Obituary: Irving Abella, 82, was a Canadian historian who revealed why Canada kept Jews out during the Holocaust

Irving Abella speaks at the launch of Jewish Heritage Month. [Leigh Brown photo]
Irving Abella has died at the age of 82. (File photo)

Irving Abella, who with fellow historian Harold Troper, became a household name in Canada for his withering indictment of this country’s war-era animus toward Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Europe, died July 3 after a long illness. He had just turned 82 years old.

The title of Abella and Troper’s 1983 bestseller, None is Too Many, entered the Canadian Jewish lexicon as bywords for Ottawa’s dismal policy of barely admitting any Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and occupied Europe before, during and even after the Second World War.

Contrary to some beliefs, the since-popularized phrase did not come from then Prime Minister Mackenzie King or the director of Ottawa’s immigration branch, Frederick Charles Blair, but from an unidentified bureaucrat who was asked by reporters in early 1939 how many Jews would be admitted to Canada, and then gave the infamous reply.

Though considered a compassionate and open country, Canada effectively shut its doors to Jewish immigration at the time, admitting a “paltry” 5,000 Jews between 1933 and 1948, Abella and Troper’s seminal book noted. Canada’s record was “the worst,” it boldly stated.

In 1968, Abella married Rosalie Silberman, who would take her husband’s name and go onto a storied, 17-year career as the first Jewish woman and refugee to serve as a justice on Canada’s Supreme Court. They were among Canada’s best-known Jewish “power couples.” She retired from the court last year, when she turned 75.

Irving Abella “was among the first generation of professional scholars to take up Canadian Jewish subjects, and his writings and findings left an indelible print on the now-mature and professionalized field,” lauded David Koffman, holder of the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry and an associate history professor at York University, in a tribute to Abella, on his 80th birthday.

“Abella is arguably the scholar with the largest imprint on Canadian Jewish studies.”

A professor of history at York University from 1968 to 2013, Abella helped pioneer the field of Canadian labour history. His published works included Nationalism, Communism and Canadian Labour (1973) and On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919-1949 (1974). He co-edited the volume The Canadian Worker in the Twentieth Century (1978).

In 1990, he published A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada to accompany an exhibit of the same name that year at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

Abella served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1992 to 1995.

In 1993, he was inducted into the Order of Canada. “His writings and lectures have helped us to appreciate the rich and diverse roots of our country, and broadened our understanding of the contributions generations of immigrants have made to Canada,” the award noted.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and also chair of Vision TV.

Abella will be remembered for both his scholarship and his community activism, said Ira Robinson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the department of religions and cultures at Concordia University.

“As a scholar, he will be most remembered for None is Too Many, co-authored with Harold Troper.  Clearly indicting the Canadian government of the pre-Second World War era with callousness (to say the least) toward Jewish refugees from Nazi domination hoping to come to Canada, None Is Too Many is one of the very few academic books that influenced Canadian national discourse and policy-making in the area of refugees. 

“Abella was a Jewish community activist as well,” Robinson said. “He will perhaps be best remembered for his leadership of Canadian Jewish Congress, but he was equally significant as one of the prime builders of the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University.”  

Author Franklin Bialystok recalled Abella as a “scholar, teacher and most significantly a mensch.”

“Irving took me under his wing, introduced me to scholars and historians, wrote to Oxford on my behalf where I spent a year on sabbatical, and ultimately was my supervisor for my doctorate, Delayed Impact:  The Holocaust and the Canadian Jewish Community. Irv was patient, and saw the thesis through its publication.”

Irving Abella was born July 2, 1940. The couple has two adult sons, Jacob and Zachary, both lawyers, and several grandchildren. Funeral services are set for July 5 in Toronto.