In an emotional and sometimes angry protest that was hailed as a first in Montreal's Jewish community, 1,000 people rallied yesterday to demand swifter action against Nazi war criminals who have found refuge in Canada.
Organizers said the event signaled a new, more aggressive and less diplomatic approach to the issue by Jewish leaders, whose community has been angered by recent indications that more former Nazis than previously believed are living in Canada.
"In recent months, the Canadian Jewish Congress has decided to change its policy from one of quiet diplomacy to one of political action," Myra Giberovitch, co-chairman of the Congress's National Holocaust Remembrance Committee, acknowledged to the crowd at Place du Canada.
She credited this change in tack in large part to "the revelations of Steven Rambam," a controversial New York private investigator who has interviewed dozens of alleged Nazi war criminals living in Canada and tricked many into confessing to war crimes during World War II.
Ten years have passed since a federal law was passed to allow for prosecution of war criminals here and a Royal Commission recommended action against 20 suspects and investigation of 218 others. Since then, Ottawa has acted successfully against only one suspect: it stripped Jacob Luitjens of his Canadian citizenship in the early 1990s and deported him to face prosecution in the Netherlands.
At yesterday's rally, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, speaker after speaker contrasted the ease with which some Nazis entered Canada with the roadblocks Ottawa often threw in the way of Holocaust survivors who were seeking to build new lives here.
"Canada, a country which so efficiently and so brutally closed its doors to our brothers and sisters at wartime ... that same country miraculously opened its doors to the perpetrators of history's worst brutality," Rabbi Reuben Poupko, a member of the Jewish Congress's war-crimes committee, told the crowd in a fiery speech.
Some speakers spoke pointedly of contemporary genocides in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, taking pains to emphasize that Nazi war criminals are not just a "Jewish issue," but one that should be of concern Canadians of all faiths. Laxity in dealing with Nazi war criminals here, only sends others elsewhere the message they can get away with mass murder, too just as Nazis took comfort in the ease with which Turks had committed genocide against Armenians earlier in the century, they said.
"In dealing appropriately with Nazi war criminals, Canada will show itself unwilling to harbour war criminals" from other nations, said Reisa Teitlebaum, chairman of the Jewish Congress's Quebec region.
As if to underline the universality of the theme, the Jewish leaders brought an Anglican minister, David Oliver, to the podium, and noted that Jews had joined leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Evangelical Lutheran churches as well as of the World Sikh Organization of Canada in a meeting in Toronto with Federal Justice Minister Allan Rock yesterday to demand swifter action on the issue.
Rock told the multifaith delegation that more people suspected of being Nazi war criminals will find themselves before the courts. The best way we can honour the memory of those who died, the best way we can provide comfort to those who survived ... is to take action," Rock said after an unprecedented meeting with a dozen religious leaders. "I am sure we have not done enough."
Congress president Goldie Hershon hailed that meeting as a first "since the end of World War II," saying it proved the issue "is not just a matter of Jewish interest but a matter of interest to all Canadians."
Rambam, however, struck a different note. The U.S. investigator, who drew heavy applause after being presented with an award of merit, asserted the issue is a particularly Jewish one.
"This is an issue of Jewish honour, and what is a Jewish life worth, and how cheap is Jewish blood," declared Rambam, who claims to have tracked down 161 war criminals in Canada in 21/2 years of research.
Holocaust survivor Klauber Imre, 73, who lost his mother and three quarters of his family to the death camps, was among the crowd of Jewish warveterans, students and others at the rally.
"Never again," he said quietly as the crowd dispersed. "Never again. This is going to be on my tombstone. Because in my family there were many killed small children, too."
Since 1995, Ottawa has named 12 people in denaturalization and deportation
proceedings for misrepresenting their past as alleged Nazi collaborators.
Two of the accused have died, leaving 10 cases outstanding.