you are not calling Ann an ignorant , deplorable , uneducated degenerate. And I hope you are not suggesting that I censor readers' comments. The book is fascinating, if you get a chance to read it.

iODyne said...

Annie ODyne would have that troll know that both her St.John ancestors the Phillips and her Halifax ancestors the McColoughs were stonkingly prominent and his probably worked for them. They were protestant Irish so I am glad to assume were not part of that 'self-defeating nastiness' of Hels post. Before mine moved on to Australia the family founded US steel mills and fought in the Civil War.
I stand by the fact that Newfoundland is mainly known for clubbing baby seals, any street corner poll would prove it. I have danced, in Cannes, with the CEO of the main guilty company - fwiw.
Being a dog person I adore Labradors, although I am smart enough to not take on the feeding and cleaning-up burden of a Newfoundland.
Apologies Hels, for my flippancy attracting unpleasantness to this always elegant blog.

Hels said...


I didn't know your family came to Australia from Canada and the USA! I would have asked you for a guest post :)

Re the history of labrador dogs, it was the post that enjoyed one of the biggest readerships I have EVER had since starting this blog back in Nov 2008. I am assuming it is the cute face on each of the lab puppies that attracted attention, not my brilliant writing.


iODyne said...

Hels I am sure the cute puppies were just a bonus to your always informative writing. Mine however, is most certainly not up to the standard your readers are accustomed to, thank you though for considering me. My McColoughs weird name is a genealogical blessing and burden. Mispelled everywhere it is easily traceable. My line landed in Bendigo built Tweedside 1855 the first brick house there and married into the pioneer orchardist Vick family of Harcourt.

Hels said...


your family's convoluted wanderings around the world, ending up in fairly small centres like Bendigo and Harcourt, remind me very much of Robin McGrath's book. Russian and Polish citizens might have ended up in Birobidzhan, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway close to the border with China. Or they could have applied for visas to Newfoundland and Labrador.

My dad's family went from the Russia/Polish border to the East End of London to Melbourne. My mother's family went from Lithuania, to Ukraine, to Winnipeg or Melbourne.

Unknown said...


Hels said...


thank you for writing. Yes, I too think that people living a long way away from the main urban centres may not realise where their great grandparents came from. The first Jews in Newfoundland and Labrador arrived a long time ago... in the late 18th century. But even the more recent Russian and Polish tailors, merchants and farmers travelled across the more isolated towns throughout Newfoundland. Their great grandchildren may know nothing of their heritage.

CarolG said...

I just found this site and plan on trying to find copies of the book(s) mentioned. My grandfather and uncle lived in St Johns and Bell Island. My grandfather donated money to build the first? Synagogue. My understanding is that he and his brother were from Gomel, Russia.
I know a little of his history but have ran into roadblocks when researching. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery. I do know that in of the books written about Nfld my grandfather is mentioned but it has some inaccurate information as to immigration date or arrival in Nfld date. My uncle confirmed the information was not correct. I can’t recall the books name but it was not one of the ones mentioned here. My grandfather was Haiman Brown and his brother was Max. If anyone has information regarding them I would love to hear from you. His home was on Le Marchant Rd.

Hels said...


Saltfish & Shmattes is the only book I read on the topic and although I found it fun to read, I wasn't drawn into any further historical or family research. My Canadian cousins all moved from Russia to Winnipeg, so my parents and I turned up to at least two family reunions there.

Get onto the book publisher and author to see what the best sources of information were. The original documents were probably written in either Russian or Yiddish.

Hope it all goes well!