In 1768, about a hundred Sephardic Jews emigrated from England to Montreal and founded the first Jewish congregation in British North America.
The small community grew slowly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries before welcoming a large influx of sixty thousand Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe between 1901 and 1931. By the 1930s, Yiddish-speaking Jews made up the third-largest linguistic group in Montreal.
Polish immigrant Harry Cohen was one of those who had come to Canada seeking a welcoming new home. In the summer of 1939, Cohen returned to Poland to take care of some family related matters, but he was unable to leave Europe due to the outbreak of the Second World War on September 1. He attempted to hide but was discovered and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he is believed to have died. Harry Cohen is the only known Canadian victim of the Nazi concentration camps. This prayer shawl — or tallit in Hebrew — is one of his personal effects that was returned to the Cohen family after the war. It is currently part of the artifacts collection of the Montreal Holocaust Museum
Anti-Semitism was widespread during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Montreal Jews saw their businesses boycotted and their access to housing and employment restricted on a discriminatory basis. After 1950, Montreal welcomed many immigrants and refugees who had lived through the war, and the city, like other large centres in Canada, became increasingly more diverse.
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