Better late than never
MAY 26, 2009 – The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research consists of representatives of government, as well as governmental and none-governmental organisations. Its purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance, and research both nationally and internationally.
Initiated by Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson in 1998, the Task Force currently has twenty-six member countries. Canada is the only western country that is not a member. All that is about to change. Next week, Toronto’s St. Louis Conference, organised by the Government of Canada and the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, is intended to support Canada’s full membership in the Task Force.
The organisers have good reason to name the conference St. Louis. To escape discrimination, 907 German Jews with visas for Cuba left Hamburg aboard the ship S.S. St Louis, on May 15, 1939. When the ship reached Havana on May 27, the Cuban government refused to let the refugees enter the country. On June 5, Cuba agreed to let them land if they paid $443,000 within 24 hours, a deadline the Jewish relief agencies could not meet. Panama, Argentina, Columbia, Chile and Paraguay all denied the ship permission to land. The Americans sent their coast guard ships to escort St Louis northward and away from the American coast.
None is too many
The predicament of the St. Louis touched some influential Canadians, who sent Prime Minister MacKenzie King a telegram asking that Canada offer the exiles sanctuary. King, preoccupied with the British Royal Family visit, did not think it was a Canadian problem. Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe was “emphatically opposed” to admitting the refugees, while Immigration Minister F.C. Blair said the refugees were not qualified under Canadian immigration law and that “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe; the line must be drawn somewhere.” When a delegation of Jews went to Ottawa in 1939 to ask the government how many Jews Canada would take in, the answer was, “None is too many.”
The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Those who disembarked in England were safe. Many of the others who left the ship in Belgium, France and the Netherlands were later caught by the Nazis and murdered in the Holocaust.
Canada has the shameful reputation of being the only western country during the Second World War to completely close its doors to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Yet, for Canada and Jewish Canadians, the Second World War was the Jewish community’s most sustained war effort ever. Out of a Canadian Jewish population of approximately 167,000 Jewish men, women and children, over 16,880 volunteered for active service in the army, air force, and navy. There were an additional 2,000 Jews who enlisted, but who did not declare their Jewish identity in order to avert danger if captured by the Nazi forces.
Of the 16,880 who served, which constituted more than one-fifth of the entire Jewish male population in the country, 10,440 served in the army, 5,870 in the air force, and 570 in the navy. 1,971 Jewish soldiers received military awards. Over 420 were buried with the Star of David engraved on graves scattered in 125 cemeteries. Thousands returned home with serious physical and mental wounds.
After the war, the government of Canada felt obliged to allow a mere 5,000 Jewish displaced persons into Canada, a mere pittance compared to the 16,880 Canadian Jews who had admirably fought for their country.
Next week’s Toronto conference is entitled The St Louis Era: Looking Back, Moving Forward.
I just hope the conference organisers didn’t come up with that name based on George Bush’s now famous quotation he made during his 1988 acceptance speech. “I will keep America moving forward, always forward—for a better America, for an endless enduring dream and a thousand points of light.” We all know where those dreams ended up.
(S.S. St Louis editorial source and photo credit: Courtesy of Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee)
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