Home Commentary The Way I See It: The Prison Camp, Part 2

The Way I See It: The Prison Camp, Part 2

As I wrote in my last essay in The Bridge, my father was held in a prison camp in the Canadian province of New Brunswick in 1940, having been sent there as an enemy alien by the British government.

It was there he became a mathematician. 

The internees, who worked as loggers in the surrounding woods, included a number of distinguished scholars and scientists who gave lectures on their specialties. The mathematician Fritz Rothberger, founder of a subject called Combinatorial Set Theory, had the greatest influence on my father and offered a course on set theory at the camp. My father recalled that Rothberger “would draw diagrams in the sand while expostulating on Cantor’s theory.”  

Rothberger befriended my father at the camp and maintained a close friendship with my parents during the ensuing 50 years. My father was a professor at McGill for all those years, while Rothberger’s academic homes were Acadia University and the universities of New Brunswick, Laval, and Windsor. Rothberger died in his 98th year in 2000.

I remember Rothberger attending dinners and parties at our house in St. Lambert when I was a child. St. Lambert is the Montreal suburb on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River where my parents had bought a small house in 1951 or 1952. Even after my parents’ divorce, Rothberger came to dinner periodically at my mother’s apartment in Westmount. 

To my eyes, he was always ancient. He wore thick woolen suits and arrived with a bottle of liquor as a gift. He spoke in a deep voice with a thick Austrian accent. He invariably announced his arrival with a booming melodious bass: “Haallooo! Rothberger!” He has attained a sort of mythical place in our family lore. I turned him into a poetic judge and placed him in my novel “Uncivil Liberties.”

At some point, a group of internees at Camp B in New Brunswick were temporarily transferred to a camp for Italian prisoners on St. Helen’s Island in Montreal. My father recalled that, despite the Italians’ fascist sympathies, the two groups got along well. The Italians celebrated Mussolini’s birthday with a huge cake, with icing spelling out “Viva Il Duce.” My father remembered eating the V.

Late in 1941, my father and other Jewish internees were transferred to another camp in Farnham and then to one in Sherbrooke, both towns on the flat plain east of Montreal. In Farnham, there were no trees to be cut; instead, they made camouflage nets by hand and stockings by machine. Among the prisoners at Sherbrooke was the grandson of the last German emperor, Wilhelm II. 

From Sherbrooke, most of the internees were released or returned to England. The fate of the interned Jewish refugees had been discussed in Parliament and it was realized early on that their internment had been a mistake. However, it took two years to convince the Canadian government of this. 

Many internees, including my father, found local sponsors in the Montreal Jewish community, who guaranteed that they would not become burdens on the state. My father’s sponsors were Lotte and Arthur Becker, who, like my father, had come from Leipzig. During the next few years, my father was a frequent visitor at their home and benefited from their financial support. Not all the debt was repaid, my father recalled; some of it was generously cancelled.

The internment of the Jewish refugees by the British, Canadian, and Australian governments during World War II was grossly wrong, based on a far-fetched and racist premise that the refugees might be spies or saboteurs. Yet, reading my father’s accounts, they were treated with a level of humanity and tolerance that strike me as unlikely to be found in the present-day immigration camps on the southern border of the U.S.

As I write this, we, the American people, are extricating ourselves from the Trump era, most of us hoping for a new dawn of reason and decency. As the Capitol insurrection in January proved, we are also witness to a violent revanchist resistance supported by tens of millions of our fellow Americans, who admire, even worship, the proto-fascist Donald Trump. 

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” show how we have been flirting with the demise of American democracy. It all could go either way. Germany had experienced a vibrant democracy before Hitler’s rise. The course of history is contingent, not determined. It’s up to us.