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Project recalls 1939 tragedy of MS St. Louis

Tags: Canada Feb. 9 issue
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Herbert Karliner and Michoel Muchnik in front of Muchnik’s mural.

OTTAWA — The tragic fate of a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was recalled Jan. 25 at the launch of the MS St. Louis Commemorative Project, which features a new children’s book and a mural depicting the ill-fated ship and its passengers.

The project, funded by a $100,000 grant from the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, was spearheaded by Devora Caytak of the Jewish Youth Library of Ottawa and overseen by project manager Erica Phillips-Posner.

The MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner that set sail from Hamburg on May 13, 1939, with 937 refugees from Nazi Germany – 930 Jews and seven non-Jews – on board, hoping to find a safe haven.

Only 29 passengers were able to disembark in Havana, Cuba. The rest were then refused entry to the United States and Canada.

The ship was forced to return to Europe, where several countries did accept some of them. Unfortunately, even many of those who found refuge were later murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

One passenger, a young child at the time, was Herbert Karliner. He lost his family in the camps, but survived and made a life for himself in Miami, Fla. He was at the launch to tell his story, which drew both tears and smiles from the audience.

The author and illustrator of the book, So Near, and Yet so Far: Klara’s Voyage on the M.S. St. Louis, were present to describe the background and process of developing the project. Author Sara Loewanthal gave a dramatic reading of the book as its strikingly illustrated pages were projected on a large screen behind her. She was followed by illustrator Nicholas Jackson who described his research and showed the various stages of development of the sketches to paintings that formed the book’s illustrations.

The other component of the project is a large, multimedia mural by artist Michoel Muchnik, who described the symbolism of the various objects and depictions. The mural was on display in the foyer of Ben Franklin Place, the venue of the event, but it will be permanently installed at the Jewish Youth Library.

Speaking on behalf of the federal government, Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, said that “federal officials made a tragic and misguided decision” to deny the MS St. Louis the right to land in Canada, and he vowed that “the outcome of that decision should not and will not be forgotten.”

Ottawa city councillor Katherine Hobbs echoed the sentiment on behalf of Mayor Jim Watson and the municipal government, noting that “much has changed since 1939… it is my hope that all Ottawa residents take the time to learn about this important event in history.”

Israeli Ambassador Miriam Ziv and U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson  also attended the event. Earlier in the day, a video conference was held at the U.S. Embassy to introduce the project to various U.S. consulates.

One thousand copies of the book will be distributed to schools and libraries across Canada, along with an educational booklet for teachers on topics such as bullying, immigration and responsibility.

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