His father brought hundreds of Jewish tailors to Canada - now he's stitching together their stories

The Tailor Project was the first program to permit large numbers of Jewish adults to immigrate to Canada following the devastation of the Second World War. Now, Larry Enkin, the son of the man who led it, wants to document the history of these immigrant tailors.

'It opened the doors,' Larry Enkin says of the Tailor Project

Larry Enkin, son of Max Enkin, is pictured here at the Blankenstein Family Research Centre. He wants to document the history of the immigrant tailors who came to Canada under the The Tailor Project. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

When Max Enkin led a Canadian delegation to the displaced persons camps of Europe in 1948, he was looking for more than tailors.

The Jewish businessman from Toronto was also eager to help survivors of the Holocaust find a new home and a fresh start. As the head of what became known as The Tailor Project, that's exactly what he did.

The Tailor Project — formally known as the "garment workers' scheme" — was an immigration program that brought around 2,000 displaced people from Europe to Canada to work in the clothing industry.

More than half were Jewish. It was the first program that permitted large numbers of Jewish adults to immigrate to Canada following the Second World War.

"It opened the doors," said Larry Enkin, 89, the son of Max Enkin. "Slowly but surely Canada began to accept Jews as part of the community."

Now, Enkin wants to document the history of these immigrant tailors. He hopes their stories will remind Canadians of the benefits of immigration at a time when it's become controversial.

"This is an important story for the broader community to appreciate immigration and the value that it has to the Canadian community," said Enkin.

Getting the word out

With help from Paul Klein, the CEO of Impakt Labs, Enkin is trying to locate and contact the children of the tailors who were brought to Canada.

"We hope to interview the children because up until now we only know of one survivor who was actually a tailor," said Enkin. "It's amazing how much they know about their parents and the knowledge they have about their parents' experience prior to coming to Canada."

Here's a photo gallery documenting the history of one Jewish refugee, Binem Russak, whose is believed to have come to Canada as part of the Tailor Project:

Klein and Enkin visited the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives in Montreal this past January and compiled a list of around 500 names using ship manifests. But due to logistical challenges and privacy concerns, they're not able to track down all of the names. Instead, they're hoping to get the word out and have people reach out to them.

They've created a website and social media accounts for the project and are doing their best to drum up publicity. So far, they've contacted at least 10 people.

"This strategy of creating awareness of this is starting to work," said Klein, whose firm is doing the bulk of the research.

What exactly they will do with the information they collect is unclear, Klein said. But they're not short of ideas. The first step is to conduct in-depth video interviews. They will also collect artifacts and historical documents.

One model they are looking at is the Shoah Foundation, which has created a "visual history archive" of the stories of Holocaust survivors. Other options are a book or some kind of museum-style exhibit.

Discriminatory immigration policy

Until 1947, Canadian immigration policy was extremely restrictive and the country did not have a refugee policy. Displaced people who had lost all of their money and property in war were evaluated in the same way as economic immigrants.

"European Jews, who were already considered among the least desirable immigrant groups, were essentially locked out due to this criteria," said Adara Goldberg, the incoming director of the Holocaust Resource Centre at Keane University in New Jersey.

This began to change in 1947 when the Canada amended its immigration policy in response to an unexpected economic boom. The growing economy created a labour shortage in a number of industries, including in the Jewish-dominated garment industry.

Paul Klein, the chief executive officer of Impakt, a company that helps other companies benefit from social change, is providing research help through Impakt's non-profit arm, Impakt Labs. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The tailor scheme resulted from a proposal from garment industry leaders, including Max Enkin. Tailoring firms agreed to hire skilled labourers on one-year contracts and Jewish community organizations chipped in funds to bring the workers here and house them.

"It was seen as a win-win at the time," said Goldberg. "A way of getting people out of the displaced persons camps and for the industry to get the bodies they needed to continue producing."

Even though many were not actually tailors — all they had to do to qualify was sew a button — a good number of them ended up working in the garment industry.

Tip Top tailor

Shirley Hanick, the daughter of Binem Russak, is sure that her father was one of the people brought to Canada through the tailor scheme.

Russak grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland. As the power of Nazi Germany grew, Russak foresaw the trouble to come. He and his wife, Szyfra, fled to Russia before the start of the war.

They spent the entirety of the war in Russia and returned home to find their entire families had either fled or were killed in concentration camps.

Samuel Herbst, Max Enkin and Samuel Posluns interviewing three potential tailors near Hanover, 1947. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds, 70 file 5. (Submitted by the Ontario Jewish Archives)

The Russaks retreated to a displaced persons camp outside Salzburg, Austria. When the call came out from Canada for skilled tailors, Binem Russak jumped at the opportunity.

Hanick says her father was not a tailor but was asked to show that he knew how to use a thimble, which he did successfully.

His family were all granted Canadian immigration visas on July 19, 1948.

The Russaks arrived by ship to Quebec City three months later. Binem, who changed his name to Benjamin, worked at the Tip Top Tailors in downtown Toronto for 10 years before starting his own dry-cleaning business. He continued to offer tailoring services for the rest of his working life. 

Shirley Hanick is pictured here in front of a table filled with historical documents related to her family's move from the displaced persons' camps in Europe to Canada. (Ryan Patrick Jones/CBC)

The journey of Shirley Hanick's family is exactly the kind of story that Enkin is looking to document.

"It's a Jewish story but it's a universal story," said Hanick.

"People having to pull up, leave where they were from, and recreating roots and the help they got along the way."

If you or someone you know came to Canada through the Tailor Project, you can visit the website or email for more information.