Lest Canadians fall prey to the illusion that our ancestors were guiltless in the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people in Europe between 1933 and 1945, we would do well to read this morning’s Globe and Mail article “From Daniel Libeskind, a machine of shame.” The article announces the unveiling today of a memorial in Halifax that is intended to keep alive the memory of the refugee boat the MS St. Louis that was turned away from Canadian shores in 1939.
In an associated opinion piece Irving Abella explains the plight of the MS St. Louis.
On May 15, 1939, 907 desperate German Jews set sail from Hamburg on a luxury liner, the St. Louis. They had been stripped of all of their possessions by the Nazis, hounded out of their homes, their businesses and now their country. Their most prized possession was the Cuban entry visa each carried. Yet they considered themselves lucky – they were leaving a country where living as a Jew had become impossible.
Tragically, the ship was turned away from Cuba and when it sailed off Canadian shores, we too refused the passengers entry into our country.
Be sure to look at the pictures that accompany the article. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/atlantic/ms-st-louis-the-ship-that-was-forced-to-return-its-passengers-to-the-holocaust/article1876651/
Look at the faces. These were real people: children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They left Germany seeking refuge from a vicious totalitarian regime which had as one of its primary goals the destruction of these people for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they happened to have been born Jewish.
We Canadians were unable to find room in our hearts to welcome these victims of discrimination and growing violence. We refused them entrance to our country and sent them back to a dark and chaotic Europe, where in some cases they suffered torture and eventually death in a death camp.
As a country, Canada did not have many opportunities to respond directly to the horrors that were unfolding in Germany starting in 1933. The MS St. Louis offered us one opportunity to respond with compassion to the terrible events beginning to unfold in Germany. By the most basic standards of human decency, our response was a dismal failure.
It has been argued that people in the late 1930′s did not know what was happening in Germany. But the evidence was everywhere. Voices of protest in the face of the atrocities that were mounting against the Jews were being raised. If we did not know, it is because we did not want to know.
Look at an outline of events relating to the Jews in Germany from early 1933 to May 1939, a period during which international media and diplomats had free access to every level of German society.
March 27 – A gigantic anti-Nazi rally, organized by the American Jewish Congress, is held in New York City. 55,000 people attend threatening to boycott German goods if Germans carry out their planned permanent boycott of Jewish-owned stores & businesses.
April 1 – Nazi boycott of Jewish owned shops, also Jewish physicians, lawyers and merchants takes place. Jewish students forbidden to attend schools and universities. There is international outrage.
April 7 – Hitler approves decrees banning Jews and other non-Aryans from the practice of law and from jobs in the civil service.
May 17 – A petition is submitted to the League of Nations protesting Germany’s anti-Jewish legislation.
Sept – The Nazis establish the Reich Chamber of Culture, excluding Jews from the arts.
Sept 29 – Jews are prohibited from owning land.
Oct 4 – Jews are prohibited from being newspaper editors.
Oct 19 – Germany resigns from the League of Nations.
May 17 – Jews are not allowed national health insurance.
May 21 – Jews are banned from serving in the military.
Sept 15 – Hitler announces the Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews of civil rights as German citizens and separating them from Germans legally, socially, and politically. Jews are also defined as a separate race under “The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor.” Hitler warns darkly that if this law does not resolve the problem, he will turn to the Nazi Party for a final solution.
Jan – Jews are banned from many professional occupations including teaching Germans and being accountants or dentists. The are also denied tax reductions and child allowances.
April 26 – Jews ordered to register their wealth and property.
June 14 – Jews ordered to register their businesses.
July – 32 The League of Nation’s Evian Conference, specifically convened to help Jews flee Hitler, results in no action as no country agrees to accept Jews, expressing “regret” they cannot take in more Jews.
July 23 – Jews over age of 15 are ordered to apply for identity cards from police.
July 25 – Jewish doctors are prohibited from practicing medicine.
Aug 11 – Nazis destroy a synagogue in Nuremberg.
Oct 5 – A law requires Jewish passports to be stamped with a large red “J”.
Oct 20,21 – First deportation of Jews from Vienna, Hamburg, and Prague to Poland takes place.
