Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question after giving a keynote address to the Vancouver Board of Trade, in Vancouver, on Thursday November 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question after giving a keynote address to the Vancouver Board of Trade, in Vancouver, on Thursday November 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Trudeau apologizes for Canada’s 1939 refusal of ship of Jewish refugees

Trudeau isssued an official government apology today for what he will call the country’s moral failure when Canada closed its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

Survivors and families of 900 German Jews whose pleas for asylum Canada ignored during the Holocaust received an official federal apology Wednesday, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed more federal help to combat anti-Semitic acts.

It was 79 years ago that the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King rejected an asylum request from an ocean liner carrying German Jews as it neared Halifax, forcing it back to Europe.

Most of the passengers scattered across the continent and more than 250 of them died in the Holocaust.

The decision to turn the country’s back on European Jews was “unacceptable then and it is unacceptable now,” Trudeau said in his speech on the week marking the 80th anniversary of what is known as “Kristallnacht” and the start of the Holocaust.

Trudeau said Holocaust deniers still exist and anti-Semitism remains prevalent in Canada — the latest numbers from Statistics Canada show Jews are the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes — and North America, shadowed by the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers inside a Pittsburgh synagogue almost two weeks ago.

The ensuing days have seen countrywide vigils and, Trudeau said, calls for the government do to more through a federal program that funds security improvements at places at risk of hate-motivated crimes, such as synagogues.

Trudeau pledged to listen to the request, but didn’t provide further details.

Read more: Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman dies at 96: ‘Better to love than hate’

Read more: Canadian Holocaust denier guilty of inciting hatred in German court

Before the apology, Trudeau met with Ana Maria Gordon, a St. Louis passenger who lives in Canada, to talk about how the country could fight anti-Semitism.

“The whole premise of the St. Louis was the culmination of bigotry and hatred that is rearing its ugly head again and I think this is a very poignant part of this,” said Eva Wiener, 80.

The St. Louis departed Germany in May 1939 with more than 900 Jews aboard, hoping to find refuge from Adolf Hitler’s Nazis and the policies that stripped them of their rights and fuelled violence against them and their businesses.

They first went to Cuba and, when the passengers weren’t allowed to disembark there, the United States. The ship came within sight of Miami but the U.S. coast guard turned the ship away.

A group of Canadians tried to convince the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King to accept their asylum plea but federal officials rejected the request.

Four European countries offered to take in the asylum-seekers, but 254 died in the Holocaust, including Judith Steel’s parents at the notorious Auschwitz death camp.

Steel’s last memory of her father was holding his hand, being told to look off in the distance, and feeling someone else take her hand — saving her from the train the next day that took her parents to Auschwitz.

The apology ”takes some of that heaviness away from me and I certainly appreciate that,” Steel said.

Between 1933 and 1945, Canada admitted the fewest Jews of any Allied country, Trudeau said. Of those Canada did let in, some 7,000 Jews were held as prisoners of war and jailed alongside Germans captured on battlefields, he said.

The story of the St. Louis gained renewed interest last year when pictures and stories of the victims circulated on social media in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.

“We 900 immigrants looking for safe haven were denied that and fortunately there are countries such as Canada who are willing to take those truly looking for safe haven and looking for a place to reside without being persecuted,” Wiener said.

The Liberals’ new immigration plan calls for accepting up to 16,500 protected persons in 2019, a category that includes refugees, growing to 20,000 in 2021. Critics say the figures are far too low while debate rages about “irregular” border crossers walking over from the United States.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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