Toronto Suburb Delays on Changing Street Named for a Nazi

ajax nazi street

A Toronto suburb still has a street named after a Nazi despite a town council vote three months ago to change it.

Now, the local resident who led a campaign for the change, is accusing the town’s mayor of trying to subvert the majority vote despite the psychological harm the name causes the town’s small Jewish community.

Adam Wiseman is also threatening to take the question to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal if the town doesn’t act soon.

“There hasn’t been any official progress on this at all,” Adam Wiseman said in an interview. “The mayor has purposely delayed these proceedings even though he knows it is causing harm. He knows what is right and he is not doing it.”

In a letter to town council and the Ontario Ombudsman, Wiseman accuses Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier of “a pattern of actions … which make myself as a Jewish resident feel disrespected, unwelcome and unsafe. Mayor Collier is well aware that every day that the Nazi Warship Captain’s name continues to be honoured on Langsdorff Drive, it is causing harm to the Jewish community.

“The mayor’s continued efforts to delay a prompt action to rename this street is causing willful and intentional harm to the Jewish community of Ajax, Durham, Canada and the world.”

The street at the heart of the debate is named for Captain Hans Langsdorff. In 1939, as commander of the Nazi warship Admiral Graf Spee, he sank nine Allied merchant ships in the southern Atlantic Ocean carrying desperately needed supplies to Britain.

Langsdorff was respected by Allied sailors because he allowed merchant seamen to abandon their ships before he turned his guns on them. In December 1939, after Graf Spee was damaged in an engagement dubbed the Battle of the River Plate, off South America, Langsdorff put his 1,100 crewmen ashore in Argentina and blew his ship up rather than continue a hopeless fight against a superior British force.

Three days later he committed suicide, leaving behind a note that praised Adolf Hitler as a prophet.

However honourably and decently Langsdorff acted during the war, Wiseman and others say the fact he fought for the regime responsible for history’s greatest crime against humanity means he should never be honoured in Canada.

Adding to the irony of the debate is the fact the Town of Ajax is named for one of the British warships that fought against Graf Spee. The town has an official policy of naming its streets for the Allied ships and sailors of the River Plate battle.

Wiseman’s campaign against the Nazi honour was supported by B’nai Brith Canada, Ajax’s resident rabbis and Holocaust survivor Max Eisen. The town’s diversity and inclusion coordinator also supported the change, telling councillors honouring a Nazi in Canada is “problematic.”

Natasha Sharman added “From a diversity and inclusion perspective doing so speaks to the deep traumas and history of World War II. It is a time where history is remembered, where the lives of the millions in the Jewish community were taken. This speaks to Langsdorff’s role as part of the destructive regime which is more painful to the Jewish community which is still in healing and mourning through this period of history and reality.”

After a lengthy meeting in November, marred by anti-Semitic comments from one councillor, four of seven council members voted to support the change. Since then, there has been a single meeting of residents of the street where new names were to be discussed. Wiseman accuses Collier of using the time to argue for keeping the name.

Collier did not respond to a request for comment.

Wiseman’s efforts are supported by B’nai Brith Canada. In a statement CEO Michael Mostyn said “As part of B’nai Brith’s campaign against Nazi glorification anywhere in Canada, we’ve been very active in seeing that the name Langsdorff Drive is replaced in Ajax, as a town council vote last November indicated it would be. Currently we are trying to determine why the name change has not yet been made but trust that the council will carry through on its decision, which we previously commended.”

The November debate took a bizarre twist when Councillor Ashmeed Khan declared he was opposed to stripping the honour from the Nazi because “Palestinians … are currently being oppressed by the Jewish state of Israel …” He later accused the town of “pandering to a handful of people” opposed to the current name.

Although Khan later apologized in an email for the remark, Wiseman says he needs to make a formal retraction, the mayor needs to condemn the comments and the town council needs to pass a motion of censure.

If those actions aren’t taken, Wiseman said in his letter to councillors he’s prepared to launch a human rights complaint.

Wiseman has said his effort is driven by the memory of his grandparents Charles Wittenberg and Eve Wittenberg who fought with the French resistance and lost most of their families in Nazi death camps.

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