Canada, belatedly, has come clean.
On the eve of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous nation-wide pogrom in Germany orchestrated by Adolf Hitler’s amoral Nazi regime, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology concerning Canada’s callous and shameful refusal to grant asylum to hundreds of desperate German Jewish refugees.
In a searingly honest and heartfelt speech before parliament on November 7, during Holocaust Education Week, Trudeau spoke eloquently about the infamous St. Louis incident, a deep scar on the conscience of the civilized world.
On May 13, 1939, the MS St. Louis, a Hamburg-America Line ocean vessel with 937 mostly Jewish passengers aboard, set sail for Havana, Cuba. Having secured Cuban tourist visas, they expected to find a haven on this Caribbean island. But only 28 refugees were permitted to disembark after the arrival of the ship in Havana on May 27.
On June 2, the St. Louis was ordered out of Cuban waters. Various Jewish organizations approached Latin American nations, but none were willing to admit the refugees. Nor was the United States.
Regarding Canada as their last hope, the 907 passengers on the St. Louis hoped that the Canadian government, headed by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, would allow them in, Trudeau said in recounting the somber chain of events.
Certainly, their plight touched the hearts of some influential Canadians, including Robert Falconer, the past president of the University of Toronto, and Ellsworth Flavelle, a wealthy businessman. They sent a telegram to King imploring him to show “true Christian charity” and admit the refugees to Canada.
Busy in Washington, D.C. accompanying the British royal family on the last leg of its North American tour, King delegated the matter to senior Canadian officials. He instructed the undersecretary for external affairs, Oscar D. Skelton, to confer with Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe and Director of Immigration Frederick Blair.
As Irving Abella and Harold Troper recount in their 1982 classic, None is Too Many: Canada And The Jews of Europe 1933-1948, Lapointe was “emphatically opposed” to the admission of the refugees, while Blair claimed they did not qualify under Canada’s immigration laws.
Blair added that no country could “open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.”
“And the line was drawn,” write Abella and Troper.
The St. Louis headed back to Europe, and the passengers secured refuge in Holland (181), Belgium (214), France (224) and Britain (288). But after the outbreak of World War II a few months later, all the refugees, except those in Britain, found themselves in countries occupied by Germany.
Two hundred and fifty four of them were murdered in Nazi extermination camps.
As Abella and Troper point out, Canada — a nation rife with racism and xenophobia in the 1930s — took in 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945. During the same period, the United States let in 200,000, Britain accepted 70,000, and Palestine, administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate, took 125,000.
Having taken stock of Canada’s heartless policy during this dark era, Trudeau delivered an impassioned speech, less than two weeks after a neo-Nazi shot and killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, in the worst antisemitic attack in American history.
“Adolf Hitler alone did not seal the fate of the St. Louis passengers or the Jews of Europe,” he declared in a telling passage. “To harbor such hatred and indifference towards the refugees was to share in the moral responsibility for their deaths. And while decades have passed since we turned our backs on Jewish refugees, time has by no means absolved Canada of its guilt or lessened the weight of its shame.”
Trudeau issued “a long overdue apology” to the refugees Canada rejected out of hand. “We apologize to the 907 German Jews aboard the MS. St. Louis, as well as their families. We also apologize to others who paid the price of our inaction, whom we doomed to the ultimate horror of the death camps.”
He added, “We refused to help them when we could have. We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. We failed them. And for that, we are sorry.”
Trudeau, who also apologized to Canada’s Jewish community, spoke of a painful truth: “We used our laws to mask our antisemitism, our antipathy and our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”
Much to his credit, Trudeau acknowledged that King — one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers and a member of the Liberal Party that Trudeau now leads — set the tone of utter indifference that characterized Ottawa’s attitude to European Jewish refugees fleeing persecution.
As he put it, “In the years leading up to the war, Hitler tested the world’s resolve. He noted carefully as country after country proved itself indifferent to the plight of Jewish refugees. He watched on as we refused their visas, ignored their letters and denied them entry.
“With every decree, he challenged the political courage of our leaders and the empathy of those who elected them. With every pogrom, he tested the bounds of our humanity and the limits of our solidarity. Adolf Hitler’s test was one the Canadian government failed miserably.”
In a reference to the world-wide upsurge of antisemitism, Trudeau said that Jewish Canadians “are understandably feeling vulnerable,” and noted there have been appeals “to protect synagogues and other places that are at risk of hate-motivated crimes.”
Saying that Jews are the target of about 17 percent of all Canadian hate crimes, Trudeau promised to do more to combat antisemitism. He did not elaborate.
Condemning the Pittsburgh massacre as a “heinous antisemitic act of violence,” Trudeau said, “Canada and Canadians will continue to stand with the Jewish community and call out the hatred that incited such despicable acts. These tragic events ultimately attest to the work we still have to do.”
Parliamentarians gave Trudeau a standing ovation.
He certainly deserved the applause.
Canada had finally and formally acknowledged its complicity in the deaths of countless Jewish refugees in Nazi-occupied Europe.