The anti-Semitic history that brought Canada’s MS St. Louis decision to light

Good read on how the history became known:

The telegram reached Prime Minister Mackenzie King as he was escorting the Royal Family in Washington in early June, 1939. Now was the time to show “true Christian charity,” said a group of writers, historians and business people, and let the 907 German Jews of the St. Louis come ashore.

But Mr. King said it was not Canada’s problem and left the matter to officials such as Frederick Blair, the architect of Canada’s restrictive immigration policies, known for his inflexibility. “The line must be drawn somewhere,” Mr. Blair wrote in an internal document.

Almost 80 years later, another Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will apologize to Canadian Jews after Question Period on Wednesday for turning away the desperate refugees of the St. Louis, hundreds of whom would die in Nazi death camps. The purpose, he said last May, is to draw attention to this country’s failings, “as we vow never to let history repeat itself.”

The broader story – of Canada’s closed-door policy toward the Jews of Europe before, during and even after the war – is by now well-known. But that history, of which the St. Louis forms but one episode, might have slipped down a memory hole if not for a student’s discovery in public archives of that telegram entreating Mr. King to act, as well as memos revealing the chilly rejections that passed between government officials, which she copied and sent to her professor, Harold Troper, at the University of Toronto.

Intrigued, Prof. Troper sought additional expertise. A friend introduced him to Irving Abella, a labour historian. The two went to Ottawa thinking they might write an academic article on Canada’s prewar refugee policy. “We weren’t sure there was any story at all,” said Prof. Troper, still teaching full-time at the age of 76 at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in an interview. “Once we started digging, we found ourselves with a Niagara Falls of paper.”

They spent four years in archives and conducting interviews from Canada and the United States to Switzerland, Britain and France. The title of their 1982 book, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948, would be drawn from a remark by an anonymous government official, at a press briefing after the war, about how many Jews were now to be admitted into the country. “It was a sense of uncovering a scab,” Prof. Abella, 77, a professor emeritus of history at York University, said of the research. “We discovered how deep the commitment was to keep Jews out of Canada.”

The scholarly partnership came naturally to the two academics. Prof. Troper’s father was a garment worker, and Prof. Abella’s father ran a restaurant serving dairy meals to garment workers. Both had lost relatives in the Holocaust. (A “cascade of death,” Prof. Troper called it, in his family and that of his neighbours.) Prof. Abella had married a child of survivors, born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946. (Rosalie Abella is now a Supreme Court justice, the first refugee to hold that post.)

“I was a Jewish kid raised in Toronto with a PhD in history,” Prof. Troper said. “It had never occurred to me … what Canada’s role in the unfolding events might be.”

In all, Canada took in fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945, a period in which the United States (which also turned the St. Louis away) accepted 200,000 and Britain 70,000 (plus another 125,000 into British-administered Palestine). As for the refugees on the St. Louis, they were taken in by Britain, the Netherlands, France and Belgium – but were ultimately safe only in Britain. Two hundred and fifty-four died in death camps.

Prof. Troper recalls finding appeals from European Jews to a Jewish immigrant aid agency, who understood Canada was closed to them but enclosed photographs of their children.

“I was so caught up seeing parents trying to give away their children so they would have a chance at life.” He went home early from his research that day, overwhelmed.

“You read many of the documents, there are anti-Semitic comments – as if they’re talking about the weather,” Prof. Abella said. “It was just normal conversation. And this was a time when anti-Semitism was current in Canada. There were no Jewish university professors in all of Canada in the 1930s. There were no Jewish doctors in hospitals. No judges who were Jewish.”

Prof. Troper says he will never forget an interview with Malcolm John MacDonald, who had been British High Commissioner in Ottawa. “He told us the year he spent in Ottawa he had never seen such anti-Semitism in all his life.”

“Nobody cared,” Prof. Abella said. “Jews were a marginal issue. There was never a full cabinet discussion about Jews. It was always talked about at the tail end of meetings, sotto voce.”

Quebec was an important influence on the government’s policy, he said. “Quebec was opposed to all immigration because it felt that its influence in Confederation would be undermined. And since Jews at that time were the most visible of the minorities allowed into Canada, [Quebec] led the campaign against Jewish immigration and threatened Mackenzie King with separation, with a crisis in Confederation.”

But it was Mr. King – in power for most of the 1920s and from 1935-48 – and his cabinet who were ultimately responsible for closing Canada’s doors, the authors wrote. The PM’s diary records his sympathy for the racial ideas emanating from Nazi Germany: He feared “too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.”

A pro-refugee petition from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Dec. 7, 1943.


The work of the two professors had an immediate impact. At a time when Vietnamese refugees were fleeing their country in boats, Canada’s top-ranking immigration official, Jack Manion, read their academic article, published long before the book, and gave it to the immigration minister, Ron Atkey.

