Who Gets In

11 August 2023

Who Gets In: An Immigration Story
by Norman Ravvin
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$29.95 ISBN 9780889779228

In Who Gets In: An Immigration Story, Norman Ravvin traces the route of his grandfather, Yehuda Yoseph Eisenstein, from Poland, across Canada to Vancouver, then back across the Prairies to Dysart, then Hirsch, in southern Saskatchewan, in the early 1930s.

Although Eisenstein was married in Poland, he entered Canada claiming to be single. This caused problems later when he wanted to bring his family to join him. Ravvin focuses his book on Eisenstein’s struggle to resolve this problem.

Eisenstein faced culture shock as he left a home and family in Poland, travelled across the ocean and across the continent, to wind up in the desolate Prairies, in the middle of nowhere, a land where he didn’t know the customs and couldn’t speak the language. On top of this, he faced discrimination as a Jewish person.

Destitution, or simply being out of work, could lead to an immigrant being deported. Although he was not a rabbi, Eisenstein’s training enabled him to perform the rituals and duties of one. This is how he made a living. Operating first in Dysart, then in Hirsch, he earned, as Ravvin phrases it, the “perfectly respectable Depression-era salary of $100 a month.”

But he still lived in fear of being deported. He had falsified his immigration form. Lying on an immigration form was a crime that could lead to deportation. Federal officials were not only reluctant to admit his family to Canada, they could also have deported Eisenstein himself.

Since Eisenstein couldn’t speak English, I wondered how he was able to write such eloquent letters requesting that his family be allowed to join him. I can only surmise that he wrote eloquently in Yiddish, and his letters were translated by friends, Jewish immigration societies, and even bureaucrats who retained his eloquent style.

By reproducing many of the letters between Eisenstein and federal officials, Ravvin allows readers to ponder how much of the officials’ reluctance to admit Eisenstein’s family was the result of their strict adherence to the law and how much may have resulted from discrimination because Eisenstein was Jewish. Government authorities, as Ravvin points out, had the power to crush individuals.

Ravvin has a flair for writing narrative history. Using notes recorded at a meeting, he takes the transcripts and turns them into a drama. He creates this dramatic effect by writing in the present tense, which provides a sense of immediacy, giving the impression that events are happening in real time.

For those wishing to do further research, this 266-page book contains notes, a list of sources, maps, an index, and thirty black and white photos and illustrations, including reproductions of some of the correspondence between Eisenstein and government officials.

Examining documents from various archives, Ravvin provides a heavily detailed account of his grandfather’s struggle to bring his family to Canada. Who Gets In is an important read because Eisenstein’s issue resonates so closely with Canada’s immigration policies today.


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