What Did Holocaust Survivors Do After Liberation? Part Two: Immigration, Children, and Choosing to Stay

This post is part one of a series of posts adapted from a research paper that I wrote during my sophomore year of undergrad. This is not meant to be an exhaustive look at postwar Europe but it’s meant to provide insight into the conditions Jewish Holocaust survivors faced and their actions following liberation. For part one, about DP camps, please click here.

Postwar Destruction

Postwar destruction, southern Germany. Image via my family archives.

Survivors in DP camps worked to locate surviving family members, pouring over lists of survivors posted at the camps and published in camp newspapers. Jewish Organizations were instrumental with this method, compiling lists of survivors on carbon paper so several copies could be made at once. When someone left the town or camp, they took copies and distributed them on their journey. UNRRA (United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration) also helped reunite families as they kept records survivors could search. In addition, a word of mouth telegraph system had been developed to carry messages across international borders since mail and phone usage was reserved for military use only.

Landsberg DP Camp Chart

A handwritten chart listing children by nationality at Landsberg DP camp. Image via USHMM.

Many survivors spent the first months and years after liberation trying to obtain the paperwork and permissions needed to immigrate and by 1952, over 80,000 Jewish DPs had immigrated to the United States. While the US was popular with survivors, it was the second choice. In an April 1945 poll of 138,320 DPs in all three occupation zones, 118,570 (almost 85%) said the country they’d most like to immigrate to was Palestine. It was viewed as the promised land where a Jewish state could be developed but the British government (who controlled Palestine at this time) banned Jewish immigration to Palestine, a policy that was met with much resentment.

DPs Protesting British Immigration Policy

A group of displaced persons in Landsberg DP camp protesting Britain’s immigration policy to Palestine. Image via USHMM.

Lucille Eichengreen’s first choice was Palestine but after finding out the only way she could get there was by marrying her cousin, she decided to immigrate to the US. Lucille, who spent time living and working in a British DP camp, was lucky enough to have British troops escort her from Germany to Brussels, Belgium and then put her on a train to Paris. Once she arrived in Paris, she immediately went to

lucille eichengreen

Lucille in 2006. Image via Der Spiegel.

the American embassy to begin the immigration process. She had friends in New York who sent an affidavit for her but that wasn’t nearly enough. Lucille also needed a health certificate, a current passport, a second affidavit, and $600 for passage to New York City. This seems like standard travel procedure and, except for the affidavits, it is. But being a Holocaust survivor, Lucille had no identification. Upon arrival at any concentration camp, victims were stripped of their belongings, paperwork included. Because of this, virtually no survivors had identification. She was nervous about obtaining a health certificate as she, like many others, had contracted TB during her time in concentration camps. She was of Polish descent but was born and raised in Germany, therefore, the Polish embassy refused her request multiple times. Lucille stood in line at the American and Polish embassies every day to see what progress had been made on her requests. After over eight weeks, Lucille finally had the paperwork necessary to immigrate to the US. The second affidavit came from her uncle in San Francisco and the $600 from another uncle in Palestine. She finally made it to California in 1949. Today she is 92 years old.

Even traveling from country to country within Europe wasn’t a feat. If a survivor chose to leave a DP camp to immigrate, they faced rigorous laws no matter what occupation zone they happened to be in or where they wanted to go. Primo Levi wrote about Starye Dorogi’s “open camp” status, saying, “Although the camp was neither guarded nor fenced, the distant frontiers were, and strongly so.” Many left the camp, and many returned because borders could not be crossed. It was almost out of the question without passports, birth certificates, or being escorted by Allied troops.

While the majority of survivors wanted to leave Europe as quickly as possible, a small number of survivors chose to stay in Germany. This was a decision that most Jews and Jewish organizations looked down upon, to say the least. How could anyone stay in the country that killed over six million Jews, nearly wiping them out of Europe completely? The answers to that question are varied. Some chose to stay with family members who were too sick to immigrate, some were too sick themselves, some married German spouses, some managed to rebuild their life in Germany, and, most noble of all, some wanted to rebuild Jewish culture in Germany. After all, if all Jews left, the Nazi dream of a judenrein (“cleansed of Jews”) Germany would have come to fruition.

