A word and a missing suitcase
Sometimes a single word can change everything. When in July 1940 Alfred Bader arrived in Canada as a 16-year-old, he was imprisoned as a prisoner of war and was robbed of his possessions, all because of a single word. He has never forgotten that experience.
Sometimes, a single word can change everything.
When Alfred Bader first came to Canada in July, 1940, a single word imprisoned him and robbed him of his possessions, just as it did for more than 1,000 other Jews. The word that should have applied to them was refugee. Bader knew it, as did all the others. The problem was that the Canadian military didn’t.
So it was that 16-year-old Bader found himself surrounded by barbed wire and under armed guard in a prisoner of war camp at Ile-aux-Noix, Quebec. He was far from his Austrian birthplace where his adoptive mother had placed him on a Kindertransport train a year and a half earlier. And his suitcase had been stolen.
Seventy years later, the theft of that suitcase still bothers Bader.
However, the theft and the investigation into it that followed illustrate the profound effect that words can have—especially in times of war—and what can happen when people refuse to accept the designations others have pinned on them.
So this is the story of a single word and a suitcase.
Came from Vienna
Alfred Bader was the son of Alfred, a middle-class Jew, and Elisabeth Serényi, a Catholic born of Hungarian nobility. They met in a sanatorium where Elisabeth was recovering from a nervous breakdown, and when they eloped in 1912, her family first tried to have her committed to an insane asylum, and then disowned her. When her husband, who was described to young Alfred as “a charming, shiftless gambler”, died two weeks after his son’s birth, Elisabeth was left penniless. It was Alfred’s aunt Gisela who took in the young boy and raised him in a loving and devout Jewish extended family.
It would be wrong to say that Jew was the word that changed Alfred’s life, because it is far, far more than a simple word or designation. It is his faith and the cornerstone of his life.
But to be a Jew in 1938 Vienna was terribly dangerous, for in the spring of that year, following the Anschluss, Austria became part of Nazi Germany. Fearing for her son’s safety, on December 10, Gisela put him on a Kindertransport train to England where a kindly woman had agreed to sponsor him as a refugee. A few months later, a Jewish family in Hove near Brighton took him in, and he boarded with them for the next 14 months. Two weeks after his sixteenth birthday – and the anniversary of his father’s death – things changed again for Alfred Bader. This is where the terminology comes in.
With war looming in Europe, the British government was nervous. There were an estimated 70,000 Germans and Austrians on British soil, and the threat of spies, sympathizers, and a potential fifth column was worrisome. To mediate the threat, 120 tribunals were established to classify aliens into three categories: A, considered a threat to national security and to be interned immediately; B, a minor threat and, therefore, subject to some restrictions; and C, not a threat. About 600 people were interned as Category A threats, but many of the thousands of Jewish refugees in Britain were classified as C: not a threat. Things changed, though, when the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium.
Military strategists believed that if Hitler’s army invaded England, they would land along the south and east coasts; therefore those regions were at the highest risk. Days after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, the new government ordered that all German and Austrian nationals aged 16 to 60 be arrested and interned. “Collar the lot,” he is reported to have said.
On May 12, 1940, Alfred Bader, who was 16 and two weeks old, was picked up in the round up of enemy aliens. The detectives who detained him drove him home and allowed him to pack. He had a single suitcase—the same one he had brought with him on the Kindertransport—and he filled it with the few belongings he had: a blue Harris Tweed coat, a few toiletries, a blue-and-white shirt, two pairs of socks, a pair of brown shoes, and a book of valuable stamps he hoped to sell or trade in order to earn a bit of money. He was still a refugee, but not for long.
For the British government, interning enemy aliens was not enough. They were desperate to get them out of the country for three very practical reasons. The first was so they would not form a fifth column if the Germans invaded. The second was so that fewer soldiers would be tied up with guarding them. Finally, these enemy aliens represented nearly 10,000 mouths to feed, and with wartime rationing in effect, that was a very, very important reason for them to go.
Britain turned to its colonies for help. Canada was asked to accept up to 4,000 civilian internees and 3,000 prisoners of war (POWs), and on June 19, 1940, Mackenzie King announced that Canada had agreed to accept both the internees and the POWs.
It is important to note here that the words Jewish and refugees did not enter into the wording of the agreement.
