Why I don’t want an apology for the St. Louis

Jewish refugees aboard MS St. Louis, 1939 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Jewish refugees aboard MS St. Louis, 1939. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

On Sept. 27, at the inauguration of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted that his government is considering apologizing for the 1939 MS St. Louis incident, when Canada turned away a boatload of Jews who were seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. To which I say: no, I don’t want an apology. And here’s why.

My aunt Chaya, my father’s sister, and her husband, Alter, had five healthy, bright children. In the 1930s, they were all set to leave their home in Lodz, Poland, and join their parents and siblings in Canada. The family would have been a great asset to this country.

My father’s entire extended family, with the exception of Chaya’s, had already settled in Toronto. My parents had come here in 1927, to join both their maternal and paternal parents and siblings. My father’s three brothers and one sister were newcomers to Canada and, like so many others, these new immigrants were doing everything possible to earn a living. They were determined to assemble enough money to bring their remaining sibling and her family to Canada.

Unfortunately, it took a few years to accumulate the required amount. By that time, in the ’30s, Canadian policy with regard to Jews wanting to settle here was in the hostile hands of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Frederick Blair, the director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources, who had the support of the Liberal cabinet and the caucus. They didn’t want any Jews to enter Canada – none. The result was that Canada had the worst record of any country when it came to the entry of Jewish refugees during the Nazi’s reign.

The application made by Chaya’s family to migrate to Canada was done in the normal way and to my father’s disappointment, their visas were denied. An expert on immigration was hired to appeal the decision, but that failed, as well. One reason given for the rejection was that Alter had a limp and was therefore liable to have tuberculosis of the limbs, which could threaten other Canadians. I don’t know how they came up with this excuse. One cousin who survived the Holocaust and came to Canada after the liberation confirmed to me that this accusation was utter nonsense. Her father was strong and young, had healthy legs and was fully capable of working, walking and running.


Canada lost out. My father’s family produced a generation that contributed to Canada’s interests – three PhDs in various fields, one rabbi who led the largest Conservative congregation in Canada, two outstanding medical doctors, one excellent dentist, four who earned different kinds of post-graduate degrees and were fruitfully employed in their respective fields and a couple of cousins who took their talents to the United States, including one who was a violinist in a Chicago orchestra. I am often filled with remorse for everything the Canadian Jewish community and the country as a whole could have gained, had bigotry and hatred not impaired the creativity and talent of the thousands of Jewish refugees who were rejected.

So why don’t I want an apology? Because it will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace. Instead, it will whitewash a government that did nothing to help the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and ignored the type of anti-Semitism that was endemic in Canada until the 1970s. Ultimately, it is nothing but a shallow, empty, meaningless act. An apology can’t right this wrong.

Dr. Sally F. Zerker is professor emerita at York University in Toronto.