Canada to apologize for turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany

Forced to return to Europe, 254 of the passengers on board the MS St. Louis were killed during the Holocaust.

May 9, 2018 12:44
2 minute read.
Canada to apologize for turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that he will deliver a formal apology before the nation's parliament over the fate of the M.S. St. Louis in May 1939.

Carrying over 900 Jewish-German refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, the boat was turned away by Cuba, the refugees' first destination, the United States and, finally, Canada. Forced to return to Europe, 254 of the passengers on board were killed during the Holocaust.

"When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the M.S. St. Louis, we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community," Trudeau told the March of the Living's 30th anniversary gala.

"An apology in the House of Commons will not rewrite this shameful chapter of our history," said the Canadian prime minister. "It will not bring back those who perished or repair the lives shattered by tragedy. But it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story, and continue to fight against antisemitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: ‘Never again.’ I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House."

The M.S. St. Louis was within two days of reaching Nova Scotia's Halifax Harbour when Ottowa refused to provide sanctuary to the ship's passengers.

The MS St. Louis at the port of Hamburg, Germany (Public Domain)

Assessing whether Canada ought to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, one high-level immigration agent famously remarked that "none is too many." Only 5,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Canada between 1933 and 1947.

The ship's refugees were accepted by the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands but many faced renewed danger in 1940 as Germany advanced through Western Europe.

The captain of the M.S. St. Louis, Gustav Schröder, was awarded the German Order of Merit after the war. In 1993, Schröder was posthumously recognized as Righteous Among The Nations by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for his "courage and determination not to abandon his Jewish passengers" that allowed many to survive.

In January 2011, a national monument to those on board the St. Louis was unveiled in Halifax. Called the Wheel of Conscience and financed by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the monument was designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, a son of Polish Holocaust survivors.

"What brilliant symbolism: The very facility through which these refugees could have entered and found refuge only to have the door slammed in their face will now feature an enduring memorial to their memory," said Libeskind at the monument's unveiling.

In September 2012, the US State Department publicly apologized for shunning the M.S. St. Louis, presenting proclamations of gratitude to ambassadors of the four countries that accepted the ship's passengers.

Between 1947 and 1955, approximately 35,000 Holocaust survivors were accepted into Canada, with their resettlement sponsored primarily by the Canadian Jewish community.

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