Libeskind memorial to Jews rejected in Halifax unveiled

A memorial to the hundreds of Jews aboard the MS St. Louis who were turned away from Canada on the eve of the Second World War was unveiled in Halifax Thursday.

Sculpture commemorates ship of refugees turned away on eve of WW II

The Wheel of Conscience was created by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind to commemorate the St. Louis. ((CBC))
A memorial to the hundreds of Jews aboard the MS St. Louis who were turned away from Canada on the eve of the Second World War was unveiled in Halifax Thursday.

In May 1939, almost 1,000 European Jews fled Nazi Germany for Cuba, which had issued them visas. After sailing for a week, the ocean liner pulled into Havana harbour. After waiting for several days, the 937 passengers learned Cuba had changed its mind, and the ship was told to leave.

The captain sailed along the eastern seaboard, asking the United States and Canada to let the ship land, but both said no. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and about 250 of the people on board eventually died in concentration camps.

The Halifax monument, called The Wheel of Conscience, was created by the celebrated American architect Daniel Libeskind and unveiled at Pier 21, Canada's national immigration museum.

Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said Pier 21 was chosen as the site of the monument because that is where the St. Louis would likely have landed had Canada allowed it to do so. The ship was within two days of Halifax Harbour when Ottawa refused to grant the Jewish refugees entry.

"The St. Louis is not a moment frozen in historical time but is rather a part of the continuum of human experience and must be owned by all of us if its memory is to have any value today," he said.

Libeskind is the son of Holocaust survivors. He was born in Poland in 1946 and immigrated to Israel in 1957 and then to the U.S. two years later. He became a U.S. citizen in 1965. 

Libeskind said his father passed through Pier 21 on his way to the U.S. He said he wanted to tell the story of the St. Louis in a way that would recall the ill-fated passengers and affect people today.

"I thought, how does that image of that ship that people have in their heads — how does it fracture, fragment and disappear from reality because of the callousness of the machinery which drives not only bureaucracy or the ship but the machinery of forgetting?" he said.

"I thought, what are those elements that drive the tragedy?"

In this file photo of June 1, 1939, the German liner St. Louis, carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees, is denied entrance to the harbour in Havana, Cuba. ((Associated Press))
Libeskind said the gears that moved the ill-fated St. Louis — both literally and metaphorically — are represented in his work. The large steel sculpture looks like clockwork, with a gear labelled "Hatred" turning the increasingly larger gears of "Racism," "Xenophobia" and "Anti-Semitism." The faces of the visitors and an image of the St. Louis are dimly mixed in its machinations.

"You realize that you are not just in a static situation," Libeskind said. "We are in a living world, and part of that living world is that those structures of hatred, of bias, of anti-Semitism are all around us. How do we stop them? How do we create a better world?"

Libeskind, who designed the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto among many other buildings, is married to a Canadian and has lived in Canada. He said the country is a fitting home for his piece. He said he wanted it to help people understand that it is their decisions in the present that will make a better future.

'Greatest crime of human history'

Jason Kenney, the minister for immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism, called Thursday a day of commemoration and celebration.

"Had Canada taken a stand, had it been true to its best and highest values, had it opened its doors of refuge to those passengers fleeing the violent anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, it is probable that ... they would have walked down the gangplank right here," he said.

"How many other Daniel Libeskinds, how many other brilliant artists, creators, builders, entrepreneurs, how many human beings did we close the door to during the greatest crime of human history? We will never know."

He said it was important that the students who would pass through the museum's St. Louis exhibit learned about Canada's own history of racism and hatred as expressed by the rejection of the St. Louis.

After the war, Canada became the third largest refuge for Jews, after Israel and the U.S.  

Jon Goldberg of the Atlantic Jewish Council says it is important to remember the St. Louis and the lessons Canada has learned from it.

"We have gone from darkness to light as a country, and it makes me proud as a Canadian," he said.