MS St. Louis

Refugees on board the MS St. Louis trying to communicate with friends and family in Cuba who were allowed to approach the ship in small vessels. © National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

For the week of Monday, June 1, 2020.

On June 7, 1939, MS St. Louis, a ship carrying several hundred German-Jewish refugees, was forced to return to Europe on the eve of the Second World War, after being refused entry into a number of countries in the Americas. Of the 937 passengers, 254 died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór camps during the Holocaust. 

Three weeks earlier, this German ship belonging to the Hamburg-America Line left the Port of Hamburg with 937 passengers, the majority of whom were Jews escaping violent anti-Semitic persecution in Europe. Gustav Schröder captained St. Louis as it sailed to Havana, Cuba, from where several passengers then expected to travel to the United States. However, Cuba was refusing entry to almost all Jewish refugees, having just passed legislation that rendered their visas invalid. Schröder therefore decided to sail along the Florida coast in the hopes of gaining access to American ports, but was turned away by U.S. authorities. At the time, the United States was severely limiting the immigration of Jews, in part because the country was affected by the global economic downturn of the 1930s, known as the Great Depression, but also because it was not immune to widespread, systemic anti-Semitism. 

The news of a ship sailing the Atlantic in search of a country of asylum quickly reached Canada and, on June 7, a group of influential Canadians led by historian George Wrong petitioned Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to offer asylum to the St. Louis passengers. The response came from the Director of Immigration, Frederick Charles Blair, Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe, and the Deputy Secretary of External Affairs, Oscar D. Skelton. Their answer was clear: Canada would not provide asylum to the refugees. 

This refusal was reflective of Canada’s restrictive immigration policies, in spite of the revelation of Nazi atrocities. Canada accepted a total of only 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945, the lowest number among the countries that welcomed refugees during that period. The attitude of Canadian authorities was clearly summed up in the words of an immigration agent. When asked how many Jews Canada should welcome after the war, he replied: “None is too many.” 

George MacKinnon Wrong is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

 

 

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