Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has recently been criticized for insensitive and thoughtless behavior in darkening his face as a costume for a private school gala as a young teacher and also as a high school student at a talent show. Such behavior is indeed unacceptable and indefensible and Trudeau has apologized for his behavior. Hopefully, these revelations won’t distract attention from another apology that Trudeau made, on behalf of all Canadians, less than one year ago.
On November 7, 2018, Trudeau, rose in the Canadian Parliament to issue what he referred to as a long overdue apology. In May 1939, almost 80 years earlier, more than 900 Jewish refugees fled the anti-Semitic excesses of Nazi Germany by boarding the MS St Louis, a German ocean liner, and sailing to Cuba. Unknown to them, the Cuban government had retroactively rescinded the visas they had been issued and except for a small number who had alternative documents they were refused permission to land. Frantic efforts to obtain safe havens in other countries in Latin America as well as appeals to the President of the United States (Roosevelt) and the Prime Minister of Canada (Mackenzie King) for permission to land failed as well and the ship sailed back to Europe. To his credit, the captain, Gustav Schroeder, refused to take them back to Germany and ultimately they were accepted by the UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. About 40 percent of the refugees that disembarked in continental Europe (254) were murdered in the Holocaust.
This was not the first apology with regard to the refugees on the St Louis. In 2012 the US State Department publicly apologized to a group of survivors of the St Louis while Deputy Secretary Burns stated that it is important to “ …vigilantly fight against antisemitism.” Moreover, in 2000 Douglas Blair, a Baptist Minister and great-nephew of Frederick Blair, the Canadian bureaucrat largely responsible for the Canadian denial of succor to the Jewish refugees on the St Louis, apologized, along with other Christian leaders, to survivors of the St Louis.
What makes Justin Trudeau’s apology remarkable is twofold: First, he is the first and only Head of State in North or South America to have made such an apology. After all, Canada had several partners in this episode, including the United States, Cuba and several others. Second, his apology goes well beyond the events involving the MS St Louis and his remarks include the following excerpts:
“In the years leading up to the war, Hitler tested the world’s resolve. He noted carefully as country after country proved itself indifferent to the plight of Jewish refugees. He watched as we refused their visas, ignored their letters and denied them entry…There is little doubt that our silence permitted the Nazis to come up with their own ‘final solution’ to the so-called Jewish problem….Adolf Hitler alone did not seal the fate of the St. Louis passengers or the Jews of Europe.
Trudeau’s observations are chillingly accurate. In reacting to the results of the Evian Conference held in 1938, a conference initiated by President Roosevelt to deal with the problem of what to do with Jewish refugees from Europe, it was noted by Landau in The Nazi Holocaust (2006) that Hitler commented “We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships (my italics).”
The conference was an abject failure. With the exception of the Dominican Republic, no country agreed to accept any Jewish refugees. As for the St Louis episode, it was reported in the Baltimore Sun (Rasmussen, 1999) that Hitler said, “The entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity, but then closes its heart to the poor tortured people.”
Justin Trudeau’s apology highlights an important and generally neglected point: The terrible events that led to the Holocaust were incremental in nature and each new step was made possible by widespread antisemitism and by the callous indifference of much of the world.