The Tailor Project: Our Brothers’ Keepers

By PAULA DRAPER

In the spring of 1948, Max Enkin, a prominent Toronto Jewish community leader and clothing manufacturer, spoke to a gathering of his peers. He had recently returned from visiting Europe’s post-war displaced persons (DP) camps, where he led a small team of garment industry manufacturers and labour leaders on a mission.

Their goal was to bring as many Holocaust survivors and their families to Canada as they could squeeze through obstructive, antisemitic immigration restrictions. Enkin and his colleagues – Sam Herbst, Sam Posluns, Bernard Shane and David Solomon – had been deeply moved by the plight of the survivors they met in Germany and Austria. They were shocked by the degrading conditions they witnessed in the DP camps, many constructed on the sites of former concentration camps.

Limited by the government to a quota for Jewish tailors, the five men were forced to make heart-wrenching decisions about who could be included among the chosen. They returned determined to inspire their fellow Canadian Jews to do all they could to help the survivors when they arrived.

Through articles in the Jewish press and public speeches, the team pleaded with community members to open their hearts and homes to the survivors who were beginning to arrive as garment workers. They faced a community both exhausted by its pre-war failures at rescue and unable to comprehend the uniqueness of the survivors’ experience and their desperate need to rebuild their lives.

“I am beginning to doubt,” Enkin told them, “if many know or appreciate how these people find themselves there, who they are, and what we owe them if we are to justifiably uphold our own respect and genuinely acknowledge that we are our brothers’ keeper.”

The Tailor Project (the book, which came out in October), is a study of Canadian Jewry’s efforts to rescue Jews stranded in the killing fields of post-war Europe and find homes for them in Canada – to be their brothers’ keepers. Prof. Harold Troper’s introduction summarizes the obstinate restrictive government policies that preceded the post-war opening of Canada to immigration. The authors then examine the post-war bulk labour schemes and how these programs were devised to import skilled and unskilled single men into the growing post-war economy.

Young, unmarried Jewish survivors were more than willing find a way out of the camps by applying for Canadian labour schemes; their applications, which noted their “Hebrew” religion, were invariably rejected. Realizing the potential these programs offered for opening the doors to Jewish DPs, the Jewish Labour Committee, Jewish clothing manufacturers and the Canadian Jewish Congress banded together to create the Tailor Project.

In our book of the same name, we explore the personalities and community politics that coloured the attempts to bring survivors to Canada after the Second World War. This is also a study of the Jewish-dominated garment industry and the Tailor Project’s unprecedented collaboration between garment manufacturers and unions.

Funded by the Canadian Jewish Congress in conjunction with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society and other agencies, they succeeded in settling some 2,500 European Jews in cities across Canada in 1948 and 1949.

The history of the Tailor Project is complemented by the reminiscences of the survivors and their families who established new lives in Canada. Some were trained as tailors before the war and continued working in the garment industry. Others were barely able to sew a buttonhole and forged other careers after their arrival. All understood that the program was their chance at rebirth.

Survivors and their children describe their journeys to Canada, the challenges of their early years of settlement, and the extended survivor families they created in their new homes. The Jewish garment workers and their families were the first large group of Holocaust survivors to gain entry to Canada. They were soon followed by DPs who joined other labour programs initiated by the Jewish community – notably by the furrier and hat-making industries.

Mendel Good was one survivor who came to Canada with the Tailor Project. He was 23 and an experienced tailor when he arrived in Ottawa in 1948, sponsored by the garment workers program. After suffering over six years in ghettos and camps, the only survivor of his extended family, Mendel spent three years recovering his health. He met and married Valerie Blau, another survivor who had come to Canada under the domestic bulk labour program.

Mendel established the M. Good Tailor shop in the Byward Market, a business still open today. His positive spirit and gregarious nature left a lasting impression on both his clients, and the thousands of Ontario students he educated about the Holocaust.

Mendel died last month at the age of 95. Rabbi Reuven Bulka eulogized that Mendel “became a tailor because he wanted to stitch together a better world.”

The Tailor Project is the story of how Canadian Jewry came together to rescue the remnants of European Jewry, and how Holocaust survivors like Mendel reshaped Canadian life.


Paula Draper

Paula Draper is co-author of The Tailor Project. How 2,500 Holocaust Survivors Found a New Life in Canada (Second Story Press) with Andrea Knight and Nicole Bryck, introduction by Harold Troper

Meet the Authors: The Tailor Project