Monday, September 5, 2016

Paper Nazis: Anti-Semitism (and Mennonites) in Manitoba before World War II

My interview with Byron and Melita Rempel-Burkholder about their work to get Mennonite Church Canada to pass a resolution about Palestine-Israel this summer prompted some negative reaction from people in the Manitoba Jewish community, including some who pointed out that, before WW 2, some Mennonites supported the Nazi party. It reminded me of my friend Andrew Wall's documentary exploring this chapter in Mennonite, and Manitoba, history.

For Winnipeg film maker Andrew Wall, it all started with a simple question: Were Jews discriminated against at Victoria Beach in the 1940s?

I had heard the rumour, but I wasn't sure it was true," says Wall, whose family has owned a cottage at Victoria Beach for more than 60 years.

His desire to find an answer led him on an unexpected and shocking journey into a part of Winnipeg's history that many know nothing about—and that others might prefer to forget.

The result is Paper Nazis, a documentary from Farpointfilms that explores the rise and fall of two anti-Semitic extremist groups in Winnipeg in the 1930s: the Nazi movement and the Canadian Nationalist Party.

"The anti-Semitism of that time struck me as unbelievable," says Wall, 35, of his research into attitudes towards Jews in Manitoba during that period. "I couldn't believe it happened in Canada."

Through interviews with people such as journalist Frances Russell, historian Allan Levine, former MLA Saul Cherniak, academic Helmut-Harry Loewen and others, Wall details how the two organizations promoted hatred of Jews in southern Manitoba through marches, rallies, picnics and the press.

The documentary begins with William Whittaker, a First World War veteran who used his newspaper, The Canadian Nationalist, to praise Hitler, condemn communism, urge boycotts against Jewish businesses and to call on Canadians to unite against "Jewish international, economic and financial domination."

The Canadian Nationalist Party died out before the war, but not before clashing with local Communists in 1934 in downtown Winnipeg in what was called, at the time, the "Market Square riot" and the "battle of Market Square."

Wall also documents how the German consulate in Winnipeg mobilized local support for the new Nazi state in the 1930s.

Key to their effort was the Deutsche Zeitung, a locally printed newspaper that published Nazi propaganda in the guise of impartial news.

The newspaper, which was marketed to Manitoba's German-language population, including Manitoba Mennonites, also had English sections that subscribers were encouraged to share with their English-speaking neighbours.

The documentary shines a bright light on the crusading efforts of John W. Dafoe, the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Dafoe was an early and unrelenting critic of Whittaker and other pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations in the province; he was later joined by the Tribune, which condemned the "vicious... anti-Jewish literature... issued by Nazis."

If Wall was surprised to learn about this unknown aspect of Winnipeg history.

"I never heard about this in school," he says, adding he was shocked to learn that his own great-grandfather, a revered figure in Manitoba's Mennonite community, was a minority shareholder in the Deutsche Zeitung.

"I was absolutely stunned," he says of the discovery, adding that other family members, including his parents, were unaware of the connection. "It was very unexpected and confusing."

Today, he has a better understanding of why his great-grandfather, and some other Manitoba Mennonites, were supportive of Nazi Germany before the Second World War.
"Many had lost everything during the Communist terror in Russia," he says, noting they might have been attracted by the Nazi party's anti-Communist stance.

Plus, he adds, the Nazi plan to eradicate Jews also wasn't known at that time.

During his research, Wall kept asking himself: "Why is it that my generation never heard about this?"

He hopes that the documentary will spark greater interest in Manitoba schools in this unknown part of the province's history, and that it will also remind people to be on the lookout for extremism today.

"We have to be on guard against ideas that try to blame problems on another group," he says.

And what about that rumour about Victoria Beach—was it true? Unfortunately, yes, as Wall found out.

In 1943, when a Jewish family tried to buy a cottage in that area, the local newspaper published an article titled: Unwanted people: A Reminder to Property Owners and Agents.

"You have an obligation to your neighbours at Victoria Beach... to see to it that those unwanted people who have overrun beaches on the other side of Lake Winnipeg are not permitted to buy or rent here," the article stated.

In the grain trade, it went on to say, "there are certain unwanted grades, and these people are unwanted grades at Victoria Beach."

Read more about anti-Semitism in Manitoba before World War Two by the Manitoba Historical Society.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press in April, 2011.

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