The National Library and Archives of Canada is an imposing example of mid-century modernist architecture, its 1960s Star Trek design vibe an odd juxtaposition to its archival purpose. Inside, the library aims to hold a copy of every book ever written by a Canadian, every book ever published by a Canadian and every book written about Canada.
Including, perhaps, the most evil book about Canada ever created: Hitler’s own personal handbook for the destruction of Canada’s Jews.
You’ll find it in the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, a treasure trove of ancient and rare Hebraica and Judaica. The collection got its start with a remarkable endowment from Montreal businessman Jacob Lowy, who managed to escape the Holocaust in 1938 and dedicated much of his life after the war to collecting the artifacts of Jewish culture that survived Hitler’s genocidal terror.
But the book I’m speaking of wasn’t donated by the late Mr. Lowy. It was purchased at auction by the library in 2019 for $6,000.
“Nur für den Dienstgebrauch!” reads the frontispiece. And on the inside front cover, Der Führer’s personal bookplate: “Ex Libris Adolf Hitler.”
Compiled by German intelligence in 1942, it details how and where to find the Jews of North America. While the first two-thirds of the book details Jewish organizations and clubs in the US, the final section provides similar demographic data for the Jews of Canada, based on public census and immigration information. The guide includes the “helpful” information that 48,724 Jews live in Montreal, 45,305 in Toronto and 17,236 in Winnipeg. But while those were the largest centres of Jewish population, the book records that 1,622 Jews lived in Calgary, 1,057 in Edmonton and 692 in Saskatoon.
From this pernicious document we learn that the Canadian Rassejuden—the “race of Jews,” to translate the offensive Nazi phrase—come primarily from Russia and Poland, with smaller communities from Romania, Lithuania, Austria and Hungary. The data is spookily precise. It records, for example, that exactly 92 Canadian Jews speak Magyar as a mother tongue.
Nur für den Dienstgebrauch! reads the frontispiece. This is a classified document, for official eyes only.
And pasted on the inside front cover? Der Führer’s personal bookplate: Ex Libris Adolf Hitler.
Here’s the Holocaust brought home: a concrete testament to Nazi plans and ambitions to bring the extermination of the Jews to Canada. Some of those anonymous Jews neatly enumerated in Hitler’s columns of numbers were my own father, uncles, aunts and grandparents, who were living in Edmonton then.
We can tell ourselves it never could have happened here. That Canadians, that Albertans, would never have allowed it. But then, the Germans of 1942 had no monopoly on anti-Semitism.
In an era when anti-Semites can march through Charlottesville, Virginia, with blazing tiki torches, when neo-Nazis and their sympathizers storm and take the US Capitol, when Alberta too is seeing its own “blood-and-soil” nationalist rhetoric, this slim book should serve as a silent reminder of the need for eternal vigilance against the politics of hate and division, against the dangerous, toxic combination of mob violence and state sanction. Or state silence.
But the Lowy Collection preserves other messages too.
Included in its holdings is a copy of the first published English translation of the Passover service, the Haggadah—printed in London in 1770, when George III was on the throne. The translation was printed with those long 18th century s’s that look more like f’s, so “sufficient” looks more like “fufficient” and “sing songs” reads as “fing fongs.” Yet once you’re past the typography, the 250-year-old text, as translated by one Alexander Alexander, is remarkably similar to the version my own family recites around the Seder table each year as we celebrate the liberation of the Jews from ancient slavery.
“The likeness of this poor bread did our ancestors eat in the land of Egypt; all those who are in want, let them approach and partake,” it reads. “At present we are here, but next year we hope to be in the land of Israel, at present we are in servitude, but next year we hope to be Children of Freedom.”
Passover begins on March 27 this year. Last year, when my family held our Seder over Zoom, we imagined we’d be able to celebrate together and in person this year. Instead we are still in internal exile. We are all still in bondage.
The Hagaddah tells a story of hope, liberty and defeat of tyranny. It promises that evil cannot endure. For many faiths and many Albertans, spring is a season of resurrection, redemption and renewal. How we all need that hope and promise now—when it feels as though we’re at war against an invisible enemy.
In the words of Alexander Alexander, at present we are in servitude. But next year we hope to be Children of Freedom. Next year, may we be together, bound tight to those we love.
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.