Canadian military officials would have been surprised to know the ships that landed in June and July of 1940 actually only contained 1,000 POWs. The rest of the passengers included 3,000 internees and more than 1,000 Italians who had also been interned in Great Britian as potential threats. Of the internees, nearly 1,000 were Class B and C – those considered of minimal or no threat at all under the British classification system. Another 2,290 Class B and C internees were sent to Australia. But the military did not learn of these distinctions for some time.
Just over a month earlier, an Order in Council was passed declaring that all people interned in Canada were to be classed as POWs. There were Class I and Class II prisoners (combatants and non-combatants), but all were POWs. While this allowed the internees some protection under the Geneva Convention, it stripped them of the designation that separated Jewish refugees from Nazi sympathizers.
Alfred Bader was no longer a refugee. He was now a “prisoner.” That word would change everything for him.
Camp commandant was expecting Nazi POWs
On July 15, 1940, Major Eric Kippen was overseeing frantic preparations for the imminent arrival of hundreds of “dangerous prisoners of war.” Kippen was commandant of the new POW camp at Fort Lennox, located 100 km southeast of Montreal on Ile-aux-Noix in the Richelieu River. Kippen had a staff of about two dozen men, and the island was teeming with civilian workers.
Kippen had personally chosen the site for the camp just two weeks earlier. He felt the 1820s island fort (last used by the British army in 1870) was far from ideal, but the best venue he could find on short notice. He had written in his war diary the day before that he needed another five days to complete the work that needed to be done before the camp was ready to hold prisoners. He needed transform the site from a crumbling, bat-infested relic into a workable POW camp with plumbing, electricity, and enough barbed wire to keep highly trained and wily Nazi soldiers from escaping. Kippen had been a POW in WWI, and he knew that an imprisoned soldier forever dreams and schemes of escape.
At 1:30 that afternoon, he received a phone call informing him that he had only five hours left before the prisoners would arrive. “The camp was far from complete” his war diary from the day reads. “However, needs must when the devil drives”.
The prisoners from the ship Sobieski would arrive at nearby St. Valentine train station at 6:30. From there, they would be sent in trucks to the beach at Ile-aux-Noix, and then a barge would ferry them to the island where Kippen was to take charge of them. A contingent of 250 men from the Grenadier Guards was on hand to meet the train. The prisoners were considered so dangerous there was one man for almost every prisoner.
Given the amount of warning provided, Major Kippen would be forgiven for thinking the movement of prisoners that night was a complete success. Even with so little advanced notice, not a single man escaped. There was just one vexing problem: their baggage. Kippen wasn’t told anything about their baggage.
In theory, baggage shouldn’t have an issue. POWs were only allowed to bring 40 lbs of belongings with them. According to Major H. M. Cathcart, who met the prisoners at the train station, it was reasonable to expect that each man would have only a few personal effects and perhaps a rucksack.
But there were mountains of bags when these prisoners got off the train. Some had as much as 250 lbs each. In total, there was 20 tons of the stuff to be shifted and then searched. It took until 4 am to just to ferry the prisoners across to the island camp, let alone to transport their bags. The process was slowed down by torrential rain that didn’t let up for two days.
From Kippen’s perspective, the following few days were consumed with vital tasks of controlling the prisoners, giving them medical exams, securing the camp, and finishing construction. The camp also began its daily routines: roll calls, inspections, and the planning of work parties. Meals were needed, latrines attended to, and the compound scrupulously checked for evidence of escape attempts. Even the camp staff needed training. They were from the newly formed Veteran’s Guard, and most were veterans of the Boer War and WWI. Many of them had been out of active duty for some time. And, of course, there were civilian workmen all around. Finally, the prisoners themselves needed to be searched to ensure they hadn’t brought in things that could be used as weapons or that could be used for trading or bribing. Kippen was knee-deep in the standard war-time duties of a POW camp commander. The personal effects of his prisoners were far down on his list of priorities.
For Alfred Bader and the other internees, their arrival at the camp was far from routine. It was bewildering. They were refugees, yet suddenly, they found themselves surrounded by armed guards. Curious people had come from the nearby town came to stare and jeer at them as they got off the train, some shouting “Nazi!” The prisoners were herded into trucks in the pouring rain, while some were commanded to unload their belongings from the baggage cars. For some, these bags contained everything they owned; photographs of families they may never see again, documents and diplomas needed to start a new life, warm clothes for the winter, even elegant clothes that would remind them of the life they once had. Some had jewels smuggled from home to pawn or rare foreign stamps to sell for cash. One had a violin. Two brought the barbering tools they would need to set themselves up again in their trade. One even brought a piano accordion. The bags represented both links to their pasts and hope for their futures. But it was all thrown from the train and heaped on the ground as the men were trucked away.