Rebuilding Jewish communities was, as you might guess, difficult. After liberation, some towns had a Jewish population of 50 or less. It is difficult to rebuild Jewish life with no Jews. Furthermore, synagogues were not turned over to Jewish organizations and rabbis couldn’t be convinced to come to Germany. In fact, the Jewish community in Berlin didn’t have a rabbi until 1947, two years after liberation. Smaller communities had an even harder time finding and keeping a rabbi for more than a few weeks or months. As previously mentioned, those that stayed in Germany were met with hostility from fellow Jews. “Let them wait in their beloved Fatherland until their throats are slit too,” sounds like a quote from a member of the Third Reich but in fact, it’s from a “well-known German Zionist.” It was thought that if a person stayed in Germany, it must have been for material reasons. Why was it so difficult to believe that some stayed to rebuild their culture? It’s understandable that Jews did not want to stay in the country that brought them so much heartache the isolation Jews in Germany faced after the war did little to help those that chose to stay.

Young Buchenwald Survivor

A young Buchenwald survivor with a British soldier. Image via USHMM.

Postwar Europe was difficult for adults to navigate but children had a much harder time. Not many children survived the Holocaust since anyone deemed unable to work (usually children, the elderly, and the sick) were among the first to be killed upon arrival to a camp. In July 1945, the Institute of Jewish Affairs took a census of survivors in  Germany and Austria. The census included 25,000 Jewish survivors, almost 90% of whom were between 16 and 45. Only 3.6% were under 16.

Young Buchenwald Survivors

A group of young Buchenwald survivors, dressed in clothes made from German uniforms. Image via USHMM.

For the most part, children had the option to stay in a DP camp or go to an orphanage or hostel. Judith Hemmendinger studied a group of 90 child survivors of Buchenwald during their time in a Paris hostel. The children, all boys, were from Poland, Hungary, and Rumania. They took great pleasure in things we don’t even think about. Hemmendinger wrote that the boys took a train into town every week to have their pictures taken and loved to look at photos of themselves. They hadn’t seen a photo of themselves or even looked in a mirror in years so you can see how this would be very special for them. The boys also hid food in their bedrooms. Many survivors developed the habit of hoarding food as they still felt like it could be taken away at any minute. This prompted the director of the hostel to leave the kitchen open for the boys. They could have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

Children in the Bindermichl DP camp

Children in the Bindermichl DP camp in Austria, 1947. Image via USHMM.

Like all survivors, the boys frequently checked survivor lists, hoping to see familiar names. Some refused to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, because they were so hopeful that someone from their family survived. Others were sure no one survived and said the prayer. When the hostel closed in 1947, Hemmendinger said they had “regained their former identity, their physical strength, sensitiveness, and interest in life.” A small number of the boys went to Israel and a much larger number located relatives in the US and immigrated to be with them. The younger ones who had attended school in Paris for the first time stayed in Paris.

Thomas Buergenthal, a child survivor of Auschwitz, has a unique story. After liberation, Thomas, who was 11 at the time, spent time as the “mascot” for a division of the Polish army. His time with the army was short lived as a Polish soldier recognized that Thomas was Jewish (and that the army was no place for a child) and took him to an orphanage in Otwock, Poland.

Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas, approximately six months after liberation, with the soldier who took him to the orphanage. Image via USHMM.

Buergenthal wrote that he was treated “very well” in the orphanage and when a doctor diagnosed him as underweight, he enjoyed hearty meals and treats like ice cream. He wasn’t sure if he was actually an orphan, though. He watched his father die in Auschwitz but didn’t know his mother’s fate. Other children did have one or both of their parents. Those children were temporarily in the orphanage while their parent(s) rebuilt their life or were still in another country. Those that were unsure if they had surviving family members were often offered to be adopted by Jewish camp survivors. According to Buergenthal, everyone declined.

Being so young and growing up in ghettos and concentration camps, he couldn’t read or write. While still in the orphanage, he, along with the other children, attended a nearby school where he began his education. During his time in the orphanage, arrangements were made for children that were orphans to be illegally moved to Palestine. Shortly before he was to leave, his mother found and wrote him. Due to the strict border controls and unreliable mail service, it took over four months for Thomas and his mother to be reunited. The two of them went on to live in Germany until 1951 when they immigrated to the US. He went on to law school, focusing on human rights law. In 2000, he was elected the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He served on several committees dedicated to human rights and retired as emeriti faculty from the George Washington University School of Law.

When I wrote the paper that I adapted these posts from way back in 2012, I was met with lots of, “huh…I never thought about what happened after liberation.” I hope that these posts can shed a little light on the situation. As I stated at the beginning of both of these posts, this isn’t an exhaustive look at this topic by any stretch of the imagination. For more information, please check out my sources below and explore the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s resources online.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany by Michael Brenner
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Among the Survivors of the Holocaust by Irving Heymont
From Ashes to Life by Lucille Eichengreen
Before – During – After by Siegfried Halbreich
A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal

“The Children of Buchenwald: After Liberation and Now” by Judith Hemmendinger

What Did Holocaust Survivors Do After Liberation? Part One: Displaced Persons Camps

This post is part one of a series of posts adapted from a research paper that I wrote during my sophomore year of undergrad. This is not meant to be an exhaustive look at DP camps, but a look at the conditions Holocaust survivors faced and one Jewish camp in the American zone. For more information about DP camps, please visit my sources at the bottom of this post.

