Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday apologized in parliament for Canada's refusal to admit Jewish asylum seekers fleeing Nazi Germany just months before the outbreak of World War II.
On May 15, 1939, the ocean liner MS St. Louis departed Germany and crossed the Atlantic with 907 German Jews aboard, desperate for refuge from persecution.
The passengers were barred from disembarking at Cuba, and then denied entry in the United States and Canada due to the discriminatory immigration policies of the time.
Forced to return to Europe, many were sent to concentration camps, and 254 died in the Holocaust.
Their emotional journey would later inspire the 1974 book "Voyage of the Damned" and a movie of the same title.
"While decades have passed since we turned our backs on Jewish refugees, time has by no means absolved Canada of its guilt or lessened the weight of its shame," Trudeau said in his speech on Wednesday, as quoted by AFP.
"Today, I rise in this House to issue a long overdue apology to the Jewish refugees Canada turned away," he added.
"We are sorry for the callousness of Canada's response. We refused to help them when we could have. We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Belzec," continued Trudeau.
Earlier, the prime minister sat down in his office with one of the survivors of that tragic voyage, Ana Maria Gordon, and her family to discuss the need to continue fighting anti-Semitism.
"We had a tragic reminder just a few weeks ago that we need to continue to work together," Trudeau told reporters, alluding to the massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27.
In Canada, there was a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, as B’nai Brith Canada reported in its annual audit in April.
There were 752 incidents of harassment, vandalism and violence in 2017, the report found.
The vast majority of the incidents took place in Canada’s two largest provinces: Ontario recorded nearly half the total, with 808, while Quebec had 474. The rest were scattered among the nation’s eight other provinces.
In his speech, Trudeau called on all Canadians to "stand up against xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes that still exist in our communities, in our schools, and in our places of work."
"Holocaust deniers still exist. Anti-Semitism is still far too present. Discrimination and violence against Jewish people in Canada and around the world continues at an alarming rate. Sadly, these evils did not end with the Second World War,” the prime minister said.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada, welcomed Trudeau’s apology.
“We commend the Prime Minister for today’s historic apology for the St. Louis incident, a shameful decision that reflected Canada’s ‘none is too many’ policy toward Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution,” said CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel in a statement.
“For many Holocaust Survivors, today’s apology is a profound statement that Canada acknowledges and regrets a decision that caused so much pain and loss,” he added.
“Canada has changed dramatically since 1939. Canadians can be proud that our country has become a world leader in combating anti-Semitism and in welcoming refugees. Acknowledging moments in our history when Canada failed to live up to our ideals will help us remain vigilant in upholding those values today.”
“Anti-Semitism remains a serious threat, as seen in the recent heinous attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, in which eleven Jewish Americans were murdered. According to Statistics Canada and Canadian law enforcement officials, the Jewish community is consistently the most frequently targeted religious minority when it comes to hate crime. We applaud the Prime Minister for committing to expand the Security Infrastructure Program, which provides valuable support to at-risk institutions within and beyond the Jewish community. We look forward to working with the government on this important initiative and on other practical policies to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms today,” the statement concluded