On the ferry barge, 35 internees at a time were huddled together as 15 armed guards watched them. More armed guards flanked the barge in motor boats. At the camp itself, they were greeted by two nine-foot barbed wire fences, with a sentry tower looming above as the inmates were marched into the still tumbledown, bat-infested compound. The arrivals were stripped naked, their few remaining belongings taken from them, and they were issued grey uniforms with a 14-inch red circle on the back – “To make it easier to shoot us in the back when we tried to escape,” Alfred Bader explains.
He got his first real understanding of why this was happening as he and his fellow POWs were lined up to receive identification numbers. In the 1995 first volume of autobiography, Adventures of a Chemist Collector, Bader recalls that when Kippen asked him his name and age, the commandant was surprised. He said Bader seemed far too young to be a German soldier who had parachuted into England behind enemy lines. “When I told him that I was a Jewish refugee,” Bader writes, “he replied that he didn’t believe me for a minute.”
Clearly, Kippen had his orders, and he would follow them. These men were his prisoners, and would be treated as such.
During the first night the POWs were at Fort Lennox, the baggage had eventually been transferred over the island, piled up into two enormous heaps, and left to sit the pouring rain. At some point, someone had thought to cover one of the piles with a tarpaulin, but the rest were left exposed to the elements. Many of the suitcases were made of cardboard and simply disintegrated.
When Kippen saw the piles of bags the next day, was amazed at the sheer amount of it all. He also noted that some had been slashed and others forced open. No guard had been put on the bags overnight either on the shore or on the island, and since Kippen hadn’t actually seen the bags when they arrived at the train station he couldn’t be sure they hadn’t arrived in this condition. “The result is a lot of the prisoners’ belongings have been lost or stolen,” he noted in his war diary. “Just where this happened is almost impossible to say.”
The internees were already feeling bewildered, betrayed and humiliated. They’d been stripped of their clothes, belongings, and identities. The theft of their belongings was one more bitter pill they weren’t about to swallow.
It took two days to bring the 20 tons of baggage into the compound, longer to sort through it, and longer still before the internees discovered just how much was missing.
Clothing. Documents. Photographs. Prayer books. Watches. Even razors, nail scissors, soap, and toothpaste. Some received only the broken shell of their case. Alfred Bader didn’t even get that. Everything he had brought with him from Austria had gone.
The internees were already feeling bewildered, betrayed and humiliated. They’d been stripped of their clothes, belongings, and identities. The theft of their belongings was one more bitter pill they weren’t about to swallow.
When they complained, he told them that their bags had been handled many times since they had left England. They had to expect damage and even theft.
But they would not let the matter drop.
“The matter of prisoners’ baggage is a terrible headache,” reads an entry in the camp war diary for August 31, 1940.
“How these Kreisgefengeners [sic] (to use the German term prisoner of war) should have been allowed to bring the vast amount of baggage they have passes understanding. The prisoners seem to take the view that the authorities are responsible for any losses or damage which may have occurred. The Commandant, Major Kippen, has taken considerable pains to disabuse them of this notion and it is incessantly pointed out that they were only allowed 40 lbs of baggage and in many cases brought as much as 250 lbs. It is interesting to know it was handled some 10 or 12 times since it left England, thereby running all the hazards of loss, damage and theft. Under war time conditions such hazards are greatly in excess of what they would be in peace time, especially in view of the fact that the prisoners are regarded with some considerable hostility by civilians and in some cases soldiers are inclined to look up prisoners of war property as fair game. It has been pointed out to them however that the authorities take no responsibility whatsoever for these losses, and at last they are beginning to understand this and to accept it as a fair condition under the circumstances in which they find themselves; that is to say prisoners of war.”
But Kippen’s headaches were about to get worse. After weeks of complaining to him, the prisoners who refused to behave as such had complained to a higher authority. Finally, someone had listened.
September 23, 1940
“Warned today to be ready of a Court of Inquiry into losses of baggage by the prisoners. The baggage question has been a headache right from the beginning and all of the trouble seems to have been caused by allowing the prisoners to bring so much baggage.”
