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Exhibit tells story of the SS St. Louis

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The SS St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana, June 1939. [Wikimedia Commons photo]

HALIFAX — A display currently at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton, N.S., tells the sad tale of the SS St. Louis and its ill-fated passengers almost 75 years ago.

The story of how 907 potential immigrants seeking refuge from Nazi persecution in Germany and Europe were turned away by several North American countries, including their last hope, Canada, still causes shame among Canadians.

“It’s a story that should be told,” Debra McNabb, the museum’s director, said as the display was seen by dozens of people during a run that will end Jan. 31, 2014. “It’s the job of a museum not to censor history. We must not just tell the stories we’re comfortable with hearing. We must tell both the light and the dark.”

The Ship of Fate exhibit includes a metre-long model of the St. Louis and 11 traditional display panels that tell the little-known story of the voyage. Visitors can use interactive kiosks to read scanned documents associated with the ship.

The panels show photos of German-Jewish families holding one another and smiling as the luxury liner turns away from a nation descending into hate and sails off across the Atlantic. The panels also tell how the ship was turned away by governments in Cuba, some Caribbean nations and the United States prior to attempting to land in Halifax. It was forced to return to Antwerp, Belgium, and the passengers found refuge in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, which became overrun by the Nazis, as well as Great Britain. When the Nazi machine moved into those countries months later, 255 were swept up and exterminated in the concentration camps.

The panels were developed a decade ago by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. With the help of the Atlantic Jewish Council, which arranged for funding for a graphic designer and researchers, the display was officially opened in 2009.

Even then, there was interest in a travelling exhibit, said Gerry Lunn, the museum’s curator of exhibitions. The panels have since visited Pier 21 in Halifax; County Museum in Yarmouth, N.S., and the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. A website is being developed to give the story of the St. Louis international exposure.

“The exhibit now can go to any synagogue, community centre or town hall – anywhere – if we can obtain funding to enable it to travel,” Lunn said.

In their research for the exhibit, Lunn said Maritime Museum staff unearthed Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s correspondence with his then-immigration minister Frederick Blair.

In 1939, King was ready to admit the Jewish immigrants until his immigration chief, Blair, known for his hatred of Jews, sent King a secret memo explaining that the passengers didn’t qualify under immigration laws. The oft-quoted phrase “None is too many” has been attributed to Blair. It’s a story many have said should still haunt Canadians today.

With the St. Louis heading back toward Europe, but still within reach of Halifax, University of Toronto history professor George Wrong led a group of prominent clergy and academics in petitioning King to grant sanctuary to the refugees on humanitarian grounds.

King, who was travelling in the United States at the time, wrote to Blair, advising that he “strongly consider this request.”

But Blair, whose race-based immigration policies saw Canada accept only 5,000 Jewish immigrants (compared to 200,000 by the United States) during the 1930s and ’40s, fought the move.

“Much to our shame, King, who had many Jewish friends, didn’t force the matter,” Lunn said.

In 2009, a survivor of the ship, Lisa Avedon attended the 70th anniversary Halifax commemoration of the events. She was only four years old in 1939, but had vivid memories of her first reception in North America as a passenger on the SS St. Louis.

“There are a few pieces I remember today,” the Toronto woman said at the time. “I know I was seasick most of the trip and saw only my stateroom and a bit of the deck. But I’ll never forget sitting in Havana harbour, where we were refused admittance at the last minute after being granted visas weeks before.”

Lisa said her uncle, living in New Jersey at the time, came to meet Lisa and her family and was sitting in a boat beside the ship. “I called to him, ‘Take me with you,’ and I was ready to jump off the deck.”

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