On November 7, 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology in the House of Commons in Ottawa regarding the fate of the MS St. Louis and its more than 900 passengers. Trudeau apologized to the passengers, their families, and Jewish communities in Canada and around the world.
On May 13, 1939, the MS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg for Havana, carrying mostly Jewish passengers who were desperate to escape persecution in Nazi Germany. Although all the Jewish refugees on board had valid visas, they were denied entry into Cuba. Since the United States and Canada also refused to accept them, they had to return to Europe. The United Kingdom, Belgium, France and the Netherlands agreed to take them in. However, by mid-1940 the majority of the ship’s passengers, except those who escaped to the United Kingdom, found themselves under Nazi occupation.
Trudeau apologized to Jewish refugees whom Canada turned away, and for an antisemitic ”none is too many” immigration policy that precipitated the MS St. Louis incident. Commenting on the immigration restrictions in A Childhood Adrift, Holocaust survivor René Goldman said, “Luxembourg… gave asylum to more than a thousand Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe, which is more than was the case of immense Canada, whose prime minister at the time was the heartless William Lyon Mackenzie King.” (Goldman 12)
Trudeau also apologized to Jewish people who were wrongly imprisoned during World War II, to the members of Canada’s Jewish community whose pleas were ignored, and to all others who paid the price of Canada’s inaction. “Today, I rose in the House of Commons to issue a long overdue apology to the Jewish refugees Canada turned away,” he said. “By issuing this apology, it is my sincere hope that we can shine a light on this painful chapter of our history and ensure that its lessons are never forgotten.”
In this spirit, Canadian Holocaust survivor John Freund wrote, “So many people in the twentieth century made the move from their homeland to a new land. All longed for a visa for North America. Mine arrived in 1948. Had it been issued a few years earlier, my entire family could have become Canadian and would have survived the war.” (Freund 69)
In his statement, Trudeau grappled with Canada’s national past. It has been almost eighty years since the MS St Louis was turned away from safe refuge in North America. Clearly, if Canada and/or the United States had taken in the refugees, they could have saved the lives of more than 250 Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Events in real time are unrelated to hindsight and foresight, and history cannot be based on theoretical questions of “what if?” Educators, however, do employ hindsight with a view to shaping a better future. When teaching their students about the Holocaust and striving for a world without genocide, educators assign diaries and memoirs of Holocaust victims.
Recording life stories of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada has become an educational mission for the Azrieli Foundation. These human chronicles, documented for posterity, have not only become family heirlooms, but also historical memoirs geared for high school pupils and older students. On the one hand, they are autobiographies of a personal nature. On the other hand, they are texts with educational messages that teachers can incorporate into Holocaust curricula. The Azrieli Foundation established the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program in 2005, publishing more than 50 books–many in both English and in French–in order to raise awareness about the Holocaust in all of the Canadian provinces and beyond.
All of the published works begin with a scholarly introduction, putting the survivor’s personal story in historical context. A glossary of terms that the authors specifically note is included at the end of each book. The books usually feature black-and-white photos, which span the generations connected with each survivor’s life. In the case of Maxwell Smart’s memoir, Chaos to Canvas, the visuals are in color, highlighting the bounty of bright hues in his paintings.
Some volumes in this series are rather short and focused, whereas others are quite lengthy and address various topics. For instance, Max Bornstein’s memoir, If Home Is Not Here, centers heavily on his mental health issues during and following World War II. Although this aspect of Bornstein’s life may be of interest to a more mature audience, it may not be age-appropriate for younger readers.