Perhaps the real trouble lay in the wording. The men interned at Ile-aux-Noix may have been refugees, internees, Class C, Class II, or even enemy aliens, Kippen’s prisoners refused to be treated as anything other than people.
On September 25, 1940 a court of inquiry was assembled at Ile-aux-Noix by order of Brigadier J.P Archambault to look into the matter of the stolen baggage. Twelve witnesses would speak for the military, and nearly 20 internees were ready to present their cases. The camp leaders had canvassed every internee, and the court was presented with a 17-page document listing every item each person had lost.
From the very beginning, it was easy to guess what the verdict would be. Much of the evidence hung on a single word. Prisoner.
Major Cathcart, who was in charge of all internment camps in the district, was given the most time on the stand. He was quick to point out that on the day “the prisoners” (as he called them in testimony) arrived, he had no idea that they were coming or who they were. Somehow, the official notification had gone astray, he explained. He only found out the prisoners were coming because he had sent a team of interpreters to meet a boat some days before and when one of the interpreters returned, he told Cathcart that the others were staying on to meet the Sobieski.
Cathcart testified that he immediately phoned to find out if it was true that POWs were coming in. He was told no.
Really? None for the camp at Ile-aux-Noix?
“Oh, yes,” the person on the phone said. Their train had left an hour ago. They’d be at St. Valentine Station in a matter of hours.
Here, the inquiry records are interesting. Cathcart was asked if he had used the word internees when he phoned. He said he hadn’t; he had called them POWs. Although Cathcart did not suggest it, this may be why he was first told that no POWs were on their way. It was only when he mentioned the name of the camp that he was told the men were on the way.
Did he simply assume they were dangerous Nazi soldiers?
Did he not understand the distinction between Class I and Class II POW? Or did the person on the phone not clarify it for him?
Whatever the case, Kippen’s war diary for the clearly states that Cathcart told him to expect 273 POWs Class II that evening.
On the stand, Cathcart was asked: “When and how did you find out, and from whom, the real nature of the POWs – that is to say that they were Internees?”
He replied, “I did not find out until I met the train… and found out what they were.”
But by then, Cathcart had already made arrangements for 250 guards to surround the train and ensure that none of the “dangerous lot” got away. The town of St. Valentine must have been a flurry of activity as the armed troops assembled and locals gathered to get a look at these hated Huns. Across from Ile-aux-Noix, the scene would have been the same. There were scores of civilian workers heading back and forth from the island, and word must have spread like wildfire. In the days before television, no one would want to miss this dramatic scene.
“We made every arrangement as if they were the most dangerous type of Prisoner of War. They were well guarded,” Cathcart testified.
When the train arrived at St. Valentine, locals looking for a show were not disappointed. Two hundred and seventy-three men stepped off the train, and were immediately told to give up any knives, scissors, or other sharp implements they had. These were thrown into a box. A team of the prisoners was set to work emptying the baggage cars, and the locals watched as trucks hauled away first the prisoners, and then their belongings. Five trucks had to make two trips each to carry all the bags. Could some of the guards or local have taken a small trophy – say, a Nazi’s knife – as the trucks pulled away? Perhaps. Some of the luggage “was in a damaged condition” when it arrived on the beach across from the camp, another Major testified. But he told Kippen he would look after it until help arrived.
Of course, Kippen had other things on his mind, so once the bags arrived in the early hours of the morning, they were just left. “No guard could be placed over it on the Island,” the commandant testified. “The compound was not quite ready and all available personnel was fully engaged in looking after prisoners. No guards were therefore available for other than the most essential duties.” Whether Kippen was naïve enough to think that all the locals working on the island, the hastily recruited guards, and even his own men wouldn’t be tempted by these mountains of bags is immaterial. Whether he didn’t care what happened to prisoners’ belongings, whether he was annoyed at whoever had allowed them to bring all the luggage, or whether the bags were simply a very, very low security priority for him will likely never be known. The fact was that bags were left unattended and unprotected.
Someone did think to cover the bags to protect them from the pouring rain. “They used all available tarpaulins, but the pile of baggage was so large that some have been left uncovered,” Kippen’s testimony states.
Cathcart seemed to dismiss the idea that any soldiers would possibly have looted the baggage. Instead, he said, any damage they suffered was the fault of the prisoners for bringing so much material such cheap suitcases.
“My own personal opinion was that from the pressure of the heavy bags one on top of another the bags folded and, from the rain, burst at the folds, which would make it appear as if they had been cut with a knife,” he said.