Life after the Holocaust isn’t a topic that comes to light very often. What did survivors do? Where did they go? Almost everyone has some knowledge of the horrors of the Third Reich but far fewer people possess knowledge of the life that waited for their victims once liberation came. It was impossible for life to go back to normal…there was no normal anymore.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, millions of Europeans were left displaced. We don’t know the exact number. Figures vary greatly, even among historians, but the task of putting the lives of the Jewish, Romani, homosexual, and political prisoners that survived concentration camps as well as the lives of Europeans displaced by war wasn’t easy.

Postwar Destruction

Destruction in postwar Europe, circa 1945. Image via my family archives.

One option that survivors had were the displaced persons camps (DP camps) set up in the occupation zones (American, Soviet, British, and French). The camps were often established in either the remains of the concentration camp or in German army barracks. They were set up by the Allies to give survivors a safe place to stay while they regained their strength, tracked down surviving family members, gathered the paperwork needed to immigrate, and/or become acclimated to life outside of a concentration camp. They were small communities with schools, synagogues/churches, hospitals, and recreation areas. This post will discuss DP camps, particularly the Landsberg DP camp near Munich, Germany in the American-occupied zone. Much of the information in this post comes from the letters of US Army Major Irving Heymont, head of the Landsberg camp from September-December 1945.

To understand what a survivor of the Holocaust faced after liberation, it’s important to understand the atmosphere in Europe, particularly Germany and Poland. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in pre-war Europe and obviously, the effects of years of Nazi propaganda were strong and didn’t immediately disappear (in some ways, it survives to this day.) Jewish survivors often faced physical and verbal attacks, known as pogroms. Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian survivor of Auschwitz, wrote, “We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us…”

Survivors who returned to their hometown to try to reclaim their pre-war property were met with “violent opposition” from the current owners of their homes. According to one of the men who witnessed such an attack, the Polish police often did nothing to stop the attackers. The events that transpired under the Third Reich paired with the residual hate left most survivors with the desire to get out of Europe as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, it took time for that to even be a possibility. In the meantime, those that stayed in DP camps found that they weren’t always the refuges they were intended to be. Major Irving Heymont, himself Jewish-American, of the US Army told the Landsberg camp committee that “the army came to Europe to fight the Nazis, not stand guard over their victims.” Heymont didn’t want to be in charge of the camp and statements like the aforementioned show his true feelings. Regardless, this attitude wasn’t exclusive to Landsberg. Julius Spokojny spent time in the Wildflecken DP camp, also in the American zone. Spokojny wrote, “…after the concentration camp, there was still a concentration camp, only without annihilation, without gas chambers, but the same closed camp. With armed guards.”

Protests took place at the White House when Americans found out about the treatment of survivors by US troops. President Truman decided to investigate the situation and sent Earl G. Harrison, then a member of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, to inspect a few camps in the American zone. Harrison’s report aligns with Spokojny’s comments about Wildflecken. In his report, Harrison wrote,

As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.

Truman immediately took action, writing a letter to General Eisenhower in August 1945 stating that the Americans had a responsibility to show the German people that “we abhor the Nazi policies of hatred and persecution” and that the best way to demonstrate this was to treat the survivors with dignity. This letter led to improved treatment of the DPs as well as the improvement of the camps becoming a priority in the American zone. With new men being put in charge of the camps and the turbulent atmosphere, this policy took time to sink in. In September 1945, Major Heymont, then only 27 years old, became the head of the Landsberg DP camp in Germany.

The Landsberg DP camp was set up after the liberation of nearby Landsberg concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau. This camp was part of “Kaufering IV.” If this name sounds familiar or the photo below looks familiar, it’s probably because this is the same camp that was liberated in episode 9 of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight.”

Kaufering IV

Kaufering IV shortly after liberation. Image via USHMM.

Heymont’s letters to his wife give us clear view of what life in Landsberg was like. According to Heymont, the unit that was in charge before he got there had done nothing more than ensure the rations were distributed. He wrote that the residents, 6,000 total with 5,000 being Jewish survivors of Dachau and its sub camps, “appear demoralized beyond hope of rehabilitation. They appear to be beaten both spiritually and physically, with no hopes or incentives for the future.”

