Zilla Coorsh, now 79, shares troubling story of voyage on 'ship that shamed the world'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will stand up in the House of Commons to apologize for the Canadian government's 1939 decision to turn away the MS St. Louis and its boatload of desperate Jewish refugees. Leslie Coorsh, whose cousin Zilla was the youngest passenger aboard, will be there.

Coorsh's Laurentians cousin attends prime minister's apology to those aboard MS St. Louis

Baby Zilla Coorsh is held by an unidentified adult aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939. (submitted by Zilla Coorsh)

The poster for the 1976 film The Voyage of the Damned bears the tagline,"The incredible story of the ship that shamed the world."

That movie was inspired by the tragic true story of the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis.

The youngest of those 907 refugees, Zilla Coorsh, was just a baby when the MS St. Louis set sail from Europe in 1939.

Today, her cousin, Leslie Coorsh of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., will be in Ottawa to hear an apology meant to address some of that shame.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will stand up in the House of Commons to apologize for the Canadian government's decision 79 years ago to turn away the ship and its boatload of desperate Jewish refugees.

Every passenger on board had paid for a visa for Cuba, but Cuba allowed only 29 people off the boat. The MS St. Louis plied the east coast of North America seeking safe harbour. None was found in the U.S.

The Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King also turned away the ship.

Zilla Coorsh has hung onto this clipping from the June 22, 1939 edition of the London Daily Mail all her life. 'Refugees reach London at last,' reads the headline. Zilla, the babe in arms, was the youngest of the 907 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. (submitted by Zilla Coorsh)

About half the passengers were taken in by the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Belgium. Many who landed in continental Europe were later captured and sent to concentration camps. Many more ended up back in Germany.

In all, 254 people from the ship were killed in concentration and internment camps.

"It's very upsetting," said Leslie Coorsh, whose cousin Gerry is married to Zilla. "I, too, lost a lot of my family in the Holocaust, and it's all relevant to me."

Apology long time coming

Zilla was six months old when she and her parents left Hamburg, Germany on the MS St. Louis.

Old photos and newspaper clippings show the infant Zilla, dressed in a white gown.

Though she doesn't remember anything from her time on board the doomed ship, the story has troubled her.

"It was a terrible thing," said Zilla Coorsh, now 79, from her home in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

"When most people refused to have the refugees from the ship, it played into Hitler's hands to prove that nobody in the world wanted the Jews."

She said it wasn't until her late teens that she learned about what she and her family had gone through.

"The same as with a lot of refugees and people who had gone through terrible times, my parents were very reluctant to speak to me [about the MS St. Louis]. Most questions that were asked weren't answered," she said.

Zilla says it was a pure stroke of luck that led to her and her family's survival.
Zilla Coorsh still has this menu from the dining room of the MS St. Louis, dated May 25, 1939. (submitted by Zilla Coorsh)

After passengers were refused permission to disembark in Canada, the ship set sail for Europe. The passengers were called into a room, and the ship's purser had a list with of names and which country had accepted them.

Zilla says her family's name wasn't on the list. When asked where he wanted to be settled, she says her father chose England.

"Even though he knew his brother [also on board] was going to France, he wanted to come to England," said Zilla. "He knew it was the safest bet to keep his family safe."

"We were very lucky, and I always felt we were very lucky to come to England."

The Nazis eventually captured Zilla's uncle, Alfred Dresel, in France. He died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Zilla Coorsh said Trudeau's apology means a lot to her.

"It's a very nice gesture. It's a shame it's taken so long. In this time when there's rising anti-Semitism, it's a very courageous thing for him to do."

She hopes the other countries which refused to accept the MS St. Louis will also apologize.

Zilla Coorsh and her daughter Danielle hold memorial stones in the memory of family killed in the Holocaust. (submitted by Zilla Coorsh)

Zilla Coorsh could not be in the House of Commons to hear Trudeau's apology in person, having only recently received notice about it.

"She is thrilled to know that I am going on her behalf and representing her at the apology Prime Minister Trudeau is extending," said Leslie Coorsh, who learned from another cousin in the United States about her family's connection to the MS St. Louis.

"I'm very happy for her. I feel happy that at least someone is doing something about this and recognizing it. If Zilla was here, I'm sure she'd be very happy to be experiencing this as well."

The apology is expected to take place after question period.


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