The Christmas season is here, unfortunately bringing with it an underlying sense of upheaval, unrest and uncertainty. Even as Canadians await the onslaught of immigrants whom we have willingly opened our arms and our borders to, there remains a certain amount of trepidation. For the most part Canadians do not want history to repeat itself and the majority is more than willing to open their borders to strangers in need. And so they should!
In 1939, 907 Jewish refugees aboard the transatlantic liner St. Louis were seeking sanctuary from Nazi Germany. Canada refused to take them and the ship sailed back to Europe, where 254 would later die in concentration camps. Their fate could have, no doubt, been avoided if Canada had not turned a blind eye to their plight. Canada is not turning its back on these refugees coming across its borders now and all over the nation people are exhibiting kindness and compassion.
But in spite of this Canadian welcoming committee, there exists a certain amount of fear and suspicion, triggered, no doubt, by the Paris shootings and, most recently, the horrible mass execution that took place at simple staff Christmas party in California. And so the evil and the violence, like a malignant tumor grows silently and Canadians in spite of their desire to follow the golden rule and do onto others as they would have others do onto them, are left feeling more than just a little nervous.
In spite of the hatred and the horror that continues to rock the world, there is really no option but to do the right thing and to keep the faith that the light of goodness will obliterate the senseless acts of terrorism. According to an Internet article, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was prime minster of Canada at the time the ship carrying the Jewish people sailed close to Halifax, wrote to Frederick Blair, who was the immigration officer at the time, saying he was considering the request to take in the immigrants. However, Blair was strongly opposed, and, in the face of such opposition, the prime minster did not pursue the issue further. Interestingly, not everyone agreed with the immigration minister or the prime minister’s decision.
University of Toronto history professor George Wrong petitioned King to grant sanctuary to the refugees and the non-Jewish German captain of the St. Louis, Capt. Gustav Shroeder. Capt. Shroeder argued first with the Cuban authorities, then those of neighbouring Caribbean countries and finally with American authorities to let the refugees land. There is no record of him lobbying Canada, but still he did not give up on helping his Jewish passengers.
Steaming back toward Europe, he promised his passengers he wouldn’t return them to Nazi Germany, even going so far as to plan to run his ship aground on the English coast if no safe port could be found. Promising not to take them back to Nazi Germany, the captain finally found countries who waved a welcoming flag for desperate strangers. At the last moment, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain accepted the refugees and the boat landed its human cargo in Antwerp, Belgium.
However, as fate would have it, Belgium, France and the Netherlands were later taken over by Nazi Germany. Many of the passengers were taken away and put in concentration camps. But, when the war was over, the captain and his kindness was not forgotten by the surviving Jewish passengers. These grateful people sent him money and food so he could survive in a war torn and broken Germany.
In 1957, two years before his death, the German government awarded him a medal for his services to those same passengers. This history lesson is here to remind us that kindness, like evil, can be found in unexpected places. It is up to us to decide where we want to look and which one we want to offer.
Treena Mielke is editor of The Rimbey Review and is a columnist for Black Press.