Kippen also testified that some of the bags “had simply fallen apart due to the poor quality and flimsiness of their fabrics.”“There were at that time a great many civilian workmen on the Island, going back and forth from the mainland,” Cathcart concluded. “They may, or may not, have rifled that baggage when it was split open like that.”
Could Cathcart really have believed that the bags simply looked they had been forced open or slit because of the sheer weight – weight that the prisoners should never had been allowed to bring? Could he really have believed that the civilians were the only ones to blame, and that they wouldn’t have been tempted if the bags had held up better?
Whatever the case, the court bought it.
“A material fact is that a good many, if not all, of these pieces of luggage were made of poor fabrics, which could hardly stand the wear and tear incidental to travelling by land and sea” the inquiry concluded. Furthermore, “Civilians have sometimes peculiar ideas about the treatment of POWs.”
As for the confusion over who the prisoners were, the court bought that, too. “The confusion would be avoided as to the character of the prisoners – a lot of dangerous Nazis being expected instead of internees or prisoners of war Class II. All arrangements centered about the safe delivery of prisoners to their destination, which was carried out without a hitch.” Furthermore, the court found that reasonable plans were made to deal with the amount of baggage they could have expected.
But the amount of baggage brought was still an issue for the court. “Inasmuch as these were prisoners of war, it is on record they had been permitted to bring an unduly large amount of baggage all the way from England to their final destination” it concluded. In other words, even if the internees were Class II POWs, they were still prisoners, not refugees.
The internees must have felt that they were being treated as prisoners during the inquiry, too. Although nearly 20 showed up to testify, not even half were allowed to. After the ninth internee testified (Herman Strien, Prisoner No 182, the record shows) the court decided that the rest would not be able to add anything new, and brought them all forward. They were asked if they could make a charge directly against anyone, and when they couldn’t, they were dismissed.
“It was explained to them that it was a serious offence under British and Canadian Military Law for any member of His Majesty’s forces to steal and that anyone found guilty of such an act would be severely dealt with,” the record states. In other words, the court would need strong evidence that pointed to someone. And that someone had to be a military person. Otherwise, nothing would be done.
“The prisoners of war Class II have suffered the loss of personal effects,” the court concluded. However, “no clear evidence was given to show exactly how and where the alleged loss or pilfering occurred.” The bags had been handled many times on the journey from England, and anyone could have done it, the court decided.
To make it worse, the court added insult to injury.
“There is room for doubt, however, as to the nature and extent of such loss. Detailed lists were submitted by prisoners of the various articles which they claim to have lost. It would be natural for them to exaggerate their losses if only to draw sympathy and obtain perhaps some for or other of compensation.”
In the final analysis, the court found the loss of any items was no one’s fault, except maybe the civilians’. The military did everything right under the circumstances, and even though things had actually been stolen, the prisoners had brought too much stuff in cheap suitcases. Not only that, the Jews were exaggerating their claims. Maybe the local police would help find some of the things, the Court concluded.
Kippen’s war diary shows exactly what came of the proceedings. On the day of the inquiry, it states “This was a very wearing day as inquiries went on from early morning until late in the evening. The Court encountered the same difficulties as had been experienced before in trying to find out where and under what circumstances the damage and losses to the prisoners’ baggage occurred. It is all very difficult.”
No further mention was made.
The inquiry quieted things down
The matter of the baggage seems to have gone quiet for some time after the inquiry. During the time, many things had changed at the camp.
Eventually, Kippen accepted that his charges really were Jewish, and he made enquiries about getting them kosher food and prayer gowns, and allowing visits from various rabbis. By the fall they were allowed mail, newspapers, and even a radio. A school was set up for the younger internees, and several – including Alfred Bader– went on to write matriculation exams at McGill University. However, Kippen still refused to accept the Orthodox Jews’ refusal to work on Saturdays and many were sent to detention for it. Kippen was eventually assigned to oversee the creation of a new camp at Farnham, and several of the guards went with him. When a new commandant took over, the language in the camp diary changed, too. It no longer referred to prisoners. Now, the camp housed internees.
The issue of that word “prisoners”, and the Court of Inquiry was raised again in March 1941. The Director of Internment Operations sent a letter to the Department of Defence referencing the inquiry’s report and stating firmly that it had sent notification to Cathcart’s office more than a week before the internees had arrived back in July of 1940. It clearly stated that the men arriving were internees. “No mention was made of prisoners of war,” it stated.