Some of the stories in this series could easily be adapted for the big screen, such as Bornstein swimming in freezing waters to temporary safety in Vichy France (Bornstein 93-109); or Agnes Tomasov’s escape through the Tatra Mountains, “which was steep, rocky and narrow, the peak of which was almost 2,000 meters high” (Tomasov 17-27). Ultimately, luck played a role in the survival of almost all of these victims of Nazi Germany’s murderous policies. As Leslie Meisels recalls, “I could have been that person, perishing there and then. As I mentioned before, unforeseeable and unexplainable miracles were the only reason that I managed to survive that hell on earth.” (Meisels 43)
Some memoirs also shed light on little known aspects, such as daily life in Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, Willie Sterner was a police chief in a camp for displaced persons (DPs) in Austria. He provides a fascinating account of his ties with Austrian counterparts and the situations they faced with the DP camp population, as well as with the local non-Jewish population in The Shadows Behind Me (Sterner 118-122).
In tandem with Trudeau’s apology, Canadian Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism Pablo Rodriguez said that “the memory of the MS St. Louis reminds us of how far we have travelled since 1939 and rekindles our commitment to fight antisemitism everywhere.”
Rodriguez also noted, “Every year, thousands of people from around the world choose to settle in Canada and are warmly welcomed by our dynamic, inclusive and open country.” However, many survivors described a markedly different reception in this memoir series. For instance, Nate Leipciger recalled his encounters with Canadian representatives in Bavaria and the trials and tribulations before finally receiving permission to immigrate to Canada (Leipciger 176-178).
Maxwell Smart described many of the challenges he faced as a teenaged newcomer to Canada. He explains that Saul Hayes, head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, negotiated with the Canadian government to admit approximately one thousand Jewish orphans after the war. Smart remarked that Ottawa was “opening the door slightly, but without enthusiasm” (Smart 115). Smart also criticized members of the Canadian Jewish community at the time who believed that Holocaust “orphans should go to work and that they didn’t have to educate us; they had done enough by bringing us to Canada” (Smart 120). He continued, “It is not sufficient to transport a child into a new country and abandon him because he is capable of making twenty dollars a week” (Smart 121).
According to Leipciger, racism did not end after he reached Canadian shores. In his memoir, he focused on the importance of helping refugees to find work since they often face adversity in the job market. As a result of the discrimination that he himself faced in Canada as a newcomer, he commented on his own social responsibility to hire refugees. “It became a feature of our firm that we did not discriminate against anyone’s religion or ethnicity,” said Leipciger. “Our office was a reflection of the immigrant population in Toronto – with each influx of refugees and every world crisis that produced refugees, we were in the forefront, accepting them” (Leipciger 217).
In the conclusion of his memoir, Meisels underscored the danger of hatred. He warned his readers, as well as everyone who has heard him bear witness in person, that “hatred can start first with verbal abuse and even with just a mild joke about some individual or group, but it can accelerate to beating and then killing the oppressed; the Holocaust is an unparalleled example in history” (Meisels 80).
The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program is “guided by the certainty that these stories, the voices of the survivors, cultivate empathy and compassion and inspire action against hatred” (Azrieli Foundation 6). Trudeau echoed this message, underscoring that “antisemitism, xenophobia, and hatred have no place in this country, or anywhere in this world… We must always stand up against xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes and hate in all its forms.” Hopefully, teachers in North America and other continents will extensively use the memoirs, educational resources and programs that the Azrieli Foundation has developed. Moreover, contemporary and future Canadian policy makers will hopefully find inspiration in the voices of Holocaust survivors who made Canada their homeland.
- Azrieli Foundation. Azrieli 2017/18 Educators' Catalogue des Éducateurs. Azrieli Foundation, 2018.
- Bornstein, Max. If Home Is Not Here. Azrieli Foundation, 2011.
- Freund, John. Spring's End. Azrieli Foundation, 2008.
- Goldman, René. A Childhood Adrift. Azrieli Foundation, 2018.
- Leipciger, Nate. The Weight of Freedom. Azrieli Foundation, 2015.
- Meisels, Leslie. Suddenly the Shadow Fell. Azrieli Foundation, 2014.
- Smart, Maxwell. Chaos to Canvas. Azrieli Foundation, 2018.
- Sterner, Willie. The Shadows Behind Me. Azrieli Foundation, 2012.
- Tomasov, Agnes. From Generation to Generation. Azrieli Foundation, 2011.