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Architect and designer Daniel Libeskind has been selected to design and create a monument marking Canada's 1939 refusal of entry to the 900-plus Jewish refugees on board the M.S. St. Louis and the anti-Jewish immigration policy that it epitomized. (Handout/The Canadian Press/Handout/The Canadian Press)
Architect and designer Daniel Libeskind has been selected to design and create a monument marking Canada's 1939 refusal of entry to the 900-plus Jewish refugees on board the M.S. St. Louis and the anti-Jewish immigration policy that it epitomized. (Handout/The Canadian Press/Handout/The Canadian Press)

Memorial

From Daniel Libeskind, a machine of shame Add to ...

George Orwell described in his novel 1984 a bleak vision of the future as "a boot stamping on a human face - forever." The author had been left shaken by totalitarian violence made possible by bland bureaucrats and fanned by hateful ideologies.

It's those underlying factors that Daniel Libeskind says he was seeking to highlight as he designed a memorial to the St. Louis that is to be unveiled on Thursday in Halifax. The ship carrying nearly 1,000 refugees, mostly German Jews, was turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada before returning to Europe in 1939.

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Mackenzie King, Canada's prime minister at the time, was urged by government bureaucrats not to accept the refugees. The rejection forced the ship to return to Europe and condemned hundreds of passengers to death.

"How do you represent something which seems very abstract to people, policies, how people shift papers from one desk to another?" Mr. Libeskind said in an interview this week from New York. "How do you represent that? The bureaucracy, it grinds slowly."

The world-famous architect opted to evoke that literally, with a series of gears marked Hatred, Racism, Xenophobia and Antisemitism. As one turns the next, they slowly dissassemble and remake an image of the ship, bringing to mind the fragility of modern civilization. Around the rim of the monument, which offers a haunting reflection to viewers, is the story of the voyage. On the reverse is a complete list of the passengers.

Mr. Libeskind said he intended it as "more than a helpless kind of memorialization of the past" and a clarion call for a better future.

The concept won a design competition spearheaded by the Canadian Jewish Congress, which is financing the memorial project with a $500,000 federal grant. The monument will stand at Pier 21, where the ship probably would have landed had Ottawa granted permission.

A telegram explaining the bureaucratic objections to giving sanctuary to the refugees is on display at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. In it, a senior Ottawa civil servant notes that the justice minister is "emphatically opposed" to allowing the passengers into Canada. He makes no reference to pogroms in Hitler's Germany and, suggesting a hint of pique, points out that "no publicity has been given" to the number of Jews allowed entry already that year.

The ship was turned away. Good luck allowed some passengers to reach safety in Britain. Others ended up in countries later overrun by the Germans. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum lists 254 of the passengers on the St. Louis as having died during the war, some in death camps, others while in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis.

Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber said the story can assist learning by serving as a microcosm of the "daunting" topic of the Holocaust. The memorial will be accompanied by curriculum material for schools.

"What we want young people to take away is that in the past we acted this way and acting this way cost people their lives," he said.

Among the survivors was Torontonian Lisa Avedon, who remembers little about her passage aboard the St. Louis as a four-year-old besides wretched seasickness.

"It's so important that the government and people of a country do not forget," Ms. Avedon said. "Both the positive and the negative things, the good and the bad that has happened."

 

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