BY WENDY BIRD
It was a bit of a surprise to the publisher, but no one at Malcolm Lester Books expected the 1999 book about Judy Feld Carr, a former Sudburian who risked her life to save thousands of Syrian Jews, to sell out.
“It’s a miracle that even a Canadian book sold out,” said a bemused Harold Troper, the author who penned the factual account of Feld Carr’s plot to secretly negotiate the rescue of Syrian Jews who remained trapped in Arab lands following the formation of the State of Israel.
Book re-released this fall
Troper has co-authored several award winning books, including None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, and is a professor and historian at the University of Toronto.
The book about Feld Carr’s heroic endeavours was re-released this fall under a new title: The Rescuer.
“It’s a dangerous topic, especially in light of all that’s happening in Syria today. But it’s a story that deserves to be told,” he said of the second publication.
Troper wrote a few extra pages for the new book, but left the original text virtually untouched.
“When you think about what happened to Maher Arar (a Syrian living in Canada with dual Canadian-Syrian citizenship who was deported to Syria and tortured), it makes what Judy did seem all that more amazing,” Troper said.
“Consider how long it took the Canadian government to act and what it was like for (Arar). Judy also pulled people out of prisons. What she did was even more astounding. If there is a kind of lesson to be learned, (this book is) just a statement about what one person can do.
“Judy’s accomplishments leave me more in awe as a result of recent events that have transpired. There are people out there who do the impossible.”
Feld Carr was born in Montreal in 1938 but her family (her maiden name is Leve) soon moved to Sudbury, where her father was a well-known fur trader.
“It’s quite interesting — even I can’t understand it — why would a fur-trader’s daughter from Sudbury do this and do it on her own. It’s just not humanly possible. But I believe in the power of the individual. You can do anything you want,” Feld Carr said in an interview from her Toronto home.
Although Troper says he still doesn’t really know why she persisted with smuggling thousands of people from Syria, Feld Carr herself admits that her next-door neighbour Sophie, who lived on Larch St. downtown, “had a tremendous influence on my life. I became the daughter she lost in Auschwitz and she became my surrogate mother and I adored her.
“I remember one night she was just screaming and crying. It was her daughter’s birthday and she said to me: ‘you can’t let what happened to us happen again.’ I was 12 years old ... what did I know? But I never forgot what happened. I never forgot her face. I could tell you exactly what the room looked like. It was indelible in my life. It was always at the back of my head no matter what I did. It was Sophie at the back of my head,” she recalled.
Rescue work began in 1972
According to the Archives of Canada, over a period of 28 years, Feld Carr was personally responsible for the rescue of 3,228 Jews from Syria. Her humanitarian work began in 1972 when she and her late husband Ronald (Rubin) Feld learned about the plight of Syrian Jews trying to flee violent religious and racial persecution in Syria.
After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, thousands of Syrian Jews fled the country. The Syrian government denied those who remained behind the right to emigrate and made it extremely difficult for them to travel abroad.
After much persistence and a great deal of difficulty, the couple established contact with the chief rabbi of Syria.
Together with a small group of volunteers and supporters, they sent religious articles and books to the beleaguered community. To call attention to their plight and suffering, they also established a human rights campaign to lobby the Canadian Jewish community, politicians, government officials and the media.
After the early death of her husband, Feld Carr chose to continue their life-saving work. To fund the rescue effort, the board of governors at a local synagogue created the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands. At great risk to her own personal safety, she established a clandestine network of trustworthy agents and confidants, which spirited out thousands of refugees from 1973 to 2002.
“I believe that I paid Sophie back for everything she lost,” said Feld Carr of her Sudbury friend who had survived the Holocaust.
Sophie died in the mid-1960s, two days after seeing Feld-Carr’s son, “who was like her grandson.” She travelled up to Sudbury from Toronto by train for that final visit.
More than three decades later the human rights advocate returned to Sudbury in 2000, when she received an honorary doctor of laws from Laurentian University, the same year she was made a member of the Order of Canada.
“How can a kid that grew up in Sudbury and a musicologist by profession do what I did? It just goes to show what an individual can do to change the world,” she said.
Troper said that when he talks about what she did, “I still find myself not believing the story.”
He noted “she’s a tough-minded, single-minded person.
“Once she gets the bit in her teeth, she’s at it. She’s a woman who can’t take no for an answer, and sometimes she can’t even take yes for an answer.
“She’s tenacious when she’s doing the things that are important to her. She somehow exudes whatever it is that makes people trust her. She never met any of these people she brought out and she worked through intermediaries. It takes a lot of trust for another person to go forward with their schemes.”
The sense of trust she exudes also worked on Troper who, when he first learned of her story back in the early 1990s, thought she was delusional. But “she was a pack rat and kept notes and receipts and files on everything” relating to the rescues, fundraising, and more.
“I looked at all the material she had and said this is a book waiting to be written,” Troper recalled.
“And this led me to more stuff that she didn’t know about, including stuff from External Affairs, stuff in various Jewish agencies and non-governmental agencies. And I interviewed other people who either assisted her or thought she was a lunatic. Eventually I had material for a story that went way beyond her peripheral vision. There is lots in the book that she didn’t know until I allowed her to read the manuscript.”
The book is currently available at Chapters in New Sudbury and retails for about $25.
“The book is so good. It’s a beautifully written document and it’s so unbelievably researched,” said a justifiably proud Feld Carr.
“Nobody would believe what I told them until they saw my files and did their research. This was the biggest private rescue since the Second World War.”
Troper agrees that Feld Carr’s actions deserve a special place in history.
“When she first found herself involved in a rescue from Syria, if at that point she had sought out anybody who was an expert, knowledgeable about refugee issues, Syria, the mechanics of dealing with these kinds of regimes — anybody — they all would have said ‘you can’t do it, this is impossible’,” he said reflectively.
“But she never asked (anybody) about it, so nobody told her it was impossible. And so she just did it.”