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Irving Abella

Confronting our dark past Add to ...

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.

When they reached Havana, their luck ran out. The Cuban government refused them admission. For the next week, the frantic passengers vainly sought a port that would allow them entry. Every country in South America refused. The U.S. response was even more cruel; it sent a gunboat to shadow the St. Louis in case it got close enough to allow passengers to swim ashore.

Only Canada remained.

A desperate plea for permission to land was promptly rejected by Ottawa, despite the valiant efforts of the Canadian Jewish Congress. As the top official of the immigration branch explained to prime minister Mackenzie King: "No country can open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jews who want to leave Europe; the line must be drawn somewhere."

The line drawn, the passengers' last flickering hope for rescue extinguished, the Jews on the St. Louis were forced back to Europe, where many were killed in the death camps of the Third Reich.

Canada's response should surprise no one. As a country then permeated with racism and anti-Semitism, Canada arguably had the worst record of any Western nation in accepting Jews attempting to escape the Nazis. When it came to Jewish refugees, "none is too many" was the official policy.

Today's Canada is far different - tolerant, generous, culturally diverse, humane. But a nation cannot move forward without recognizing the darker parts of its past. And an important confrontation with our history will take place this Thursday in Halifax at Pier 21, where a monument to commemorate the ill-fated St. Louis and its passengers will be unveiled by the Minister of Immigration, whose department was responsible for shutting Canada's doors to the doomed Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 40s. What a redemptive irony.

And how symbolic. The very place where Jewish refugees would have landed and found safety, only to have the gate slammed in their face, will now host a permanent monument to their memory.

Where the Canadian Jewish Congress failed in its efforts to save the Jews on the St. Louis, it succeeded 72 years later in convincing government officials that memorializing that event and the tragic exclusionary policy toward European Jews is of significance to all Canadians. And this will be a unique memorial - not just a balm for old wounds but a forward-looking tool for remembrance and education. Designed by a child of Holocaust survivors, renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the monument is called The Wheels of Conscience. Its moving gears symbolize not only those of the ship's engines and of a callously destructive bureaucracy, but also those driving racism, hatred, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

It is a stunning work of art, a compelling reminder that in the 1930s Canada was put to the test of civilization and failed. There is an enduring plea in the majestic symbolism of Mr. Libeskind's sculpture: never again must Canada fail that test.

Irving Abella is the Shiff Chair of Canadian Jewish History at York University and co-author of None Is Too Many .

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