Oct 27,28 – Germany expels 17,000 Polish Jews. Poland denies them entry.
Nov 9, 10 – “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht). Nearly 1,000 synagogues are set on fire, 76 destroyed. More than 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes are looted, about 100 Jews are killed and as many as 30,000 Jews are arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Nov 12 – Jews are fined one billion marks for damages related to Kristallnacht.
Nov 15 – Jewish children are expelled from all non-Jewish German schools.
Dec 3 – A law is passed for compulsory Aryanization of all Jewish businesses.
Dec 14 – Hermann Goring takes charge of resolving the “Jewish Question”.
Jan 30 – Hitler gives a speech in Reichstag in which he states:
And one more thing I would like now to state on this day memorable perhaps not only for us Germans. I have often been a prophet in my life and was generally laughed at. During my struggle for power, the Jews primarily received with laughter my prophecies that I would someday assume the leadership of the state and thereby of the entire Volk and then, among many other things, achieve a solution of the Jewish problem. I suppose that meanwhile the then resounding laughter of Jewry in Germany is now choking in their throats.
Today I will be a prophet again: If international finance Jewry within Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the consequence will be not the Bolshevization of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but on the contrary, the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.
May – The M.S. St. Louis, crowded with 930 Jewish refugees, turned away by Cuba, the US, Canada, and forced to return to Europe
These actions were not done in secret. They were carried out with the knowledge of the international community. It was possible to read about the events taking place over this six year period in the morning paper and to hear them reported on the radio. Certainly, the international diplomatic community was thoroughly aware of what was happening to the Jewish community in Germany.
Canada knew what was taking place in Germany and chose to look away.
Our refusal to accept the Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis was merely the most visible manifestation of a stream of antisemitism that ran strongly through Canadian society in the first half of the twentieth century.
Marianopolis College history professor Claude Belanger describes Canadian attitudes in the 1930′s saying,
A particularly important factor in the plight of Jewish refugees was the widespread presence of Anti-semitism in Canada. This factor cannot be ignored or underestimated, although its impact is also sometimes overestimated. Historian David Rome wrote in Clouds in the Thirties (Vol. 11, p. 510): “The reluctance of the Canadian government to admit Jewish refugees in any great numbers was a fair reflection of public opinion [...] which was a strong Anglo-Saxon nativism permeated with Anti-semitism”. … Jews had few friends in Canada and many enemies.
In 1935 Frederick Charles Blair served under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King as Director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. Blair raised the amount of money immigrants must have to qualify to enter Canada, from $5,000 to $15,000, and declared that new immigrants had to be farmers. Since the majority of European Jews were urban residents, whose government had seized their possessions and forbade them from taking any wealth abroad, these restrictions made it nearly impossible to find refuge in Canada.
In a letter to a supporter of his anti-Jewish immigration policies, Blair wrote,
I suggested recently to three Jewish gentlemen with whom I am well acquainted, that it might be a very good thing if they would call a conference and have a day of humiliation and prayer, which might profitably be extended for a week or more, where they would honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular almost everywhere…I often think that instead of persecution it would be far better if we more often told them frankly why many of them are unpopular. If they would divest themselves of certain of their habits I am sure they could be just as popular in Canada as our Scandinavian friends are.
Even if Jews met Canada’s stringent immigration requirements, they were often turned away. Following Kristallnacht, in 1938, the Canadian Jewish Congress allocated funds to financially sponsor 10,000 Jewish refugees. The Canadian government rejected their proposal.
Our refusal to allow the M.S. St. Louis to land on our shores was not an isolated incident. It was not an aberration. It embodied a widely held Canadian attitude towards people against whom we held and unwarranted and ignorant prejudice.
It would be naive to assume for one minute that, given the same circumstances today, we would have made different decisions. It is certainly always easier to see the errors of history more clearly from a distance than when embroiled in the confusion of the moment. But the human community is never well served when we choose to forget or deny the errors of past generations.
If there is one slim silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that seventy-two years after the event we are finally willing to remember. One may hope and pray that as we remember, we will redouble our determination that we will not repeat the reprehensible choices of the past towards people who through no fault of their own find themselves in terrible danger.