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Jewish leaders welcome historic apology from prime minister

Canada turned away Jewish refugees in 1939

2 min read
caption The MS St Louis in Hamburg.

Even after 79 years, an apology given by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday was still welcomed by many within the Jewish community.

“It’s about righting the wrongs of the past,” said Rabbi Yakov Kerzner in Halifax.

The apology, delivered in the House of Commons, was to Jewish refugees who were refused by Canada in 1939. After being denied entry to Cuba and other countries, over 900 German Jews sought asylum in Canada. They were fleeing Europe aboard the ocean liner MS St. Louis.

As they neared Halifax, they were rejected based on the immigration standard of “none is too many” for Jewish refugees, which Trudeau called anti-Semitic.

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The St. Louis returned to Europe, leading to the deaths of over 200 passengers in concentration camps.

“The story of the St. Louis is no isolated incident,” said Trudeau. “The government of Canada was indifferent to the suffering of Jews long before it set sail for Halifax and sadly, long after it had returned to Europe.”

Kerzner, rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue, watched the apology online and said it was an important step.

“It makes those who did not live through the past aware of what others have gone through,” he said.

Naomi Rosenfeld, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council, called the statement “hugely significant.”

She spoke to The Signal on Wednesday before heading to Ottawa with other members of the Atlantic Jewish community to witness the apology. She said the St. Louis was “a historical injustice.”

“There are still so many Canadians, including my own grandparents, who feel the repercussions every single day,” said Rosenfeld who is the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors. “I think it is wonderful the government is acknowledging the wrongdoings of the past.”

Rosenfeld hopes Canadians will view this apology as a call to action.

“We need to look at the lessons of the past around refugees and people seeking safety and support, and we need to learn from those lessons,” she said.

The recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 Jewish worshippers, is evidence that anti-Semitism continues to be deadly, said Trudeau during the apology. He added that this week marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the beginning of the Holocaust.

Trudeau ended his speech with a promise to stand with Canada’s Jewish community.

“I pledge to you now, we will do more,” he said.

Despite a smaller population than other faiths in Canada, Jewish people are the most frequent targets of religion-based hate crimes within the country, according to Statistics Canada.

Relative to the horrors of the past, Kerzner said he sometimes feels complacent about the anti-Semitism he experiences, such as swastikas painted on synagogues and racial slurs. He cautioned, however, that these low-level acts can dangerously escalate.

Events such as Holocaust Education Week, which concluded Nov. 2, are important to avoid making the mistakes of the past, said Kerzner. He has hope for the future.

“The next generation is aware we can’t go on living with these prejudices,” said Kerzner.

Watch the full apology here:

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  1. C


    Okay nice to have that apology. But folks we have a similar situation happening right now. Immigrants marching to USA/Mexico boarder will soon be asking for help from Canadians. My question is have we learned from history or are we condemned to repeat it?
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