It would seem that the report on the inquiry had been making the rounds, and someone was trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
The letter ended by reminding the Department of Defence that the Court of Inquiry last September had recommended that the matter be turned over to police.
Had anything been done?
Two months later, on May 17, the RCMP sent a note reminding the Department of Defence that they said before the inquiry had started that the matter was nothing to do with them. “Will you kindly refer to memorandum dated August 31 1940 and my letter of September 19th, 1940…wherein our Commissioner expressed the opinion that this was a matter for the provincial police to investigate. Of course, no further action was taken by this force.”
Two days after that, the Quebec Provincial Police were sent a note. Had they done anything about the investigation?
The reply is clear from a June 9 internal memo of the Department of Defence. No, it states. Everyone had “taken it for granted that this matter had been turned over the RCMP.”
It wasn’t until July 9, 1941 that QPP officer Leon Pronovost started his investigation. At this point, the case was nearly a year old. A few weeks before, Ottawa had officially recognized all the Class II POWs as refugees, and many had been released. However, the camp was still occupied, and there was no doubt the local people would have remembered the day their neighbours across the river had arrived.
In his official report, Pronovost recalls starting his investigation at St. Paul de Ile-aux-Noix – the town right across from the camp. He simply arrived and asked if anyone remembered anything. They did.
Charles Schwende, the proprietor of local hotel, remembered the time vividly. He said a man called Eugene Duclos had come in with an umbrella, a tube of shaving cream, a jar of face cream and a prayer book printed in German. Schwende was Swiss, so he could read the prayer book and the writing on the creams. There wasn’t much doubt where the things had come from.
Schwende still had the umbrella, and handed it over.
At another hotel, Georges A. Daniel remembered that a man by the name of Trochei had tried to sell him a pocket watch and a wrist watch. “These watches were from the internees’ luggage,” the report states.
Villager Roland Lemieux was the first to give Pronovost a first-hand account. “The second day, after the luggage had been place at the spot (on the island), the guards and employees of the National Defence Department started to search them and to upset everything,” the report reads.
“The guards were smashing the luggage open with their feet and bayonets and everybody were (sic) helping themselves. Some were throwing effects in the water, others took some suits of clothes, watches, rare articles and all kinds of things. They were packing them up and then taking them away. A military engineer by the name of Gaudreault, who was in charge of the men and the works, was himself searching through the luggage and took some articles away to his home in St. Johns. There was another boss, by the name of Sylvain Smith, who was helping himself like the others. A man by the name of Trochei stole some clothing and two complete suits of clothes. A man named Quintin took knives, scissors and other little articles. A man named Mayrand, of St Johns, also took something.”
Pronovost now had a witness and names.
The men he tracked down the next day confessed. Sylvain Smith admitted taking an electric razor and a valuable knife. His brother stole some silver cutlery in a leather case.
Trochei’s sworn statement perhaps gives some insight into why these men thought nothing of stealing from the mountain of luggage, which must have seemed like a treasure trove. He also remembered seeing soldiers and civilians rifling through the bags, and he himself joined in, opened a suitcase, and stole the clothes from it.
“Are you ready to give back these articles?” Pronovost asked him?
“Yes, except the trousers and the shirt that I am wearing,” Trochei answered. “They belong to the prisoners, but I have nothing else to wear.”
Mayrand didn’t admit to taking anything, but he remembered that the luggage seemed fine the morning after the prisoners’ arrival. In a sworn statement, he said “the luggage was on the island’s shore, covered with a canvas, and everything seemed to be in good order. The following day, I reported at the island for work along with the other employees around 7:00 am. The canvas had been pulled up and several suitcases seemed to have been broken up.” He remembered men telling him what they had taken. Thretreault took watches, fountain pens, pencils, and clothes, he said. He remembered Smith and his brother, the silver cutlery, and the knife. A man by the name of Bebe Labonte stole a piano accordion, he said, sold it in town, and then came back for more.
Pronovost found Bebe Labonte at home that afternoon. He actually handed over to Pronovost “a pair of black shoes, a leather paper case, a razor in a leather case, and a jackknife.” He admitted he’d sold the accordion for $15 to a man named Longtin, so Pronovost tracked him down, too. Longtin said he’d also sold the accordion long ago, but he could probably get it back.
