In his landmark volume The Holocaust, Oxford historian Martin Gilbert enters not one but two index listings under “Canada”. The first, naturally, refers to the wartime Dominion but the other is hardly known at all, even by Canadians. This is the “Canada” that existed in the living hell known as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Louis L. Snyder’s Encyclopedia of the Third Reich explains this oddity as follows: “The railroad wagons which brought prisoners to the camps were cleaned out and used on the return journey to transfer anything of value taken from the inmates. Such articles were held temporarily in a building called ‘Canada’.” These articles consisted of clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, watches and other jewelry, cash, gemstones, artifacts and gold toothfillings which were retrieved from the crematoria and melted down into ingots, as well as endless sackfuls of human hair.

At the height of its operation, several thousand Jews, Gypsies and others were “processed” through Auschwitz each day and to give some idea of the volume of goods thus obtained, Oswald Pohl, chief of the Economic and Administrative Central Office of the SS, reported that in the month of February 1943 alone, 781 wagonloads left Auschwitz for Germany as part of the “Kz” camp system’s contribution to the war effort. By 1945, such confiscations were valued at hundreds of millions of marks.

Rudolf Vrba, who was deported from Slovakia to Auschwitz, related his impressions to Gilbert: “With that (command) we marched into Canada, the commercial heart of Auschwitz, warehouse of the body-snatchers where hundreds of prisoners worked frantically to sort, segregate and classify the clothes and the food and the valuables of those whose bodies were still burning, whose ashes would soon be used as fertilizer.” Fortunately, Vrba was one of the few who survived the nightmare and, in one of fate’s ironies, later found a home over here in this Canada, eventually settling in Vancouver.

In the seventy years since the death camps were liberated, so many books, documentaries and movies have filled our conscious knowledge with anecdotes of the horror that the existence of such a place is less of a surprise than the name. Why “Canada” is the question people tend to ask most when they uncover the truth of such depravity and that’s understandable. It refers to a land five thousand miles away that almost none of the three million victims or their guards had ever been near.

To find the answer, we perhaps need to enlarge the definition of this other Canada to that of an idea, a concept, held not just by those distraught inmates but by so many immigrant hopefuls and refugee applicants everywhere. The testimony is all around us. All we have to do is ask those who made it here to realize that this nation is envisaged, in some ways even more than the United States or Australia, as the earthly nirvana, the ultimate land of plenty. Indeed, during the research for my recent book, I had cause to interview a cross-section of survivors and, although they didn’t all articulate it the same way, it was clear that this abstract vision of abundance was very much a part of their early notions, long before they ever thought they might be fortunate enough to live here. As Pauline Sawadsky, a Ukrainian slave labourer under the Nazis, told me: “Canada for us was like a paradise far away.”

Even in the grimy corner of industrial England where my own transplanted family found a home, the notion of Canada was more legendary than factual. At school, I remember we studied something of the varied geography and economic infrastructure, but it was the grainy imagery in our textbooks that fired the imagination: the endless horizons and the unbowed optimism and the sheer affluence of the way of life - all the national advantages that are so often taken for granted, they’ve almost become clichés.

However, it could be argued that for much of the world, this facet of our identity is still paramount. They see more than the often jaded self-image of Mountie postcards and scenic calendars. What this unlikely stretch of map most represents to the billions beyond is an aspiration, a very human hybrid of wishing and longing; and although it may all add up to nothing more than perception, there can be no doubt that it’s real enough to the dispossessed who line up at our embassies and, like all those generations before them, would risk everything just to arrive on these shores. Canadian historian Pierre Berton offered us the expression “sometimes a great country” yet it can surely never be greater than when it’s the gleam of a desperate eye.

This too is our heritage – and if we should ever doubt it, we need only recall that during the period termed by one anonymous poet as “the ugliest moment in the saga of mankind”, the emaciated souls behind that barbed wire gave us the poignant compliment of bestowing our name on the richest place they knew. They called it “Canada”.

First published as an epilogue feature in education volume ‘Adventures in Canadian History’, 2006

An edited version of this essay was a winner in the Canada ‘150 words for 150 years’ literary contest’, 2017