By Shai Rotbard-Seelig
Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is observed on the Hebrew Calendar anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which falls on April 8 this year. On Yom HaShoah, we remember the 6 million Jews and millions of others killed by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
In 1939, the M.S. St. Louis set sail with 907 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Cuba rejected it. Then the United States. Finally, the ship approached Canada—a country known for accepting refugees—with the request of asylum. The fate of the Jewish refugees rested in Canada’s hands, but instead of accepting them, Canada forced the ship to turn back to war-torn Europe, where 254 passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
The M.S. St. Louis is just one example of Canada’s long and disgraceful history of antisemitism. On Yom HaShoah, we must remember not just the horrifying genocide in Europe, but also acknowledge our own country’s shameful role in the Holocaust.
Before the Holocaust, antisemitism was an accepted part of mainstream Canadian society, which according to historian Irving Abella, was “benighted, closed [and] xenophobic.” Buildings in Toronto had signs that read “no Jews or dogs allowed,” and so-called “Swastika Clubs” openly pursued antisemitic agendas. As Hitler gained power in Germany, this antisemitism only continued to rise in Canada.
The boiling point came on August 16, 1933, four months after Hitler was elected German Chancellor. The Jewish and Italian “Harbord Playground” baseball team faced off against the Christian “St. Peter’s” team from Bathurst and Bloor in their quarterfinal series in Christie Pits park. At the end of the second game, members of the antisemitic “Pit Gang” unfurled a banner bearing a swastika, inspired by Hitler’s growing popularity. The Jews rushed to destroy it and violence broke out. Over 10,000 people, including many Jewish H.C.I. students, fought with fists, knives and baseball bats for over six hours. To this day, the riot remains the largest instance of religious violence (by number of participants) in Canadian history.
Two years later, Canada elected William Lyon Mackenzie King, known for his blatant antisemitism, as Prime Minister. During his time in office, King rejected countless Jewish asylum-seekers, including those on the M.S. St. Louis. Furthermore, King’s government dismissed the majority of Jewish sponsorship requests, meaning that Canada actively prevented Jews seeking to reunite with family. In 1938, when American President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized the Evian Conference (an emergency meeting to accommodate Jews fleeing Nazi Germany), King refused to attend due to his personal antisemitism and wrote in his diary “My own feeling is that nothing is to be gained by creating an internal problem [of Jewish refugees] in an effort to meet an international one.” When asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept, he famously answered “none is too many.”
During and immediately after the Holocaust, Canada took in just 5000 Jews, the lowest number among refugee-accepting countries. By comparison, the US welcomed 200 000 Jews—40 times more than Canada—with a population just 12 times greater. Canada refused to support the Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution. This is shameful. As Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel states: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
While antisemitism is no longer accepted in mainstream Canadian culture, it certainly has not disappeared. According to Statistics Canada, Jews continue to face the most hate crimes of any religious group (more than double any other religious group as of 2018), despite constituting just 1% of the total population. On Yom HaShoah, we must learn from our country’s despicable antisemitic history and acknowledge the hatred Jews continue to face over 75 years after the Holocaust.
For more information on the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance, visit www.yadvashem.org