Like Lotta, these Jewish refugees made a lasting impact on Canadian society

In a recent Ottawa Chamberfest lecture at the National Gallery of Canada, noted CBC radio host Robert Harris traced the lines of a remarkable story: how five Jewish World War II refugees each ended up playing key roles in the development of music in Canada.

In many ways, their story echoes the story of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova, also a Jewish refugee who left a lasting impact on the social and humanitarian landscape of her adopted country.

The five musical icons were Helmut Kallmann, Helmut Blume, Franz Kraemer, John Newmark and Walter Homburger.

Ironically, just like Lotta (whose first choice had been to immigrate to the United States), these five men did not choose to come to Canada. In fact, as Harris mentioned in his talk, they were all “rounded up” in Great Britain, in 1940, and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man.

Later, they were part of a group of over 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis who were shipped to Canada, where they were again placed in internment camps in various locations, including the Plains of Abraham.

The “camp boys”, as they came to be known, Harris related, were eventually released during the war years, and slowly over time each began to make his mark on Canadian society. Helmut Kallmann became a pioneering music historian, literally founding the discipline with the publication of his “A History of Music in Canada” in 1960.

Helmut Blume first worked with the German section of the International Services of the CBC, helping produce what Harris described as “propaganda” materials. This echoes Lotta’s first job in Canada as a postal censor, each contributing in their own way to the fight against the Nazis. Blume went on to a distinguished career as a music producer and then became Dean of the McGill University music school.

Franz Kraemer became a noted TV and radio producer, a pioneering producer of opera on TV, and later the head of the music section of the Canada Council. He was also featured in a remarkable 1959 NFB documentary: Glenn Gould – Off the Record.

Pianist John Newmark, with perhaps the most distinguished international reputation of the five, settled permanently in Montreal in 1944, but travelled the world extensively, accompanying such renowned singers as Kathleen Ferrier and Maureen Forester.

Last but not least, though not a musician himself, Walter Homburger made lasting contributions to the Canadian musical landscape, bringing world renowned musicians to come and play in Canadian cities, and for many years was the managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Homburger was also Glenn Gould’s one and only manager, having discovered him at a Kiwanis festival at the age of 15.

In an interesting side note, one of Lotta’s long-time collaborators and friends, videographer John Buss, had initially had aspirations to become a concert pianist, but he kept losing Kiwanis festival competitions to a young Glenn Gould; otherwise, he and Lotta may never have met. [More on John Buss in a future blog post.]

It is interesting to speculate to what degree Lotta may have been aware of the achievements of her fellow Jewish refugees on the Canadian musical landscape. As she herself noted, music played a huge role in her life:

“I used to play the piano, but I had to give it up, of course. But my great joy is my records and my most beloved musician, of course, is Mozart. He has the grace and the variety – the genius that corresponds to my needs best.”

There’s probably no need to speculate as to whether the five men were aware of Lotta. Whether they actively supported her humanitarian work is not known. However, there can be little doubt (via her ubiquitous CBC TV and radio PSAs) that they would have known who she was, and that like them, they would have seen her as a fellow pioneer in Canadian society.

Thanks to Robert Harris for sharing this remarkable story, demonstrating yet again how indebted our society is to so many refugees who have come to Canada.

David Rain

2 thoughts on “Like Lotta, these Jewish refugees made a lasting impact on Canadian society

    • Robert Harris also mentioned a book from the 1980s that explores this story more, by Eric Koch, Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder.

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