In December 1940, refugees in Northern Ontario’s Camp R were still living alongside Nazis. While Jewish prisoners struggled to obtain a rabbi and Chanukah candles, the Nazis were provided with both Catholic and Protestant clergy, received numerous parcels and erected a large Christmas tree and lights.
In the other camps, Jews were in the majority. Orthodox Jews struggled with the administration to gain kosher food and exemption from work on the Jewish Sabbath. The normative group was composed of Jews who identified themselves ethnically and were mildly observant. Others were defined as Jewish according the Nazis’ racial laws but considered themselves atheists or had converted to Christianity. For some, the Jewishness of internment life – the religious discussions and instruction available – brought them back to their roots, and their shared persecution led many to a stronger Jewish identity.
For all who wished to participate, there was a vibrant religious life available, both Jewish and Christian. Internment offered a remarkable freedom of religious choice. The non Jewish political refugees were mostly socialists and clergy. Many of the Roman Catholic clergy were missionaries whose attempts to convert the Jews led to hostility among the prisoners. Yet they were given special treatment by the administration, which noted that, unlike the Jews, Catholics knew how to suffer stoically and, unlike the leftists, without demands.