‘Have a Heart’ for desperate refugees in a world going mad

Kind-hearted RCMP officers welcome refugees to Canada at an irregular border crossing a few years ago

File this under ‘How soon we forget the lessons of shameful history,’ including one of the most shameful events in Canadian history.

In thinking about changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement, announced this past week during U.S. President Joe Biden’s official visit to Ottawa, I was soon reminded of the S.S. St. Louis tragedy.

With 937 937 passengers on board, the German-owned, ocean liner left the port of Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, bound for Cuba. Almost all were Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, death, and violence in Nazi Germany. The so-called ‘Nuremberg laws’ of 1935 had stripped Jewish Germans of their citizenship and civil rights. For a while, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, delayed some of the worst anti-Jewish persecution; but especially after Kristallnacht (literally, the “night of Crystal,” more commonly known as the “night of broken glass,”) a two-day, anti-Jewish, hate-orgy of violence in November, 1938, the persecution became much worse, deadlyand ominous.

“The German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry also hoped to exploit the unwillingness of other nations to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees to justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish goals and policies both domestically in Germany and in the world at large,” says an article titled, Voyage of the St. Louis, on the United States Holocaust Museum article website.

The Nazis must certainly have been pleased by the extent to which their hopes were realized. First, Cuba, refused to let the Jewish refugees disembark in Havana, despite earlier approval and the issuing of landing and transit documents, then the United States; and finally, Canada said, in effect, no way.

Before the St. Louis left Hamburg, it attracted a lot of news attention, especially in Cuba, where right-wing newspapers “deplored its impending arrival and demanded the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees,” says the Holocaust Museum article.

“Reports about the impending voyage fueled a large antisemitic demonstration in Havana on May 8, five days before the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg. The rally, the largest antisemitic demonstration in Cuban history, had been sponsored by Grau San Martin, a former Cuban president. Grau spokesman, Primitivo Rodriguez, urged Cubans to ‘fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.’ The demonstration drew 40,000 spectators. Thousands more listened on the radio.”

The passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government. They weren’t told before the St. Louis left Hamburg that Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree invalidating all recently-issued, Cuban landing certificates.

The St. Louis reached Havana on May 27, 1939. Cuban officials allowed 28 passengers to disembark: 22 were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas. The other six were Spanish citizens and Cubans with valid documents. One passenger who tried to commit suicide was allowed ashore to be taken to hospital. Another person had died of natural causes on the voyage. The remaining 908 Jewish, refugee passengers carried documents issued corruptly by the Director-General of the Cuban Immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzale, and no longer valid. Of those, 743 had applied for but were still waiting for U.S. immigration visas. The ship’s Captain, Gustav Schroder, refused to leave Havana Harbor; but talks aimed at allowing the refugees to disembark failed. On June 6 President Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Havana harbor.

Capt. Schroder took the St. Louis slowly north in hopes the U.S. would allow the refugees ashore at one of the many ports on the eastern seaboard.

“Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded,” according to the Holocaust Museum article. “The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

Apparently, some things never change:

“Both of our countries believe in safe, fair and orderly migration, refugee protection, and border security. This is why we will now apply the Safe Third Country Agreement to asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry,” Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau said at a news conference during U.S. President Biden visit, the CBC reported. “After midnight tonight, police and border officers will enforce the agreement, and return irregular border crossers to the closest port of entry with the United States,” Trudeau added.

As the St. Louis continued north toward Canada, a group of prominent citizens petitioned Prime Minister Willian Lyon Mackenzie King to offer the refugees sanctuary. He passed it off to other high-ranking officials, including Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, and Frederick Blair, director of Immigration, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia:

“Lapointe was ‘emphatically opposed’ to admitting the refugees, and Blair argued that they did not qualify under current immigration laws – laws he had created. ‘No country,’ according to Blair, ‘could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.’”

“At the time religious intolerance and antisemitism were common in Canadian society and even in its cultural and political leaders — right up to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King,” The Encyclopedia Canada article says. It goes on to quote from King’s private diary entry from March 29, 1938:

“We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood, as much the same thing as lies at the basis of the Oriental problem. I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews.”

In fact, one of the worst anti-semitic riots in Canadian had already happened in the summer of 1933 in Toronto, soon after the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers’) Party had made Germany a one-party, fascist dictatorship under its leader (Fuhrer) Adolf Hitler. The Christie Pits Riot on August 16, of that year, “remains one of the worst outbreaks of ethnic violence in Canadian history with over 10,000 participants and spectators,” says The Canadian Encyclopedia. “The riot was sparked by Nazi-inspired youth flying a swastika flag at a public baseball game to antagonize and provoke Jewish Canadians.”

With no sanctuary found, the St. Louis returned to Europe, docking at the Port of Antwerp, rather than Hamburg, Germany. With the help of a Jewish charitable organization, Great Britain took 288 passengers, the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214; and 224 found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the former refugees who found sanctuary in Britain, all survived except one who died in a 1940 air raid. Of those left on the continent, 254 died in the death-camps of the Holocaust.

In retrospect, it’s easy enough to see that under the circumstances at the time, and well-documented history as it is now known, Jewish refugees desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany just before the start of the Second World War were in urgent need of extraordinary, life-saving help. And if that meant that the usual bureaucratic process and rules needed to be set aside, so be it. That anti-Jewish racism played such a role in Canada’s failure to help save Jewish refugees remains shocking and shameful.

The world is now facing a similar humanitarian challenge with immensely tragic consequences as multiple crises arise: wars, the increasingly extreme effects of climate change; and most troubling, the resurgence of hateful regimes that exploit the worst of human nature and its fears: even in the most civilized of nations, including the world’s first and greatest liberal, modern democracy. It’s as if the world is going mad.

Meanwhile, millions of innocent victims have little or no access to bureaucratic processes: all they can do is try to escape one desperate way or another at the risk of their lives.

And if that takes them to Roxham Road, in Quebec, Canada, near the border between Canada and the U.S., or for that matter any other so-called illegal refugee entry point, are they somehow unworthy of being helped, saved from their fate, and thus “sent back?” To What?

Scottish refugees from ‘the clearances’ waiting to board a ship to Canada

To a large extent, Canada itself was made of such people: refugees from a genocide we of a certain age never heard of in schools: The Clearances, whereby Scottish highlanders, tenant farmers called Crofters, were forced, burned out of their homes on Anglicized, aristocratic estates to make way for sheep herds and deer yards. Eventually those refugees, the remnants of the McNichol clan included, found there way on poor ships to Canada.

The same for Irish refugee immigrants, victims of the devastating, mid-19th Century potato famines in Ireland. Many died on the poor ships. Orphan children were adopted by Quebecois families – hence, the prevalence of the name ‘Johnson,’ for one, to this day in many Quebecois families.

Nowadays, I suppose that might be called ‘Critical Race Teaching.’ It’s the truth, and it deserves to be known, and not forgotten.

Let’s have a heart after all, when the times demand it. There’s a better way than closing doors or building walls.