The previous year’s military inquiry, held two months after the internees’ arrival, had concluded that “in view of the time elapsed, the Court and unable to entertain much hope in respect of a successful search for and return of lost property.” Yet a year later, a single QPP officer had turned up names, witnesses, and even had some of the stolen property in his hands. All this after a two-day investigation.
“Many of the articles mentioned in the attached list exist no more,” he wrote in his report, “but there are several valuable articles which could be found on further investigation.”
The rest of the report was damning.
“The persons I questioned stated that they were helping themselves as they liked and that nobody was interfering, and that their superiors were going through the luggage likewise,” Provonost states.
“It is therefore proven that the articles noted by the prisoners have been stolen at Ile-aux-Noix by the soldiers, the members of the Veteran’s Home Guard, and the employees of the National Defence Department, and the officers in charge are to be blamed for what occurred.”
Was blame ever assigned?
If it was, Alfred Bader certainly never knew about it. Four months later, he was released from the camp into the care of a Montreal man named Martin Wolff, and soon after Bader began studies at Queen’s University. Before he left the camp, though, he had to sign a piece of paper declaring he had no claims whatsoever against the Canadian government. If Pronovost or anyone else ever tracked down his blue Harris Tweed coat, blue and white shirt, brown shoes, and the book of stamps he had brought from Austria, Alfred never found out.
The only person known to have received any of his items back was Jonas Mikler, Prisoner No 26. He was reunited with his umbrella, handed over by the Swiss hotelier.
Would Bebe Labonte have helped himself to a white piano accordion with brass springs and a brown case if he knew that it belonged to man named Kurt Laser, not just a nameless prisoner of war?
Would any of the civilians and soldiers have looted the bags if they had known the owners were escaping from Hitler, the same enemy Canadians were fighting?
What if Cathcart had realized he was getting refugees, not Nazis, and hadn’t set in motion a circus of 250 soldiers to guard them?
Or if Kippen hadn’t been so busy arming the camp and guarding the “dangerous lot” to wonder why they had been allowed to bring so much baggage? What if Britain hadn’t been so rash in rounding up all the German and Austrian nationals in south-east England and shipping them off? If someone, somewhere, hadn’t decided to call them Prisoners of War, Class II so they would fit into the provisions set down in the Geneva Convention?
It’s impossible to tell.
Great Britain eventually admitted its mistake and began repatriating some of the internees for reclassification. In mid-November 1940, Camp I at Ile-aux-Noix was officially designated a refugee camp and the guards stopped carrying rifles.
Some of the former internees of the camps across Canada have since noted that even though they were treated badly, the internment – unfair as it was – was far better than the fate of others. They were well fed. They were allowed to educate themselves. And they were alive. Countless Jewish refugees were denied entry to Canada and other countries during the war, and millions died at the hands of the Nazis. The changing of a single word – refugee to prisoner – had allowed the internees into Canada. And the country is undoubtedly richer for their acceptance.
Many of the former internees went on to positions of prominence in business and academics, and even while in the camp itself, the internees followed the Jewish tradition of philanthropy, donating what little money they had to people even worse off than themselves. Alfred Bader was no exception. As is well known to the Queen’s community, he graduated from Queen’s with degrees in both chemistry and history. He made his first donation his alma mater with a legacy of $1,000 he inherited from Martin Wolff, the man who had sponsored Alfred to have him released from the camp.
Alfred earned a PhD from Harvard and went on to co-found Aldrich Chemicals, and since leaving Aldrich he has dedicated his life to philanthropy and collecting art. He and his wife Isabel have for years been gracious and influential benefactors in the arts, humanitarian work, and academia. In 1993, they gave Queen’s money to purchase Herstmonceux Castle and create the International Study Centre in East Sussex, England. In the process, their gift acted as a catalyst for the University’s burgeoning international education programs. They have also donated two Rembrandts and many old master paintings to the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery, funded a chair in chemistry and many scholarships, and recently have given a donation for the creation of a world-class performing art centre at the University.
Alfred often says that he learned three things at Queen’s university: he learned to be a good chemist; he learned that Christians can be good people; and he learned that most Canadians are honest. “I did not know that until I came to Queen’s,” he says.
The theft of a suitcase from a frightened 16-year-old refugee seems inconsequential now, but it is a powerful symbol. Similarly, a single word can be a powerful thing.
Perhaps more powerful still is the act of refusing to accept a word – an official designation – that is intended to marginalize, dehumanize,