Displaced Persons
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Displaced Persons
European refugees begin new lives in post-war Canada
In April 1948, Jan Zaramba, his wife Alina and their two young children Baschia and Maciej headed for Halifax aboard the S.S. Marine Falcon. For them, the trip was a miraculous escape from darkness.
After the Second World War, Canada accepted 165,000 displaced person - refugees from the devastation in Europe. Pictured here, refugees arriving in Halifax in 1948. (Courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa)
After the Second World War, Canada accepted 165,000 displaced persons - refugees from the devastation in Europe. Pictured here, refugees arriving in Halifax in 1948. (Courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa)

Jan Zaremba, a lawyer and an officer in the Polish reserve army, spent the war in a German prisoner of war camp. His family spent the war hiding in the mountains of Poland. After his release he made the perilous trip back into Soviet-occupied Poland to rescue his family.

"It was the first time I had ever seen my son, Maciej. He was five years old and an exceptionally well-built, handsome little boy. I loved him very much from the first moment I saw him."

War had left Europe both physically and economically devastated. Like millions of others who had lost jobs, homes, families, the Zarembas crowded into refugee camps.

"Displaced persons" as they were called, pejoratively shortened to DPs, refugees with no real home. The Zarembas like many others dreamed of Canada, a land where there was no fear.

Canada was reluctant to take the displaced people of Europe. But Canada's economy was booming and the federal government loosened its immigration policies to make sure there would be enough workers to fill the new jobs.

"Any Displaced Persons who would be permitted to come, it was assumed, would be selected like good beef cattle with a preference for strong young men who could do manual labour and would not be encumbered by aging relatives, " said John Holmes, the first secretary at the Canadian High Commission in London, England.

When the Zarembas arrived in Halifax, Jan had a tag on his coat which gave the address of Dionne's Spinning Mills in Quebec, where he was bound by contract to work for one year, the condition upon which his landed immigrant status depended.

Government officials prefer brawn to brains in filling the bulk orders for workers. Refugees hands were examined for callouses. Jan Zaremba lied about his law degree to better his chances.

"I had discovered that when one must get a job, higher education is definitely against one. I just wanted to look like a good strong man who would do well any job I was given. I knew I could not be a lawyer."

Three months after the Zarembas arrived, Dionne's employees went on strike for higher wages and Zaremba and his family went to Ontario where he found work at the Thomas Edison Company as an electrician's apprentice.

Alina found work in the catalogue department of Simpson's department store but the family had a difficult time becoming part of Canadian society.

"What precisely do the Canadians think DPs are?" she asked. "Sometimes I feel as though we were expected to be some new strange species. Sometimes I feel that people forget we did live quite normal, quite ordinary lives for perhaps 30 years, perhaps longer, before the war shook us out of that normality. The biggest thing will to be normal people again. To forget we are numbers. To forget we are DPs."

Some were able to forget more quickly. George Lukk, an Estonian, arrived on the same ship as the Zarembas. He a chemical engineer but was admitted to Canada to cut rock for 64 cents an hour in the gold mines of Northern Ontario. Lukk was forced to leave his wife and two daughters behind in Europe, but he was happy just to be in Canada.

"I don't worry at all," he wrote. "I have a feeling I can do anything here. Anything can happen here. It is a little like being a child, with faith, again."

He didn't mind the oppressive, underground work, but he was an untalented miner and left after several months. Lukk moved to Sarnia where he found work with Imperial Oil. His wife Gertie and children joined him

A year after arriving, he wrote a friend. "We have left behind the DP status. We are free men in charge of our own lives. It is good to greet each new morning as individuals, ordinary human beings."

Over the next 15 years, Canada would admit two million people - 165,000 of them displaced persons. But not everyone was welcome. Despite the horrors of the concentration camps, half of all Canadians told pollsters in 1946 that they opposed any Jewish immigration to Canada. Few Jews were admitted.


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