He went on to reveal his biggest struggle with the camp: the sanitation, or lack thereof. He described the camp as being, “filthy beyond description. Sanitation is virtually unknown. Words fail me when I try to think of an accurate description.” Due to the lack of sanitation in concentration camps, disease spread rapidly. Many survivors were liberated with typhus and lice. Cleaning the DP camp would stop the spread of disease among survivors as well as US soldiers and civilians in the surrounding areas. It’s also true that cleanliness can help you feel human.

There were two reasons for the condition of the camp: supply shortages left them with few cleaning supplies and the camp residents, having been dehumanized, malnourished, and used as slave labor for years, were not in any condition to clean. This left him extremely frustrated. Heymont wrote his wife an entire letter, several pages long, on the condition of various parts of the camp. The pots, pans, and stoves of the non-kosher kitchen were “encrusted” with grease and food debris and appeared not to have been cleaned in weeks. Meat was laying on the floor of the walk-in freezer as all of the meat hooks were rusty. The kosher kitchen was somehow worse than its non-kosher counterpart and there was human excrement on the floor of the kitchen’s storeroom. Of the bathrooms he wrote that they “beg description” and “the washrooms and toilets had an intense acrid odor that almost caused me to vomit.” The hospital was described as a “bright spot” with only small infractions and the schools were also surprisingly clean.

Landsberg DP Camp

Landsberg DP Camp, circa 1945-1948. Image via USHMM.

With all of that in mind, it’s important to realize that not all DP camps were in the condition Landsberg was in at this point in time. On September 28, 1945, Major Heymont and General Onslow Rolfe, the Assistant Division Commander, took a trip to the Fohrenwald DP camp near Wolfratshausen. This camp was “beautiful,” set up well, and run well. This visit inspired him. It’s also around this time, and probably not coincidental, that he seems to become more sympathetic towards the residents. In the same letter he mentions the Fohrenwald visit, he mentions a speech he gave to the camp in which he said,

Because I know what you have suffered, I want to assure you that I do not intend to see Landsberg another prison camp. We did not conquer the Nazis so we could have the hollow honor of standing armed guard over the victims of Hitler.

This is a far cry from his previous statement saying that the Army wasn’t responsible for standing guard over the victims of the Third Reich. In the same speech, Heymont stressed that he understood that under the Nazis, work meant death and that the US Army didn’t intend to work them to death. As the Army began to understand the survivors’ point of view, camp rules began to change. Residents no longer needed a written pass to leave the camp and the guards at the gate were withdrawn as they were reminiscent of guards outside of concentration camps. Only one soldier remained at the main gate to help camp police and keep unauthorized Germans from entering. The most symbolic change came when the barbed wire surrounding the area, left from the concentration camp, was finally torn down.

Heymont and Rolfe

General Onslow Rolfe (top, right) and Major Irving Heymont (top, center) speak to Jewish DPs in the Landsberg DP camp. Image via USHMM.

At first, DPs in camps, in all occupation zones, were organized by nationality. It seems that Jewish survivors were mostly unhappy with this system. They wanted to be seen simply as Jewish, not Polish Jews, German Jews, or Hungarian Jews. Once the US Army realized this, populations were moved around and many camps became Jewish or non-Jewish. Landsberg became a Jewish DP camp in October 1945.

Since post-war Europe was divided into four occupation zones, it’s interesting to look at the differences between DP camps in the different zones. It was mentioned that Jewish residents in Landsberg, and most camps, wanted to be seen as Jewish and nothing else. In Starye Dorogi, a transit camp for Italians in the Soviet Union, things were different. Primo Levi, who spent time in the camp, said that the Soviets were impartial toward the residents and saw them simply as Italians, disregarding whether they were Jewish or not. This seemed to suit Levi, as he said the rest was ‘vsyo ravno’ or “all the same.” Another stark contrast comes with the physical treatment of the residents. Residents of American camps were certainly not treated the same as the soldiers themselves. In Star Dorogi, it seems that they were.

One constant in all of the camps was the desire for privacy. This is a completely understandable desire as survivors hadn’t experienced privacy in years. Ghettos didn’t allow for much solitude and privacy in a concentration camp was impossible. Unfortunately, almost every camp was overpopulated and privacy was still in short supply. Heymont was struck by the residents’ “intense desire” for it, to not be part of a mass as they had been for so many years. Residents strung blankets up and rearranged wooden lockers to create partitions. In From Ashes to Life, Lucille Eichengreen wrote about her time in a British DP camp where she shared a room with six or seven other women and, like Landsberg, the bathroom was dormitory style. Since most DP camps were established in the remains of concentration camps or army barracks, arrangements similar to Lucille’s and those in Landsberg were extremely common.

