Irving Abella, author of ‘None is too Many’, dies at 82
Historian Irving Abella, co-author of a seminal book on the Canadian government’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, has died.
Abella died on Sunday, the day after her 82nd birthday, after a long illness.
He was born and raised in Toronto and earned his BA, MA and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.
His 1982 book, “None is too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948”, co-authored with Harold Troper, brought to light the largely untold story of Canada’s anti-immigrant policies toward persecuted Jews and helped persuade future governments to welcome migrants fleeing war.
Between the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Canada accepted only 5,000 Jewish refugees – a legacy that Abella and Troper called “the worst record ever.” any nation in the world.”
This was particularly evident in the case of the MS St. Louis which, in 1939, was denied the right to disembark its passengers in Cuba and the United States. Some Canadians tried to convince Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to allow the ship to dock in Halifax, but this was rejected by Fredrick Blair, an official in charge of the government’s immigration service at the time. Abella and Troper revealed in “None is too Many” that Blair had a particular distaste for Jews and was the architect of highly restrictive immigration policies, all with the full support of King’s liberal government.
By Abella’s own admission, “None is Too Many” was never meant to be more than an academic text detailing a particularly dark period in Canadian history. It has since become much more than that, not the least of which is the entry of the phrase “none is too much” into the Canadian lexicon. In Abella’s own words, the book has become “an ethical standard against which contemporary government policies are measured”.
To that end, advance copies of some of the book’s chapters were sent to former Immigration Minister Ron Atkey in the late 1970s, just as Canadians were debating what the country should do, the appropriate, about the Vietnamese refugee crisis that became known as Boat People. After reading these chapters and learning of Canada’s deplorable treatment of European Jews, Atkey vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and Canada welcomed tens of thousands of new citizens.
The book won the 1983 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category.
Abella also strongly criticized Canada’s post-war acceptance of thousands of Nazi collaborators and war criminals, particularly members of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, made up of Ukrainian nationalists and fascists.
In a 1997 interview with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes,” Abella said entering Canada was relatively straightforward for SS members, as their trademark tattoos reliably indicated they were anti-Communists.
Abella is also the author of “Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada”, an important text chronicling the history of the Jews in Canada, as well as several key texts on the history of the labor movement in Canada. He spent his career teaching history at York University and served as the Shiff Professor of Canadian Jewish History towards the end of his career.
Abella has also been active outside of academia, serving as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995 and as president of VisionTV, a religious specialty television channel.
“Irving Abella was a quintessential Canadian Jewish leader,” said Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress and current president of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “He was wise, articulate, engaging, bold and forward-thinking. His inspiring leadership has become his legacy. For me, he was my mentor and my teacher. May his memory always be for a blessing.
Abella was married to Rosalie Silberman Abella, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who was not only the first Jewish woman, but also the first refugee to serve on the Supreme Court of Canada. They have two sons, Jacob and Zachary.
Abella was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and a Member of the Order of Ontario in 2014. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and received the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal in 2002.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 4, 2022.