Who Gets In: An Immigration Story by Norman Ravvin

Early on in his moving and riveting account of his grandfather’s immigration to Canada in 1930, Norman Ravvin describes a different scene of a ship’s arrival at Vancouver’s harbour in 1914. In a long Dickensian sentence, he depicts the photographer who is taking pictures of the Komagata Maru: “There is nothing from historians regarding how the photographer himself felt or thought about the spectacle that he photographed with such impressive effect, clarity, even beauty – the crowds of men on board taking on a kind of painterly order, with the ship creating a frame for their gathering, their faces and comportment a complicated code of discomfort, pride, and patience in the face of the immigration representatives who flung themselves over the ship’s balustrades to inspect the passengers.” From ballast to balustrade to balanced phrasing, Ravvin frames this scene and so many others with clarity and painterly prose. His writing shines with impressive effect, as he layers his subject in larger overall significance, for this is a book not only about his own family but also a documentary about Canada’s immigration policies that have affected this country for more than a century.

Who Gets In relies on many photographs and archival material, as the biographer films history in various narrative sequences. He uncovers much of what other historians have overlooked, as he photographs the photographer, Leonard Frank. The name of the Japanese ship resonates within Who Gets In. Maru means circle or round, and the return trip circles the fate of the immigrants aboard. Komagata is the shape of a wooden piece used in Japanese chess – again invoking the shape of this narrative about the fates of immigrants caught in history’s game of chance.

            Ravvin’s narrative runs chronologically and non-chronologically, the shifts in plot befitting a novel with characters who come alive on every page, like the photographs, archives, ships, and trains of an odyssey and family saga. “Sometimes a story begins where you don’t expect it to.” From this very first sentence the chronicler grabs the reader’s attention, for just as the former is surprised by what he uncovers in his research, so are we enthralled by the turn of events in this captivating account. As unique as the story of Yehuda Yosef Eisenstein appears, he becomes a kind of immigrant Everyman leaving Poland in the 1930s for Canada. His grandson finds the rare exceptions to the “none is too many” policy of the Canadian government barring Jewish refugees from entry into the country during the Nazis’ rise to power.

            The title of the first chapter, “Another Ship, Another Time,” prepares us for the variety and wider context of times and places, the intriguing detours in migration patterns involving government bureaucracies. Who Gets In is replete with “deeper rhythms and revelations,” as we follow an event two decades earlier in May, 1914 with the Japanese ship in Vancouver. While the incident surrounding the fate of those aboard this ship provides an early example of Canada’s unfair policies, Ravvin’s account makes it even more poignant. Roland Barthes has written about the punctum in a photograph, a detail that resonates with personal meaning. The added detail in Ravvin’s photograph of the Komagata Maru is the photographer, Leonard Frank, a German-born Jew who came to Canada in the late nineteenth century looking for gold on Vancouver Island. Timing is everything, both in historical patterns of immigration, and in the telling of stories, and Ravvin is finely attuned to both, for just as Frank captures the punctum of the ship, so Ravvin captures the punctum of the photographer, an early Jewish immigrant whose status as a German ironically outweighed his Jewish identity.

            The shipping news in Who Gets In has even greater significance, for the Komagata Maru was initially the Stubbenhuk, a German ship that accommodated a few in first class, while the majority were in third class, where Jewish passengers crossed the Atlantic from Hamburg to Montreal in 1891. Numbers matter in this story of quotas and discrimination. Trans-Canadian Ravvin covers both coasts and much of the interior in Who Gets In. While Leonard Frank photographs the fate of Indian immigrants on the west coast, Lucy Maude Montgomery colours her Anne of Green Gables with a different German Jew on Prince Edward Island. The peddler sells Anne hair dye that changes her from redhead to green. The peddler is on the move after immigrating, trying to put down roots for future generations, but the wares he sells are the stuff of stereotypes. Eisenstein’s identity fits somewhere along the spectrum between Montgomery’s prejudice and Leonard Frank’s photographs.

            On the cover of Who Gets In three male immigrants stand facing the camera, each representing a different background that represents racial profiling. Ravvin analyzes each photograph that appears during the course of his narrative. The first photograph is of his grandfather in Poland in the 1920s as a young man in his early twenties, his birth roughly coinciding with the beginning of the twentieth century. This Jewish Everyman of the century stands with one hand clutching a chair, the other holding a book, as if his unknown future hovers between locating a seat and moving forward with book learning in hand to gain access to some form of settlement. Handsome and well-dressed, the protagonist of this picture cannot know of his future departure from Poland and his struggles in Canada. If I incorrectly label him as Everyman, then his grandson uses a different form of identity: “I might begin by calling him Z because of the Kafkaesque quality of his struggles,” but also because he is Zaida or grandfather to the author.

            Ravvin fills in all the blanks in his grandfather’s identity and itinerary admirably across Poland and Canada. Instead of the usual story of settling in Montreal or Toronto, Eisenstein heads out to Vancouver where his brother lives. In order to get to Canada in the first place he has to lie about his marital status. To be admitted, he has to be single and never mention his wife and two children left behind in Poland. This initial lie creates severe problems for reunification with his family because various Canadian government officials and bureaucrats refuse to allow his family to join him, even after he has established himself as a reverend in Saskatchewan. Every detail of rural life in Saskatchewan is fascinating, from railroad rides to small town depots. With the blink of an eye, the narrator can convey us from Saskatchewan to Ottawa where the authorities of “none is too many” carry out their policies of admitting a very few exceptions. As if Eisenstein were related to the famous Russian cinematographer of the same surname, the narrator develops his photos into a film’s montage: “If this were a silent film, then the next part of the story would open with an iris-in shot – the tiny black circle expanding to reveal a silver-and-white scenario that includes my grandfather aboard a train travelling toward his point of departure on Poland’s Baltic coast, the ship setting out for the New World at Southampton, his CNR trains departing for the west at Quebec City as he considers the tin of sardines that he’s been given sans key to wind back its top.” The key to Canada remains elusive for several years in his attempts to bring his wife and children over. Along the odyssey through the heart of this country we encounter Indigenous and colonial history, Ravvin’s narrative way stations. If you’ve never heard of Dysart, Saskatchewan, then you have no better guide to its history and geography.

            The reader experiences the frustrations of Eisenstein’s many attempts to break down the walls of entry. Included in his copious correspondence are letters and entreaties to Lillian Freiman in Ottawa, who eventually opens doors. One chapter, “The Train I Ride,” highlights a grandson’s quest for his grandfather. Ravvin makes his archives come alive, he saves his grandparents from oblivion in a Canadian kaddish for generations, and he invokes Isaac Bashevis Singer and Alice Munro along the way. Who Gets In is a warm-hearted, poignant page-turner and eye-opener whose lines extend from coast to coast. It is a fine addition to the University of Regina Press’s impressive list, and should be read as widely as the territory it covers.

Norman Ravvin is the award-winning author of The Girl Who Stole Everything, Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue, and A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory. Born in Calgary, he now lives in Montreal, Quebec.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ University of Regina Press (May 13 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0889779228
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889779228

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.