Major Heymont, later to become Colonel Heymont, was commander of the Landsberg DP camp for only three and a half months. According to Abraham Peck, who was born in the camp and went on to become director of the Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies at the University of Southern Maine, Heymont’s work shouldn’t go understated. He called the Landsberg DP camp a “turning point” in Jewish history and explained that “Heymont allowed these people their own sense of humanity.” Holocaust survivors needed humanity.

Farewell dinner

Farewell dinner for Major Irving Heymont and Captain David Trott. From left to right: Ala Gringauz (nee Bergholz), Dr. Abraham Glassgold, UNRRA director, Major Irving Heymont, Captain David Trott and Dr. Samuel Gringauz. Image via USHMM.

Landsberg went on to become the center of Jewish cultural life in the American zone. In 1947, the camp population stood at 4,500 residents. They had a school system that spanned all ages, from pre-K to college and included a Talmud Torah (field of study dealing with Jewish law) and a Yeshiva (institution dealing with religious texts such as the Talmud and Torah). DPs in the camp ran newspapers, including the ‘Yidishe Tsaytung’ (literally, Jewish Newspaper), a radio station, and a theatre group. As we’ll see in the next post in this series, Jewish DPs were eager to reclaim their culture and went about it with impressive speed and efficiency.

Religion in Landsberg

Most DP camps remained in operation until the early 1950s when occupation forces withdrew. The Landsberg DP camp closed in October 1950.

For more information about displaced persons camps, please check out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and my sources below.

Sources (contains affiliate links)

After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany by Michael Brenner
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Among the Survivors of the Holocaust by Irving Heymont
From Ashes to Life by Lucille Eichengreen
Before – During – After by Siegfried Halbreich
A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Earl G. Harrison
Irving Heymont, 90, Commanded Displaced Persons Camp After WWII by Patricia Sullivan
ORT and the Displaced Person Camps

What are “The Winston Hours”?

Where did the name of my blog come from? If you think it’s a reference to Winston Churchill, you’re absolutely correct.

I came across the phrase while reading a book on President Franklin D. Roosevelt (which I can no longer find…I know it’s on my bookshelf, I just can’t figure out which book I found it in.) I thought the story was entertaining and the phrase just hit my ear so nicely.

The phrase was coined by someone in the Roosevelt White House. I’ve read that it was first uttered by Eleanor Roosevelt but I’ve also read that a member of the White House staff came up with it. So while I can’t say who created this phrase, I can confidently say that it was used to describe Churchill’s erratic schedule and FDR’s attempts to keep the same schedule when the men were together.

Churchill liked to stay up late, making it so he’d wake up late the following morning. According to Eleanor, Churchill’s daily schedule while at the White House looked something like this:

  • Have breakfast delivered at 9 AM
  • Wake up and actually eat breakfast around 11 AM
  • Work with Roosevelt, or by himself, until after lunch
  • Take a two-hour nap, waking up around 5 PM
  • Eat dinner
  • Get to the “real work” after dinner, staying up until 2 or 3 AM

Roosevelt tried to keep a similar schedule but this was nothing like his usual day-to-day. Roosevelt was an avid bird watcher and liked to wake up at “ungodly hours” to do so (Eleanor wrote that he never invited Churchill to bird watch with him, probably because he knew Churchill wouldn’t like getting up at that hour.) After Churchill left, Roosevelt would spend days recovering from “keeping the Winston hours.” Apparently, he’d sleep 10 hours a night for three days trying to get back on his normal schedule.

Eleanor repeatedly hinted that this schedule wasn’t good for him and he needed his rest but Roosevelt wouldn’t listen. Aside from being leaders of the two most powerful members of the Allied powers, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company (see point 8 in the telegram below).


Telegram from Roosevelt to Churchill, January 1942. Image via FDR Presidential Library & Museum.

So “the Winston hours” refers to Churchill’s unconventional work schedule and President Roosevelt’s struggle to accommodate the Prime Minister. I’m unsure if Churchill kept a similar schedule at home or if the 5 hour time difference between London and DC had something to do with it. Either way, I loved the phrase and decided to start this blog because I desperately needed A) something that would allow me to use my education and B) something to name “the Winston hours.”