”This should not be you,” he told Mr. Atkey, who then spoke passionately about it to cabinet. “He drew the parallels to our attention, was moved by it himself, and we all were,” Joe Clark, who was then prime minister of a Progressive Conservative government, said in a 2015 interview with The Globe and Mail. Mr. Clark then increased Canada’s resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees to 50,000 from 12,000. And on that resettlement program, widely viewed as a success, the current government modelled its intake of 50,000-plus Syrian refugees over the past three years.

Mr. Trudeau’s apology comes 10 days after a gunman, apparently angry about Jewish efforts to help refugees from Central America, shot 11 Jews dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“For the guy who did the shooting in Pittsburgh,” Prof. Troper said, “when it comes to Jews and refugees, none continues to be too many.”

Source: The anti-Semitic history that brought Canada’s MS St. Louis decision to light

Trudeau to offer formal apology in the Commons for fate of MS St. Louis

Will be interesting to see if any of the groups that suffered from wartime internment or other restrictions (e.g., Ukrainian, German and Italian Canadians) will ask for an apology (Japanese Canadians, given the nature of their internment and displacement, received their apology under the Mulroney government).

This apology completes the most obvious cases of immigration restrictions which merit an apology (Chinese Canadians for the head tax, Indo-Canadians for the Komagatu Maru):

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will deliver another official apology in the House of Commons, this time over the fate of the MS St. Louis.

“When Canada denied asylum to the 907 German Jews on board the MS St. Louis, we failed not only those passengers, but also their descendants and community,” Trudeau said in a statement, which doesn’t say when he plans to deliver the apology.

The prime minister said that while an apology can’t change Canada’s history or bring back those who lost their lives, acknowledging the result of the decision to turn away the MS St. Louis — the deaths of 254 people in the Holocaust — is key to learning from the past.

“It is our collective responsibility to acknowledge this difficult truth, learn from this story, and continue to fight against anti-Semitism every day, as we give meaning to the solemn vow: ‘Never again,'” Trudeau said. “I look forward to offering this apology on the floor of the House.”

In 1939, the St. Louis left Germany carrying 907 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution from the Nazi regime. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States before trying to dock in Halifax.

When the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to let them disembark, the ship returned to Europe.

About half the passengers were taken in by the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Belgium. About 500 of them returned to Germany, where 254 were killed in concentration and internment camps.

Source: Trudeau to offer formal apology in the Commons for fate of MS St. Louis

Monument to Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis could be Halifax-bound

Good reversal (see earlier post Holocaust survivors: ‘Shameful’ that Pier 21 not displaying memorial to victims of ‘voyage of the damned’):

The future of the Wheel of Conscience, designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind to honour the vessel turned away by Canada and other nations during the Second World War, had been up in the air while it remained in a warehouse after being sent to Toronto-based builders Soheil Mosun for repairs last summer.

The museum and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) had been working together to find a better home for the monument, which features moving gears that had been experiencing technical difficulties since it was unveiled in 2011.

CIJA sent an email to members of the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants Monday to share the news that they had found a way to return the Wheel of Conscience to the museum, currently undergoing renovations, after it reopens in May.

“In the interim we will find a (site) for it in Toronto to ensure that it operates properly outside of the warehouse in which it is currently being stored,” Cindy Osheroff, assistant director of GA services and project management wrote in the email Monday.

Osheroff directed questions to CIJA head Shimon Fogel, who said in an email Monday that it was too early to comment.

Chapman said the monument will now be displayed on the main floor, which will provide easier access, and that the builders have resolved its earlier problems.

“(They) have said that they’ve made it much more robust and shored up the gears and things so that hopefully it won’t experience the same behaviours it experienced the last time it was here,” said Chapman.

Sidney Zoltak, co-president of the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, said he welcomed the news.

“I’m glad that it came to positive conclusion and hope that we don’t have to sort of have these kinds of disputes of things that have to do with feelings,” Zoltak said.

Monument to Jewish refugee ship MS St. Louis could be Halifax-bound | Toronto Star.

Holocaust memorial should be returned to its rightful home

Op-Ed by Bernie Farber and myself on the Daniel Libeskind memorial of Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis not admitted to Canada prior to the outbreak of World War II:

The Wheel of Conscience serves as a reminder, in today’s troubled times, of the need for a more understanding and welcoming approach to refugees, whether we’re talking about the millions displaced in the Mideast or the refugee claimants fighting for health-care access here in Canada. And it serves as a reminder, too, of the terrible cost of the opposite approach.

Treating the Wheel as so much junk packed away in a dark warehouse for no one to see is a disgrace. Canadian Holocaust survivors have stated their desire to have the memorial at Pier 21 where it properly deserves to be.

It is time for the federal government under whose auspices Pier 21 operates to take action.

The Wheel of Conscience belongs at the gateway to Canada, where it can stand as a canary in the mine, a cry against inhumanity and intolerance. Let it no longer be a refugee, let it be granted its proper home.