Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I was standing at the edge of a canal in Amsterdam, taking a photo of the houses along the Nieuwe Keizersgracht, when I noticed an engraved metal plaque near my feet.  It had names on it, dates and places that stood out: Auschwitz, Sobibor, Westerbork.

Jewish memorial on the Nieuwe Keizersgracht

The memorial was conceived as a neighbourhood project by residents who realized that the houses they were now living in were once the homes of a Jewish populace, a community almost completely obliterated during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.   Between 1941 and 1944, thousands of  Jews living in the Plantage district of Amsterdam were rounded up and deported by train to concentration camps in Germany.  Many died in the gas chambers or from disease, malnutrition or maltreatment at the hands of the oppressors.  Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands, approximately 34,000 survived the war.  Those who returned to Amsterdam found their homes either destroyed or occupied by new families, many of whom were Dutch NSB (Nazi collaborators.)
The house at Nieuwe Keizersgracht 12 - a heritage building

The poignant reminder of residents expelled from just one building on one street in Amsterdam brings to light the enormous loss of history and culture, personal and collective, that occurs when one group decides to eliminate another.  On this side of the Atlantic, in the southeastern part of N.B. where I live, expulsion and deportation happened in 1755 when the British gained control of Fort Beausejour and wrestled power away from French forces.  When the resident Acadian population (farm families who had been settled in the area for 100 years) refused to pledge allegiance to the British crown, Colonel Charles Lawrence took a drastic approach, ordering his troops to forcibly expel all Acadians from the region.  "If fair means will not do you must proceed with the most vigorous measures possible, not only compelling them to embark, but in depriving any who may escape of all means of shelter and support by burning their houses and destroying everything that may afford them the means of subsistence in the country."

Ships hired from a Boston mercantile firm were loaded with groups of up to 300 Acadian men, women and children.  The vessels embarked from Chignecto Isthmus near Sackville N.B. and sailed to ports in the Thirteen Colonies - Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, New York, South Carolina, and Georgia.  No passenger manifests were kept, so we have few personal details of the families deported, but it is estimated that 11,500 individuals were sent out of the Maritime provinces.  Many died aboard the ships due to overcrowded conditions and epidemics.

The amazing part of the "Grand Derangement" is that 3000 of the surviving Acadians came back to the region ten years later.  Unfortunately they found that their farms had been taken over by the "Planters" from New England and a number of Yorkshire gentlemen who had been granted land by the British government.  One famed cartographer employed by the British Navy, Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, claimed ownership to 80,000 acres of prime land.

The re-settlement of displaced Acadians brought life to uninhabited areas of New Brunswick, especially the places where soil was poor, and farming was hardscrabble.  They adapted to new circumstances, became fishermen and established the smoke houses and fish processing plants that still operate in coastal villages of N.B.

When I stood on the street in Amsterdam reading that list of names, the loss of Mokum's rich Jewish heritage was keenly felt.  By contrast the full Acadian story, an account of the successful founding of the first European settlement in Canada and its horrific destruction, has never been adequately commemorated.  Perhaps we haven't really come to terms with that sad chapter in our history.

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