Oh, and I know what you’re thinking. It was Winston Churchill. Surely they were enjoying a few drinks during these late nights. And you’re absolutely right. Churchill enjoyed dry martinis (although he was not a fan of Roosevelt’s dry martinis), Johnnie Walker Red, champagne, or a good brandy. But it was the strange hours that were taxing on Roosevelt, not the drinking. He was a drinker in his own right, preferring the aforementioned martini and various dark rum cocktails.


All images via the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library and Museum
Churchill at the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt
How to Drink Like Winston Churchill by Warren Dockter
In the Darkest Days of World War II, Winston Churchill’s Visit to the White House Brought Hope to Washington by Erick Trickey


Who Was Viola Desmond?

Every once in a while I come across an event or a person I’ve never heard of. Most of the time it’s because they’re from a part of the world or a time period I just haven’t studied much. But sometimes I don’t know why or how I never managed to run across this person or event. That’s the case with Viola Desmond (née Davis.)

Who was Viola Desmond?

Viola Desmond was a hairdresser, beautician, and businesswoman. Modeling herself after Madam CJ Walker, she built a thriving beauty supply business and beauty school in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was biracial, one of ten children born to a black father and white mother. Her parents were active members of the community and raised Viola and her siblings to be ambitious.


A tin of face powder from Viola’s line of beauty supplies. Image via CBC and Nova Scotia Archives.

On November 8, 1946, 32-year-old Viola was headed to Sydney, Nova Scotia for business. About halfway through the nearly four and a half hour drive, her car broke down. Stranded in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, knowing she’d have to wait overnight for her car to be fixed, she decided to see a movie. She headed to the Roseland Theater, a landmark in New Glasgow, and purchased a ticket. After handing the ticket-seller $1, she received seventy cents and a balcony ticket in exchange.


Viola Desmond. Image via CBC and Wanda Robson.

Viola entered the theater, presented her ticket to the ticket-taker and continued into the main seating area. The ticket-taker, Prima Davis shouted that her ticket was an upstairs ticket and that’s where she’d need to go. Viola returned to the ticket counter, explained the situation, and claimed that there must be some mistake. She hadn’t ordered a balcony ticket. She offered to pay the ten cents difference in the ticket prices.

The ticket-seller, Peggy Melanson, simply replied, “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.

Viola immediately recognized that she was being forced to sit in the balcony because of her race.

She turned and reentered the theater, silently walking to the only partially full main seating area. She quietly took a seat, waiting for the movie to start. Prima Davis followed her into the theater and said, “I told you to go upstairs.”

Viola remained still

Prima left and returned with a manager, Harry MacNeil, who threatened to have her removed. The theater had a policy that allowed them to deny service to “any objectionable person.” Viola calmly pointed out that she hadn’t been denied service, she had just been denied a downstairs ticket. She wasn’t making a scene and didn’t believe they could, or would, legally kick her out of the theater.

MacNeil left, irate, and returned with a police officer. Again, Viola told them that she only wanted to sit in the main seating area. She couldn’t see well from the balcony. The officer grabbed Viola by the shoulders while MacNeil grabbed her legs and together, they dragged her to the lobby. She lost her purse and a shoe in the process. When they stopped in the lobby, a bystander brought her her purse and the officer allowed her to get her shoe. Then she was put into a waiting taxi and taken to the police station. About an hour later, MacNeil and the Chief of Police, Elmo C. Langille, returned to the station with a warrant for Viola’s arrest.

She was taken to the town jail where she was held for twelve hours…in a cell with men. They kept bringing more men in as the night progressed. Viola later recounted, “The matron was very nice and she seemed to realize that I shouldn’t have been there.”

Viola Desmond on Trial

The next morning, Viola was brought in front of the town magistrate, Roderick Geddes, McKay. She had not been briefed of her rights, had no lawyer, and there was no Crown attorney (government prosecutor in the Canadian legal system) present. She was charged with violating the provincial Theatres, Cinematographs, and Amusement Act. While that act had no clauses related to racial segregation, it did state that patrons would pay an amusement tax on any tickets purchased in provincial theaters, such as the Roseland.

Viola’s ticket, the balcony ticket, cost 30¢. The main floor ticket cost 40¢. They claimed that Viola had paid 30¢ for a 40¢ ticket, making her 1¢ short on the amusement tax. The witnesses testified that she knowingly purchased a balcony ticket and then took a seat in the main seating area. Viola was asked if she had any questions and she later recounted that she didn’t realize they meant questions for the witnesses. She was being asked to perform a cross-examination in undeniably vague terms with no lawyer on her side. When she took the stand, she testified that she offered to pay the difference but was told they wouldn’t allow that. You’ll remember that she had initially given the ticket-taker $1, plenty to cover a floor ticket in the first place.

