The Cold War’s Canadian Jewish Spies
It was August 1943. Only six months earlier the Red Army had defeated the Germans at Stalingrad. That month the first and only representative of the Communist Party to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons won a predominantly Jewish, working class district in Montreal. Fred Rose, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Poland, took the district with 5,789 votes—150 ballots more than the anti-Semitic leaning Quebec Nationalist Party, the Bloc Populaire.
During the days when the Soviet Union was Canada’s close friend and ally, when it was winning the war on the Eastern Front, and when the Soviet flag flew from the rooftop of one of Montreal’s department stores, it seemed likely that the Communists would be triumphant in at least one of the country’s urban districts.
Rose ran his campaign on local issues and by drumming home the familiar Marxist rhetoric about freeing the working class from the clutches of bourgeois oppression. Four years earlier, in 1939, he’d thrown his support behind the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, as he was ordered to do by party leaders. In this earlier election, Rose was proud to proclaim: “Do Not Vote for Any Candidate Who Supports the Imperialist Slaughter.” He and his comrades argued that Canada, which entered the war against Germany with the British, should withdraw from the conflict.
Rose, who was an engaging speaker as well as well as a devotee of the Moscow line, claimed that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government “had set up a dictatorial regime” and that the election was “no better than one of Hitler’s plebiscites.”
Membership in the Canadian Communist Party was at an all time high. After surviving the Great Depression, Canadian Jews were faced with Hitler’s rise to power. Some Jewish Canadians began to see Communism as a reasonable way to stop the spread of fascism. In a torrent of polemical theatrics, Rose and members of his campaign team made a point of demonstrating in front of synagogues in the largely Jewish district of Cartier, eating pork sandwiches and chanting in Yiddish, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Much of what occurred in Montreal during the summer of 1943 has gone unrecorded—except for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police documents that describe these events—and the only reason I know about it is that my father, Harry Wayne, was a member of Rose’s campaign committee, an ardent member of the Communist Party himself and a labor organizer. Like Rose, my father was searching for answers. He was born along the undulating border between Poland and Russia. As an adolescent, he’d witnessed both the White and the Red armies ride into his shtetl of Nesvicz. Two of his older brothers were murdered in pogroms.
By the time I was in secondary school during the 1960s, and long after he’d left the Communist Party, my father began telling me about his shocking exploits in Montreal with Rose and the ring of Canadian spies run by Moscow. It’s not that he was proud of who he’d been or what he’d done. On the contrary; I believe he was attempting to absolve himself of the guilt he felt for supporting Soviet Communism, and as a rebellious adolescent myself, he’d hoped I might understand why he and his comrades took the ideological path that they did. “We thought we were helping the war effort,” my father confessed to me. “We would have done anything to defeat the Nazis.”
Rose and his band of predominantly Jewish Communist party members were intent on gathering information from Chalk River, a nuclear laboratory, situated north of Ottawa, where the first prototype of a nuclear reactor, “The Zeep,” was developed. Stalin didn’t want to fall behind the Allie’s race to construct the first atomic bomb. This spy ring was actively run by Fred Rose from his official office on Parliament Hill and operated under the direction of Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, the NKVD military attaché stationed at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa.
The question I ask myself is: Why would Jews have supported the Soviet Union during the early years of World War II? With news filtering in about Nazi death camps and the massacre of the Jewish population in Poland, the Ukraine and Belarus after June 1941, it’s difficult to imagine how their allegiance to the Moscow-run Communist Party weathered the non-aggression pact and survived until the 20th Congress of the Communist Party when Khrushchev denounced Stalin.
The reason, I suspect, was that anti-Semitism in Canada was so deeply entrenched in the government policy before, during and after the war that many Canadian Jews felt that they had a better chance of survival by giving themselves over to Soviet Communism. However misguided their believes turned out to be, there was already solid evidence that the Canadian government was refusing to help the victims of Hitler’s terror to immigrate to Canada as refugees and that this strict policy wasn’t under review. Even after the war, only a trickle of Jewish survivors was allowed entry into the country.
In Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s landmark study, None is Too Many, the authors detail how Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the virulently anti-Semitic Frederick Blair, the man the prime minister chose to run immigration policy, blocked entry of Jewish immigrants into Canada. Filed under the “Jewish Question,” this policy was emulated by the United States.
Writing in the Macon Telegraph, Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised Canadian immigration policy which “prevents large groups of foreign born from congregating in any one locality,” and added, “If twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities.”
According to the Canadian Jewish News, in 1942 the government “reluctantly agreed to permit 1,000 French war orphans into the country.” Yet by the time the paperwork was processed by Ottawa, it was too late. Passage to Canada was frozen by the Vichy government and the fate of these Jewish children was sealed.
Earlier, in 1939, Canada, along with the United States and Cuba, refused entry to the 900 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis and the ship, which originally sailed from Hamburg, turned back across the Atlantic to Europe. Although some of the refugees were accepted in various European countries, a quarter of them perished in concentration camps.
My father, one among many Jewish members of the Communist Party during the darkest days of the war, believed that the only way to survive the Nazi catastrophe was to support and eventually immigrate to Birobidzhan, the autonomous Siberian region near the Chinese border that Stalin gave to the Jews in 1928 as part of his policy to endear himself to minority groups in Russia.
Recently, when reading from my novel, an elderly member of the audience rose to tell his own story: “When I was naughty my mother threatened to leave me in Canada when our family moved Birobidzhan. That was our only hope, so I did as I was told for fear I’d be left behind.”
After Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk at the Ottawa embassy, stuffed 200 secret documents in his shirt, and fled the building, revealing Moscow’s atomic espionage capers in Canada, Fred Rose and his band of spies, mostly Jewish, were rounded up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and held without habeas corpus until they were convicted of treason and sent to prison. After six years in a maximum-security penitentiary, Rose was sent to Poland where he died a celebrated Soviet hero.
Joyce Wayne’s historical espionage novel, Last Night of the World, is about the Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko’s defection to Canada in 1945 and its affect on Jewish members of the Communist Party. Gouzenko’s revelations prompted retaliatory action by the U.S. and British governments that many believe launched the Cold War.