Last month I recounted my twenty-year struggle to bring to light the life of Willi Pollack, a gifted photographer who immigrated to Canada in the 1940s. My breakthrough came from the dates, places, and names contained in his naturalization file. From these, I tracked down his step-daughter who shared stories of their time together. Willi’s naturalization papers also revealed the very long journey he had made before he entered her life.
Family legend relates Willi’s escape from a Nazi prison; a photo records his sojourn in Britain; and, a letter marks his successful employment in Canada. However, his naturalization documents were the key to understanding his experiences and provided the details to illuminate his story.
Born in Austria in 1899, Willi completed his mandatory military service during WWI. He then apprenticed in Vienna as a portrait photographer, eventually opening his own studio in 1927. Vienna, at the time, was a cultural centre and Willi specialized in portraits of members of the arts community. Apparently, among his clients were Hedwig Kiesler, later known in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr and billed as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Family albums preserve his images of his parents, siblings, wife, and little girl. Willi was happy and successful and his business expanded over the years to three locations.
Then on 12 March 1938 his world collapsed. The Nazis marched into Vienna and, like other Jews, Willi lost everything. He was arrested by the Nazis at the beginning of May. In June, his father, aged 66, was killed in the Vienna Gestapo jail. Almost eleven months after Willi’s imprisonment, likely due to the efforts of his sisters, he received a discharge permit to leave Austria. At this stage, the Nazis were willing to get rid of Jews by exporting them, provided all the difficult examinations for their release could be passed. From among the 30,000 prisoners in Nazi concentration camps at the time, 3500 men were shipped to a refugee camp in England. These select few, aged 17 to 45, fit and willing to work, were good candidates for becoming employed citizens of another country and, thus, were accepted temporarily by the British program.
This refugee camp was funded not by the British government, which along with other countries had restricted the immigration of Jews, but by the Central British Fund for German Jewry. It was to serve as a transit and training camp to provide refugees with a stop-over on their way to immigration elsewhere. While at Kitchener Camp, the refugees worked and studied, and with permits could leave the camp for a walk to the nearby village. Willi took passport photos for his fellow refugees and portraits of important people who visited the camp, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Cosmo Lang, and the former Governor-General of Canada, Lord Willingdon. Although life in Kitchener was far from idyllic, there was hope. However, as time passed, pressure on the camp and its residents increased.
When war was declared, the fearful British government arrested and interned all aliens from enemy countries. The refugees of Kitchener Camp either volunteered for the British army, or were sent to Ramsay Internment Camp on the Isle of Man. Now I began to see that Willi’s escape from the Nazis was not the road to Canadian freedom I had imagined. After almost a year as a refugee at Kitchener, Willi was among the first moved to the Ramsay internment camp. He lived for a month in this crowded prison, surrounded by barbed wire and guards. To make matters worse, German Nazi sympathizers were confined with the Jews who had escaped the concentration camps. With more internees on the way, Britain began loading the men onto ships bound for Canada or Australia. One of these was sunk by German U-boats. A few days after that disaster, Willi was aboard a ship on his way to Canada.
The perilous ocean journey took almost two weeks before the internees arrived in the port of Quebec. A train ride deposited them on the bank of the Rideau River, after which they were ferried to an island prison. The old stone fort on Ile-aux-Noix had not been used since the 1870s and, after only two weeks of preparations, was not ready for the influx of Prisoners of War, for that is what Willi and the other refugees had become. Knowing that Canada would not accept Jewish refugees, a Britain desperate to reduce the number of mouths it had to feed on wartime rations had sent them as “internees and prisoners of war.” For administrative ease, Canada reclassified them all as POWs.
So began Willi’s time in Canada. With the rain pouring down, in the middle of a July night in 1940, the Jewish refugees found themselves again surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. All their possessions were taken from them and they were forced to wear uniforms with big red targets on the back. On official files, Willi’s prisoner designation was appended to his name: No. 233. This was certainly not the warm welcome I had expected my country would have given to those who had barely escaped the worst terrors of the Holocaust.
Camp I, or Camp 41, as it came to be known, operated until December 1943. However, Canadian groups began to agitate for proper designation and better treatment of the refugees soon after their arrival. The Canadian Jewish Congress was one of these organizations and they helped Willi to secure his release. In the meantime, he worked in a factory manufacturing camouflage nets for the Canadian Army. After thirteen months of Canadian internment, Willi applied for release to work in a photographic studio in Ontario; ten months and many letters later, he was released and was at last able to return to paid employment as a photographer.
After suffering the physical and mental anguish of four years of imprisonment in three different countries, at last Willi was free. Free to work, free to create, free to love.
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.