At the end of the trial, Viola was found guilty and fined $26: $20 was the minimum fine for this offense and the other $6 went to Harry MacNeil, who was listed as the prosecutor in the case. To put it another way: she had to pay the theater manager who helped drag her out of her seat and obtained a warrant for her arrest.


Viola Desmond on the front page of The Clarion, December 1946. Image via The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Viola, with the support of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), appealed the verdict. She lost the appeal but the judge conceded that it wasn’t about that 1¢, it was about unspoken segregation “laws” in the province. He stated, “One wonders if the manager of the theatre who laid the complaint was so zealous because of a bona fide belief there had been an attempt to defraud the Province of Nova Scotia of the sum of one cent, or was it a surreptitious endeavour to enforce Jim Crow rule by misuse of a public statute.”

It was an unbelievable use of a loophole to prosecute someone based on the color of their skin.

The case garnered a lot of attention, much of it negative, which weighed heavily on Viola. She divorced her husband, shut down her businesses, and moved to Montreal, Quebec. She eventually left Canada and relocated to New York City where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

In 1954, Nova Scotia abolished the province’s segregation laws. But we know that just because something is off the books doesn’t mean that it stopped happening. While segregation was no longer legal, Nova Scotians continued to fight for equality.

In the meantime, Viola and her story all but faded away.

Viola Desmond’s Legacy

In 2000, Viola was the subject of the documentary Long Road to Freedom: The Viola Desmond Story.


Viola (right) and her sister, Wanda. Circa 1950. Photo via CBC and Wanda Robson.

Still, it wasn’t until the 21st century that her name and story became known again, thanks to the work of her sister, Wanda Robson. In 2010, Wanda wrote a book about Viola, Sister to Courageand travels around Canada to speak about her sister. Thanks to Wanda’s work, Viola was granted a posthumous apology and pardon by the Canadian government in 2010.


Wanda Robson and then-Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis hold hands as the province formally pardons Viola. Image via CBC News.

In 2012, the Canadian Post released a Viola Desmond stamp.

In 2014, Nova Scotia honored her on a new holiday.

Also in 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights included an exhibit about Viola in their “Canadian Journeys” gallery.

In 2015, community members in Halifax erected an outdoor movie screen in her honor. The project was spearheaded by Hope Blooms, an organization that helps at-risk youth.

And in 2016, it was announced that Viola would be the first Canadian woman to appear on the Canadian ten-dollar note.

She is often called the “Canada’s Rosa Parks”, which I think is unfair. Not only because Viola’s act of peaceful defiance came nearly a decade before Rosa’s but because we don’t need to compare the two. Yes, they made their mark in similar ways but both are worth acknowledgment. Calling her “Canadian Rosa Parks” erases her name again. Don’t erase it. She deserves to have her story told and her bravery recognized.

Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse, Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History
So Seldom for Us, So Often Against Us: Blacks and Law in Canada by Esmeralda M. A. Thornhill
The story of Viola Desmond, “Canada’s Rosa Parks” from CBS News
How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change course of Canadian history by CBC News
And while I didn’t use it as a source, I found this lovely children’s book about Viola’s case, Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged.

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Dalí and Disney: Actually, A Pretty Likely Friendship

In 2016, I got wind of an exhibit coming to The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, FL: “Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination.” I knew I couldn’t miss it and I knew I’d be in Florida during the exhibit’s time at The Dalí. In April 2016, I made the journey to St. Pete, a short detour off my planned route, to see this exhibit that I had heard wonderful things about.

And I was not disappointed. It was crowded (understandably so) but so, so cool. I had never visited The Dalí before and it’s just a gorgeous museum. “Disney and Dalí” is no longer at The Dalí but it’s still a must-see if you’re in St. Pete. This isn’t an exhibit or museum review, though. This is about the friendship between these two men. (For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to Walt Disney as Walt and the company Disney as, well, Disney.)

The Dali Museum

Interior of The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, 2016. Original photo.

Nearly everything you’ll read about Walt and Dalí states that it was an unlikely friendship. I have to disagree. Of course, their styles were very different but these men were the same age (Dalí was only three years younger than Walt), both artists, and both pioneers in their fields. Walt kept abreast of trends in art and filmmaking so it is no surprise that he eventually met and formed a friendship with one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists. They both pushed the boundaries of their art, broke new ground, and had the kind of drive that it seems to me only another person with that kind of drive can understand. Of their friendship, Walt’s nephew, the late Roy E. Disney, once said, “It always seemed to me they were both really relentless self-promoters and they must have seen that in one another.”

