Jewish Refugees – The St. Louis Affair
In the 1930's, Canada closed its doors to all immigrants. Though the door was closed to everyone, Canada has had a race-based immigration policy since the end of World War I. This policy was based upon stereotypes of what type of immigrant would benefit Canada the most. At the bottom of the list were the Chinese, the Japanese and the Jew. It was the feeling that Jewish settlers were unsuitable because they wanted to live in the city, while Canada wanted to attract people to farm and settle the rural areas.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King was responsible for Canada's immigration policy throughout the 1920's and during WWII. It was his immigration department, under Director of Immigration, Frederick Blair, that prided itself on its success at keeping Jewish immigrants out of Canada. Even as the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany became more apparent, Blair refused to open Canada's doors to Jewish refugees. He did not want Canada to become 'the dumping ground for 800,000 Jewish refugees'.
Toward the end of the 1930's, Canada had two opportunities to help the Jews of Europe. The first occurred in July of 1938, at the Evian Conference, held in Evian, France, convened by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thirty-one countries attended this conference, including Great Britain, who attended as long as the Palestine issue was not brought up. The trigger for the conference was the forced annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, which resulted in a further 200,000 Jewish refugees. The conference was opened by Myron C. Taylor... 'The time has come when governments...must act and act promptly'. Canada responded by stating that we were only interested in absorbing farmers, thereby slamming the door on the vast majority of Austrian and German Jews.
Of the 31 nations attending, the only country willing to help was the Dominican Republic, who offered special concessions to Austrian and German exiles. Immediately following the conference, the Dominican Republic offered to accept 50,000 to 100,000 refugees. Sadly, only 5,000 reached the D.R. before the outbreak of World War II. The thirty other countries attending the conference, including Canada, refused to help the Jews of Europe.
Hitler took this as a sign that nobody wanted the Jews. "In Evian," he said, "the myth of international Jewish strength and influence was shattered." The non-intervention of the rest of the world was one more step toward the 'Final Solution'. The Evian conference proved to the Jews something which they had suspected - that they were really on their own. The rest of world was silent. Mackenzie King said, "The admission of refugees perhaps posed a greater menace to Canada in 1938 than did Hitler."18 On May 15, 1939, the luxury ocean liner, S.S. St. Louis, set sail from Hamburg, Germany. On board were 907 Jewish passengers. They had been the upper class of German society prior to being stripped of all their assets by the Nazi government. What they did possess were entry visas to Cuba. The St. Louis sailed to Havana.
On reaching their destination, however, they were turned away. The Cuban government refused to recognize the visas. The search for sanctuary began. Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama were approached - all turned the ship away. Within two days, all the countries in South America had refused to allow the Jewish passengers of the S.S. St. Louis sanctuary. As the St. Louis made its way north, the United States sent out a gun ship to shadow the cruise ship to ensure that it did not enter American waters.
When word reached Prime Minister Mackenzie King of the plight of the S.S. St. Louis, he was in Washington, accompanying the British King and Queen on their American tour. He responded to the plight of the cruise ship saying that he was, "emphatically opposed to the admission of the St. Louis' passengers". Immigration Minister Frederick Blair stated that these refugees did not qualify under immigration laws, and in any case Canada had already done too much for the Jews, "...if these Jews were to find a home (in Canada) they would likely be followed by other shiploads. No country 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".
The S.S. St. Louis ran out of options and made its way back to Europe. Gustav Schroeder, the German captain who had compassion for the refugees, stalled on the return voyage. At one point he planned to scuttle the St. Louis off the English coast to provoke a rescue. He would set the ship on fire and evacuate the passengers ashore. But the St. Louis got a break, or so it seemed. Through miraculous negotiations, Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland granted temporary asylum for the refugees. Passengers disembarked in Antwerp, Belgium, and were moved to various locations. Months later, the Nazis overran three of those countries as World War II erupted in Europe. About a third of the St. Louis Jews perished in concentration camps.
The response of the world to the Jews on the St. Louis further justified in Adolph Hitler's mind the 'Final Solution'.