In 1939, a German ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, set off on a voyage in which her captain, Gustav Schröder, posthumously honored by Yad Vashem, tried to find homes for 937 Jewish refugees from Germany. As anyone familiar with the war era knows, it was to be an ill-fated voyage,
The ship arrived in North America more than six months after Kristallnacht, when storm troopers and members of the Hitler Youth burned hundreds of shuls, smashed thousands of shop windows, attacked Jewish homes and businesses and killed more than 90 Jews.
Cuba accepted 29 of the refugees, but no more. The United States, and Canada refused to let the ship dock, and it ended up turning back to Europe, where some of the passengers were accepted in various European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the U.K. and France, but approximately a quarter of them ended up in Nazi death camps.
After the St. Louis was turned away from the U.S., a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade Canada’s then-Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship’s passengers. But Canadian immigration official Frederick Blair, hostile to Jewish immigration, persuaded him not to intervene.
In 2000, Blair’s nephew apologized to the Jewish people for his uncle’s action. Twelve years later, the U.S. State Department apologized for our own country’s refusal to permit entry to the refugees. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the Canadian Parliament and, on behalf of his government and country, offered his own words of contrition.
“We apologize to the mothers and fathers whose children we did not save, to the daughters and sons whose parents we did not help,” Mr. Trudeau said, admitting that the apology was long overdue.
“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.”
Hitler, the Canadian Prime Minister explained, “watched on as we refused their visas, ignored their letters and denied them entry,” Trudeau said in Parliament.
And he went ever further. “There is little doubt,” he stated, “that our silence permitted the Nazis to come up with their own, ‘final solution’ to the so-called Jewish problem.”
Mr. Trudeau confessed that Canada, at the time, “let anti-Semitism take hold in our communities and become our official policy. To harbor such hatred and indifference toward the refugees was to share in the moral responsibility for their deaths.”
And, speaking as he was, mere days after the massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, he warned of an “alarming rate” of discrimination and violence against Jewish people today.
“According to the most recent figures,” he said, “17 per cent of all hate crimes in Canada target Jewish people — far higher per capita than any other group.”
“Holocaust deniers still exist,” he continued. “Anti-Semitism is still far too present. Jewish institutions and neighborhoods are still being vandalized with swastikas.”
Mr. Trudeau warned, “We must guard our communities and institutions against the kinds of evils that took hold in the hearts of so many, more than 70 years ago, for they did not end with the war.” He pointed to the intimidation of Jewish students on some Canadian college and university campuses by the BDS campaign against Israel that he said makes them feel “unwelcomed and uncomfortable.”
And the sentiments of the Canadian leader, who leads the country’s Liberal Party, were echoed by the head of the opposition Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, who warned of “a disturbing resurgence and even normalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Hatred of Jews, Mr. Scheer noted, “was not eradicated with the defeat of the Nazis. It is, unfortunately and sadly, very much alive today.”
Truer words have never been spoken, as we all know all too well. Jew-hatred assumes an assortment of forms these days. Blatant ones, like the one that fueled the Pittsburgh massacre, and less obvious, but more insidious, ones like some “anti-Zionist” and “anti-globalist” sentiments.
The Canadian leader’s apology, like that of our own country, must be acknowledged and appreciated. Although the sins of the past were committed by people no longer alive, leaders of countries today are praiseworthy for confronting the action, or inactions, of their predecessors.
In the end, of course, apologies, no matter how heartfelt, cannot undo what was done. But they serve a laudable purpose by reminding citizenries about how terrible decisions made many decades ago need to inform people’s understanding of events that are most undeniably before their own eyes, very much in the present.