OTTAWA — It started as an apology for a shameful chapter in Canadian history and ended with an urgent call to fight anti-Semitism here and now.
On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a long-planned apology for the government’s 1939 decision to turn away the M.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 German Jews fleeing Europe.
His speech, just over a week after the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, showed how anti-Semitism shaped Canada’s response to Jewish refugees fleeing Germany.
“Today, I rise in this House of Commons to issue a long overdue apology to the Jewish refugees Canada turned away,” he said in Ottawa.
“We used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”
Since taking office, Trudeau has delivered several high-profile apologies, so many that he has faced the charge of apologizing too much. Critics wonder what work an apology does, who benefits and whether saying “sorry” is ever really enough.
But coming soon after what may have been the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, at a time when anti-Semitic memes and conspiracy theories abound, Trudeau’s remarks felt urgent.
“His speech, his words and his apology were very moving and meaningful,” said Avi Benlolo, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, a Canadian nonprofit organization. “What we appreciated from his speech was his focus on contemporary anti-Semitism.”
The apology connected past to present, showing how the hate that animated Canada’s treatment of Jewish refugees is still ingrained in contemporary politics in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.
Trudeau said 17 percent of all hate crimes in Canada target Jews.
“Holocaust deniers still exist,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is still far too present. Jewish institutions and neighborhoods are still being vandalized with swastikas.”
He condemned the attacks in Pittsburgh as a “heinous anti-Semitic act of violence.”
“Canada and Canadians will continue to stand with the Jewish community and call out the hatred that incited such despicable acts,” he said. “These tragic events ultimately attest to the work we still have to do.”
The story of the M.S. St. Louis has long been a source of shame for a country that likes to think of itself as a refuge.
In May 1939, just months before the outbreak of war, an ocean liner left Europe with more than 1,000 passengers, including 907 German Jews. The ship made it to Cuba, but the Jewish refugees were not allowed to disembark. The United States later turned them away.
With the ship days from Halifax, the Canadian government decided not to help. The ship was sent back to Europe, and 254 of those on board died in the Holocaust.
Canada’s rejection of the St. Louis was not an isolated incident. When it came to Jewish immigration, Canada’s policy at the time was “none is too many,” Trudeau said.
“Of all the allied countries, Canada would admit the fewest Jews between 1933 and 1945. Far fewer than the United Kingdom and significantly less per capita than the United States,” Trudeau said.
When the possibility of an apology for the M.S. St. Louis affair surfaced, some members of the Jewish community expressed concern that a decades-late apology for the turning away of the ship would be too little, too late.
Writing in the Canadian Jewish News, Sally Zerker, an emeritus professor at Toronto’s York University who had family members among those turned away, last year argued that an apology from Trudeau would be “meaningless.”
“It will not bring back my relatives, or offer me any solace,” she wrote. “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.”
On the eve of the apology, Michael Mostyn, chief executive of B’nai Brith Canada, wrote that the Trudeau government to take action by devoting resources to developing a national action plan to combat anti-Semitism and engage with Jewish institutions, including synagogues, on security.
“The Jewish community needs committed and concerted action on the part of government to combat the rising tides of anti-Semitism so that, hopefully, there will be no need for apologies in the future,” he said.