Trudeau set to issue apology for 1939 refusal of ship of Jewish refugees

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OTTAWA — Judith Steel remembers holding her father’s hand, being told to look off in the distance, and feeling someone else take her hand — saving her from the train the next day that took her parents to a Nazi concentration camp.

It was a fate they hoped to avoid when they took her aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939, looking for refuge in Canada.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will officially apologize for a decision 79 years ago to close reject the asylum request from the more than 900 Germany Jews aboard the ocean liner as it neared Halifax, and forcing it back to Europe.

Most of the passengers scattered across the continent and more than 250 of them died in the Holocaust — including Steel’s parents at the notorious Auschwitz death camp.

The apology “takes some of that heaviness away from me and I certainly appreciate that,” Steel said Wednesday morning.

The carefully orchestrated event has been months in the making, but the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue almost two weeks ago has reshaped the tone of the apology with expectations that he make a broader statement about anti-Semitism.

“The whole premise of the St. Louis was the culmination of bigotry and hatred that is rearing its ugly head again and I think this is a very poignant part of this,” said Eva Wiener, 80.

Trudeau hinted at a broader theme in his apology during an early afternoon meeting with Ana Maria Gordon, a St. Louis passenger who lives in Canada. Inside his Centre Block office, Trudeau said he wanted to hear from Gordon about how the country could fight anti-Semitism.

The most recent figures on hate crime from Statistics Canada show the Jewish population was the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016.

“We had a tragic reminder just a few weeks ago that we need to continue to work together,” Trudeau said, referring the Pittsburgh shootings.

“This apology today is a piece of how we will continue to move forward together.”

The St. Louis left Germany with more than 900 Jews hoping to find them refuge from the Nazis first in Cuba and, when that didn’t work, the United States. The ship came within sight of Miami but the U.S. coast guard turned the ship around.

A group of Canadians tried to convince the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King to accept their asylum plea, but federal officials rejected the request.

Four European countries offered to take in the asylum seekers.

Steve McDonald, the director of policy with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said last week that his group hopes the apology is prod talks about “what can be done by all of us — regardless of our background — and particularly what can be done on the part of government and elected officials to fight anti-Semitism.”

“Anti-Semitism directly affects Jews, but it doesn’t only affect Jews and it’s not a Jewish problem,” he said.

The story of the St. Louis gained renewed interest last year when picture and stories of the victims circulated on social media in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban immigration and refugee settlement from certain countries.

“We 900 immigrants looking for safe haven were denied that and fortunately there are countries such as Canada who are willing to take those truly looking for safe haven and looking for a place to reside without being persecuted,” Wiener said.

The Liberals new immigration plan calls for up accepting to 16,500 protected persons in 2019, a category that includes refugees, growing to 20,000 in 2021. Critics say the figures are far too low while debate rages about “irregular” border crossers walking over from the United States.

News credit- The Canadian Press

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