Exhibit confronts Canada's rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazis in 1939
OTTAWA -- A new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum is shedding light on a dark chapter in Canada’s history, when more than 900 Jews aboard the St. Louis who were escaping Nazi Germany were rejected by Ottawa, and forced back to Europe, where 254 passengers were killed in death camps.
On May 13, 1939, four months before the start of the Second World War, the luxury liner set out from Hamburg for a two-week transatlantic voyage to Havana, where the refugees hoped to live in peace.
“These were the elite. The cream of European Society,” Canadian historian Irving Abella told CTV News. “But they were all Jews.”
Only six months before, German Nazis had destroyed synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses in a ruthless wave of hate known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” which littered German streets. It was an ominous sign of what was to come.
Those who had the money paid for Cuban visas at the embassy in Berlin and left on the ocean liner.
Ana Maria Gordon was a four-year-old passenger at the time, travelling with her mother.
“She had a book to learn the first words of Spanish so when they arrived she could manage. Everyone was hopeful,” Gordon said.
But their dreams gave way to dread.
By the time the vessel reached Cuban shores, officials had revoked all but a handful of those visas.
And the ship wasn’t allowed to dock.
“Increased anti-Semitism, the corrupt sale of landing certificates, and recent changes to immigration regulations in Cuba kept the ship and its passengers in port for days,” The Canadian Encyclopedia explains.
So the captain carried on towards Florida. But the Americans dispatched the Coast Guard to make sure Jewish passengers would not swim to the United States.
Even Canada -- today widely lauded for hits inclusion and acceptance -- said no. Government officials at the time believed it would trigger a flood of refugees to the country.
“Canada was the last country that had an opportunity to save them and it refused,” Abella said.
Some passengers attempted suicide on the journey back to Europe. The vessel docked in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, just over a month after it had first left for Cuba.
As Nazi ideology swept across Europe, Gordon’s family was split up. She, along with her mother, ended up at Ravensbruck, the largest concentration camp for women in the German Reich. Her father was sent to Buchenwald. Miraculously, they all survived. And they all reunited in Amsterdam shortly before the end of the war.
“I feel very lucky -- very lucky to be alive. And I feel very sorry for the ones who are not,” she said in an interview from Toronto.
For the past nine years, Gordon has lived in Canada, the very country that once turned its back on her, but she says times have changed.
“You can’t blame the present for the past,” she said.
The irony isn’t lost on her son, Daniel Gruner, who is also proud to live in Canada, but wants to make sure the story of the St. Louis stays alive.
“Today it’s one of the countries that everyone admires for a number of reasons,” Gruner said. “That doesn’t mean we can exculpate the past.”
Several members of Parliament have been pushing for an official apology from the prime minister in the House of Commons. Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather is one of them.
“An apology was issued in the LGBTQ case, it was issued to the Sikh community,” Housefather said. “And I think that in similar circumstances the Jewish community is waiting for a formal apology in the House of Commons for an action that the Canadian government took that was very destructive.”
Last May, the prime minister apologized for the 1914 incident involving the Komagata Maru: the steamship that carried Hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers who were prevented from disembarking in Vancouver.
Referencing the victims directly, Trudeau said: “Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today.”
The exhibit at the Canadian War Museum -- “St. Louis - Ship of Fate” -- runs until April 29.