And have you seen Fantasia? It’s not like Walt was unaware that animation could be surreal.

Anyway. I just don’t think we should be so surprised by this relationship.

Disney and Dali Cross Paths

By 1936, Disney had already revolutionized animation, syncing sound with animation for the first time and using three-strip Technicolor technology, which Walt had gained exclusive access to. Mickey Mouse was already a beloved figure, the company had produced its 36th Silly Symphonies short, and three years earlier, it produced the short Three Little Pigs.

By 1936, Dalí had become an internationally acclaimed artist. His first solo exhibition was in Barcelona in 1925 and an exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1928 brought him international notoriety. He completed his most famous work The Persistence of Memory (also known as “the melting clocks”) in 1931. He had visited Paris in the 1920s and returned in 1936 with his wife, Gala, to escape the Spanish Civil War.

All of this to give you a frame of reference as to where their careers were in 1936. It was that year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada, and SurrealismNaturally, Dalí’s work was featured. But Walt also had pieces in the exhibit: two animation cels from Three Little Pigs. This was the first time their careers crossed paths and the men began to take note of each other. The next year, Dalí would travel to the US and write a letter to Andrê Bretton, the founder of Surrealism, stating, “I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with three great American Surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.” Dalí was eager to make an animated film, seeing animators as Surrealists.

Salvador Dali and Harpo Marx

(One) mission accomplished! Dalí sketching Harpo Marx, 1937. Photo via The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

Walt Reaches out to Dali

In 1944, Walt read Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. He was so entranced, he sent his copy to Dalí to ask for an autograph and suggest a collaboration between Walt Disney Studios and Dalí. Walt made this suggestion for two reasons: recently, critics had been accusing Disney of sacrificing artistry for marketability and Walt wanted to continue working with the type of innovation used by Fantasia, which had been released in 1940.

Beginning with this initial letter from Walt, the two began exchanging letters and eventually met at a Warner Brothers Studio party in 1945. World War II had delayed their collaboration (Disney was making propaganda films) but with the war’s end, they could focus on collaborating.

In 1946, Dalí began spending half of his time in Burbank, home of Walt Disney Studios. (The other half was spent in Pebble Beach, CA.) They fleshed out their ideas, wrote outlines, and created drawings. Walt chose the name “Destino” (Spanish for destiny) for the project, after the title of the ballad they chose for the short film’s score.

Salvador Dali and Destino

Dalí working on Destino at Walt Disney Studios, 1946. Photo via the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

If it wasn’t apparent before, it quickly became clear that their storytelling approaches were very different. Walt’s stories relied on characters while Dalí saw characters as secondary elements, to be wrapped in symbolism. Walt described Destino as, “a simple love story—boy meets girl.” Dalí described it as, “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.” Of course he did.

While these differences might have spelled the end of any collaboration for others, the project soldiered on for nearly a year. Work on Destino came to a rather abrupt end when Walt determined that he couldn’t afford to keep Dalí on Disney’s payroll. (It’s unknown exactly how much Dalí was paid but Walt did comment that Dalí was “expensive.”) Walt also felt that Disney should move away from anthology features, which Destino had turned into. Overall, the project had sort of gotten away from them and was turning into something that neither man envisioned. There are also rumors that the men’s strong egos played a part in the project’s death but given that the men remained friends until Walt’s death, I doubt egotism was a factor. In the 1950s, they vacationed at each other’s homes in California and Spain and Walt had Dalí’s paintings on the walls of his Palm Springs home. There just wasn’t animosity there.

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney

Dalí and Walt Disney in Spain, 1957. Photo via The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Destino is Reborn

Over 50 years later, Disney released Fantasia 2000. It was the release of this film that inspired Roy Disney to resurrect Destino. Walt Disney Studios hired a team of French animators to bring Dalí’s notes and drawings to life. In 2003, Destino was finally released, nearly 60 years after its conception. 

It has elements of Disney’s animation style but Dalí’s influence is unmistakable. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Of course, Walt never saw the film, passing away in 1966. Dalí lived until 1989. Unfortunately, not even Roy Disney lived to see the film. He passed away in 2001.

Destino stands as a reminder that art forms can merge and create something beautiful and unexpected. Dalí wanted to create an animated film and there was no better partner than Walt Disney.

Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Walt Disney Timeline from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Timeline from The Dalí Museum
The Secret History of Salvador Dalí’s Disney Film by Trey Taylor
The Time Salvador Dalí Worked for Walt Disney by Mark Mancini
Destino from The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation