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S.S. St. Louis and human rights

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By Chimme Dolma

On May 13th 1939, the ship S.S. St. Louis headed to Havana, Cuba from Hamburg, Germany. It was one of the last ships to leave Nazi Germany in 1939 before Europe became involved in World War II. The ship carried 937 Jewish refugees who were persecuted in Nazi Germany after the terrifying night of Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. It was a night of anti-Jewish shop burning, houses being torn apart, and mass arrests. The Jewish passengers left behind many families and friends, hoping to bring them to Cuba when they earned enough money. Unfortunately, as the ship sailed closer to the border of Cuba, the Cuban government refused entry for the passengers. They also tried to seek entry to United States and Canada, but they were rejected and not allowed to dock. The S.S. St. Louis sailed back to Europe and the Jewish passengers were all sent to concentration camps under Nazi Germany. The S.S. St. Louis incident revealed how human rights were being violated not only in Germany, how Canada was not always a racism-free country, and how Jewish passengers in the S.S. St. Louis were used by authorities to prove a point.

This negative event shows that human rights were being violated by Germany as well as other countries. The passengers on the S.S. St. Louis were all Jewish families fleeing from Nazi Germany because of persecution and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, the discrimination towards Jews, became extremely active in Nazi Germany before and during World War II. This is racism: one race discriminating another race. Racism is a violation of human rights. For instance, none of the Jewish passengers on the ship were allowed to enter Cuba, United States, and Canada including many other western countries. Many Canadians were anti-Semitic. They also thought “If Germany didn’t want them, why should we?” They thought Jews could cause more trouble by stealing their money and jobs. In conclusion, Jews had their human rights violated just because they were Jews.

Canada was not always a racism-free country, because Jews who were already in the country already had faced discrimination. For instance, stores had warning signs that said, “No Jews Allowed.” Canada had one of the worst records of refugee-receiving countries. During the war Canada had admitted only 5,000 Jews, and rejected many more immigrants including the S.S. St. Louis. Racism was the main issue for the refusal as well as residents’ fear of losing their jobs to lower-cost labour. This fear combined with prejudice against immigrants, especially non-white people and non-Christian people. Eventually, when Canada discovered the Nazi concentration camps, numerous deaths, and stories from survivors, Canada had realized its past mistake. Canada finally allowed Jewish immigrants into the country after the war. 

Hitler could have stopped the refugees from leaving Germany but he had his own reasons for letting them go. He let them leave Germany on the S.S. St. Louis to see if any countries wanted them. Unfortunately, the results ended up in a failure. Not only did Nazi Germany want to get rid of Jews, but none of the other countries thought it was a big deal at first. He saw this as proof that he could continue with his genocidal plans without much resistance from other countries.

In addition to Canada, the United States made it very difficult for German Jews to immigrate. Visas were very expensive and it took a long time for families to get the opportunity to flee. Before they were even given the chance to pack their bags, many Jewish families were sent to concentration camps and forced to give up their jobs, money, and properties to the German state. During the Holocaust, 6,000,000 Jews were killed. In conclusion, if any of the countries were compassionate enough to let Jewish families immigrate, the extermination of Jews in Nazi Europe could have been less destructive and far-reaching. 

In conclusion, the S.S. St. Louis ship is important because it could have been a journey towards a better future for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and the Canadian government denied them this better future. The Canadian government learned from their past mistake and, after World War II, started accepting refugees from all over the world.

The S.S. St. Louis reminds us of the struggle of 937 Jews and the many sacrifices they had made to be on the ship that was supposed to sail them towards freedom. I think that Jewish people on S. S. St. Louis felt abandoned, neglected, and unwanted. They had a right to a home and to life, which they never got. However, the Canadian government is still refusing some refugees who are fleeing from their country to stay in Canada. This is similar to what happened to S. S. St. Louis because refugees who are trying to come to Canada are being rejected because of Canadian prejudice against them. Canada has to look back at their past and think about what happened when the S. S. St. Louis came to Canada for help and freedom. 

Chimme Dolma is a student at Parkdale Collegiate Institute.