Canada will apologize for turning away the MS St. Louis on the eve of the Second World War, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to an appreciative Jewish audience on May 8.
Arguing that Canada “must learn from this story and let its lessons guide our actions going forward,” Trudeau said, to applause, that he was “proud” to announce that his government will issue “a formal apology over the fate of the MS St. Louis and its passengers.”
Ending months of speculation and calls for an apology, Trudeau said one would be delivered in the House of Commons, where other apologies to redress past wrongs have been issued. He did not say when it would happen, but a source with intimate knowledge of the issue told The CJN that it would likely be in the autumn, once all stakeholders have had input.
The storied ship departed Hamburg, bound for Cuba, on May 13, 1939, with 937 passengers, who were desperate to leave Europe. Nearly all were Jews, mostly with German citizenship.
It was denied entry into Cuba, the United States and Canada, which “infamously turned its back,” Trudeau said. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where 254 passengers would perish in the Holocaust.
An apology “will not rewrite this shameful chapter of our history,” Trudeau said in an emotional address at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation. “It will not bring back those who perished or repair the lives shattered by tragedy.
“But it is our hope that this long overdue apology will bring awareness to our failings, as we vow to never let history repeat itself.”
Between 1933 and 1945, the Canadian government only accepted around 5,000 Jewish refugees, “due to our discriminatory ‘none is too many’ immigration policy of the time,” the prime minister said.
A “most egregious example of this misguided policy” was turning away the St. Louis.
Trudeau was the keynote speaker at a gala dinner marking the 30th anniversary of the March of the Living in Canada. The evening also paid tribute to Canadian Holocaust survivors who have served as educators on the trip.
At an earlier ceremony at Beth Tzedec Congregation, 47 survivors were paid tribute individually.
The annual voyage by students and survivors to the site of former Nazi death camps in Poland is “a tribute to both the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust,” Trudeau said. It “bears witness to this strength and resilience of the Jewish community from generation to generation.”
Trudeau recalled his own trip to Auschwitz in 2016 with survivor Nate Leipciger of Toronto, whom he warmly embraced at the dinner.
It is our hope that this long overdue apology will bring awareness to our failings, as we vow to never let history repeat itself.
– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
“Together, we stared at the barbed wire fences that once separated the enslaved from their captors,” the prime minister recalled. “We marched along the railways that delivered so many Jews to their deaths.
“We touched the railcars that took mothers, sisters, fathers and sons away from their homes and away from each other, including Nate’s family.
Together, we cried by the crematorium for all the innocent lives cut short by hatred, intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism.”
Trudeau said the trip “will forever stay with me and guide my time as prime minister, but also as a father, husband, son, brother and citizen.”
He went on to state that it “pains” him to say that Jews, more than any other religious group, are victims of hate crimes. He cited recent figures showing that 17 per cent of all hate crimes in Canada target Jews.
“We need to do more, as a society, to end xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes that still take root in our communities, in our schools and in our places of work,” Trudeau said.
Education “is our most powerful tool against the ignorance and hatred that fuelled the Holocaust. And I am proud to say that our government shares your commitment to the importance of Holocaust education.”
Trudeau paid special tribute to March of the Living’s longtime director, Eli Rubenstein.
The evening raised $1.9 million that will be used as scholarships for future participants in the program, noted fundraising co-chair David Matlow.
Greetings were brought by Israeli Consul General Galit Baram, who praised Canada’s “staunch” friendship with the Jewish state.
A number of other dignitaries attended the event, including: former Conservative cabinet minister Tim Uppal; historian Irving Abella and his wife, Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella; former justice minister Irwin Cotler; MPs Marco Mendicino and Michael Levitt; and Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons.
Canada’s Jewish advocacy organizations welcomed Trudeau’s announcement.
On Yom ha-Shoah, April 11, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs launched an open letter encouraging Trudeau to issue a formal apology for the St. Louis. The letter has garnered more than 3,000 signatures to date.
In 2011, a memorial sculpture commemorating the St. Louis refugees was unveiled at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, where the ship would have docked. The names of all the passengers are etched into the sculpture.