A house fire in the 1970’s partially destroyed my boyhood home in Cape Breton. Any family would regret the loss of irreplaceable photographs and mementos. In our family, this priceless record was already incomplete. My father’s family name was Wetstjzein, from eastern Poland. He emigrated in 1949.
There was a bill in the Senate, S-232 An Act Respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. Generations of Jewish immigrants have come to our country with little, yet persevered and prospered, and made an indelible contribution to Canadian society. When I rose to speak on Bill S-232, I thought of my parents, Abe and Freda.
They were from near Chelm in Poland. It was the same district where Germans built the Sobibór death camp in 1942. Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished there, from Poland and France, Holland, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. My parents were in their early twenties when they married, but had no chance to start a normal life. They had to survive.
We rarely spoke of those years at home. As children we heard vague accounts of flight from the Holocaust. This experience is shared by many survivors’ families. Who would want to relive those memories? It was a horrible period in their lives.
My parents and grandmother fled Poland on foot. They survived the war in Uzbekistan; Mother worked as a seamstress sewing uniforms for the Russian army. My father attempted a job as a shoemaker. They were strong, hardworking and resilient people. After VJ-Day they were transferred to a displaced persons’ camp in Ulm, Germany where I was born in 1947. I tell friends that Albert Einstein was also born in Ulm, and that we have two things in common: we are both Jewish, and have similar hair.
My parents named me Chaim Yitzhak Wetstjzein. On arrival in Halifax, the Customs officer said that name would never work. The agent had an uncle named Isadore, he said, and suggested Howard Isadore Wetston. That was my name from age 2. Years afterward, I asked my father if we might change our name back but he was not interested. Perhaps he’d had enough of the Old Country.
A distant relative helped us make a home in Sydney, N.S. My mother was deeply religious and spoke of moving on to Toronto where there was a larger Jewish community, certainly larger than the 80 families in Sydney. Father declined; he wanted to settle down. Sydney was our Wetston family home for 60 years.
We lived in the poorest neighbourhood in Sydney called the Coke Ovens, where fathers worked in the steel mill and boys grew up playing street ball. My friends were African-Canadians and Ukrainians, Italians and Hungarians. There were isolated acts of anti-Semitism but those only reinforced my belief in the value of ethnicity and diversity and shaped the person I would become. We remember Sydney as a welcoming town where my sister was born. In all those years at our family home, I never heard my parents complain.
Members of the Jewish community have made Canada their home for more than 250 years. Successive generations have thrived through hard work, dedication and an enduring sense of community. My parents came here with nothing but hope, and found a lifetime of freedom and opportunity to raise children on beautiful Cape Breton Island.
(Editor’s note: the author is an Ontario senator and former Federal Court justice)