When Sam Sussel brought his law degree to Canada, among a few prized possessions he managed to take when he escaped Germany in 1935, he didn’t realize he would never hang it in a law office again. Today, his granddaughter, Vancouver lawyer Terri Cohen, proudly keeps this symbol of the profession that inspired her grandfather’s faith in the rule of law and the legal community.
Banned from his profession by the German government because he was Jewish, Sam, a World War I veteran, held on to hope that right would eventually prevail. But when a friend and local judge advised the Sussels that they were next on the list to be deported, they had to set out on a treacherous journey over the border into France, leaving the life they had led in Germany behind forever.
To avoid arousing suspicion, Sam and his wife Anne made the difficult decision to leave their two young children behind in the trusted care of their governess. After arriving safely in France, the Sussels sent a coded message to the governess to take Walter, about four years old, and Hannah, just over two, to the border. The children were pointed down a path and told to keep walking until they eventually met up with an uncle on the other side of the border.
Eventually, the Sussels made it to Holland where they stayed with family friends. After months of uncertainty, lawyers from the firm Friedman, Lieberman & Newson in Edmonton arranged to sponsor the Sussels’ safe passage to Canada.
“The rule of law was replaced by the rule of party, the rule of leader,” says Terri Cohen, a partner with Harris & Company in Vancouver. “The Nuremberg Laws were like the ethnic cleansing of the legal profession, and many other professions. Jewish lawyers were practising with non-Jewish lawyers and they stood by and let this happen. If the lawyers don’t speak out, who will?”
The Sussels had had to leave their parents behind in Germany until they were able to bring them to Canada in the late 1930s. Anne’s sister Hilda Billig and her husband, Ernst, a veterinarian, had earlier settled in Alberta. Veterinarians were in high demand in Canada at the time and he was able to continue his profession. But Sam, a seasoned lawyer with a doctorate from the prestigious University of Heidelberg, and Anne, a pediatrician, had to start over. Friedman, Lieberman & Newson offered to sponsor Sam to complete the three years of articling he would need to become a lawyer in Canada, but with a family to support, the financial hardship was one he could not afford.
“If the Friedman and Lieberman families did not have the strength of their convictions, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” says Cohen.
Sam made ends meet by importing tools from Europe, but shortly after the war began, trade with Europe was interrupted and the family had to start over once again. On a road trip through British Columbia, the Sussels, struck by the beauty of Chilliwack, decided to purchase a 25-acre farm. The two urban professionals, who would have been in the prime of their professional careers, reinvented themselves as farmers. Sam Sussel was 47 years old.
“I always admired how my grandfather was able to come to Canada, as a professional with this very privileged background, and turn that around and become a farmer. He was very practical, and had an incredible strength of character.”
Years later Sam became an accountant in addition to his work as a farmer, but the Sussels would never resume the professions they practised in Germany.
This November, the Sussel’s story will be featured as part of an internationally acclaimed exhibit, Lawyers Without Rights, which chronicles the fate of Jewish lawyers following Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. At the time, 58 per cent of all practising lawyers in Berlin and almost half of all lawyers in Germany were Jewish. Historically, anti-Semitism in Germany prevented Jews from pursuing many professions and trades. Law was one of the few professions open to the Jewish community.
The exhibit, presented by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the Law Society and the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, with funding from the Law Foundation of BC, will run through November at Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver. On November 22 the Law Society will host an evening public forum to examine the need to protect the independence of the Bar and judiciary in more depth. See page 18 for more information on the forum.
“Non-Jewish lawyers, judges and legislators strove to ensure that the five-year process of excluding Jewish lawyers, judges, court officials and law professors was carried out ‘legally,’ ” says Leo Adler, director of national affairs for Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and a Toronto lawyer. “We want to remind BC lawyers — and all citizens — that even in a democracy, the spirit and the letter of the law can be all too easily subverted.”
It’s a point that touches close to home for the Sussel family.
“Weimar Germany, prior to the Nazis’ ascent to power, was striving to become a democratic, multi-party system like we have in Canada,” says Cohen. “Democracy and freedom are something we take for granted but history tells us we need to be constantly vigilant. Lawyers are expected to uphold and further the rule of law in our society. We have an obligation and responsibility to be vigilant and to speak out when the rule of law is threatened.”
Sam Sussel’s legacy has had a tremendous influence on Cohen as a lawyer and as a citizen, and she hopes that BC lawyers will take the time to remember the past, and safeguard the future.
“I think Sam would chuckle to himself about the fact that he will be featured in an exhibit about lawyers because my grandfather, as I knew him, saw himself as a farmer,” says Cohen. “It would mean a lot to him to be remembered in some way as a lawyer. He would be very proud of his profession.”