21 January 2011
In Halifax, the Canadian Jewish Congress has unveiled a monument commemorating the Canadian authorities’ fateful decision in 1939 to turn away a steamship carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. In May 1939, 937 Jewish refugees boarded the MS St. Louis, a German passenger ship, in Hamburg, hoping to reach Havana, Cuba. The passengers aboard were denied entry to Cuba and later also turned away from the United States, and also Canada.
At the time, the Canadian government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King followed advice from immigration officials who wanted to set a precedent and keep the refugees out. The officials told King that Canada could not accept the hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking refuge, and “the line must be drawn somewhere.” The ship’s captain had no choice but to bring his passengers back to Europe, and nearly a third of those Jews on board later died in the Holocaust. Many in Canada today consider the episode one of the ugliest chapters in the country’s modern history.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, head of the same department whose leaders kept the St. Louis passengers out of Canada, helped to unveil the memorial in Halifax, at the pier where the ship would have landed. Kenney said the memorial would be “a concrete, perpetual expression of regret on behalf of the government and the people of Canada.”
Designed by Daniel Libeskind, an American Jewish architect born in Poland in 1946 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, the monument is entitled ‘Wheel of Conscience’. It consists of a thick metal drum that stands upright on its side. A black-and-white photograph of the St. Louis covers the wheel’s entire face and extends across four circular gears of different sizes. The smallest and fastest-turning cog is labeled ‘HATRED’. Its teeth intersect with those of another, larger gear labeled ‘RACISM’, which in turn moves a third, larger gear that reads ‘XENOPHOBIA’. As the gears get larger, each one revolves more slowly than the last. The largest and slowest-moving gear says 'ANTI-SEMITISM'. The names of the St. Louis passengers are also engraved.
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