Nova Scotia

Ship of Fate exhibit tells dark chapter of Canadian history

It's a dark chapter in Canadian history, one that raises questions of a potentially anti-Semitic climate in Canada on the eve of the Second World War.

Exhibit housed at Museum of Industry in Stellarton until next month

MS St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany, prior to departure for Cuba in May 1939. (Courtesy of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Canadian Press)

It's a dark chapter in Canadian history, one that raises questions of a potentially anti-Semitic climate in Canada on the eve of the Second World War.

But the story of the MS St. Louis's voyage in May 1939 is one that should nevertheless be told, said Gerry Lunn, curator of exhibitions at Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

A travelling exhibition created by the museum and the Atlantic Jewish Council chronicles the trying journey of the ship's 900 Jewish passengers, who thought they were making their escape from Nazi Germany.

But when Cuba broke a promise to provide refuge, the ship searched for other countries to take those seeking a safe haven, only to be denied again and again, including by Canada — its last hope.

The passengers eventually ended up in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, which became overrun by the Nazis, as well as Great Britain.

About a quarter of them died in death camps.

"At first, it was a very happy voyage," said Lunn in an interview at the museum, pointing to a photo of two passengers blissfully smiling as they leaned out of a porthole.

"But when it became apparent that there was no way they could avoid going back to Europe, people started to panic. Suicide attempts were made."

The Ship of Fate exhibit, which will be housed at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton until the end of January, includes a metre-long model of the St. Louis and 11 traditional display panels that tell the little-known story of the voyage.

Visitors can use interactive kiosks to read scanned documents associated with the ship.

'Chilling' postcard

Also included is a postcard from a passenger on board the St. Louis a few months after the tragic voyage. Although it's not directly related, Lunn said it could be reflective of a broad anti-Semitic atmosphere in Canada at the time.

The postcard, which was addressed to someone in Halifax, includes what Lunn called a "chilling" phrase: "Good food, nice crowd, no Jews."

"It's casual anti-Semitism. The person writing this postcard obviously didn't think twice about what the significance of writing it that way was," said Lunn, wearing white gloves as he cautiously removed the artifact from a photo album.

"The way it's written, one would think that she's writing to a receptive audience."

Debra McNabb, director of the Museum of Industry, said it's important to reflect upon the negative aspects of Canadian history as well as the positive.

"It's important for our understanding of ourselves as Canadians to do that," she said in an interview.

Canada's role in the tragic event was first brought to light by staff at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic about a decade ago and an exhibit was created for the 70th anniversary of the voyage in 2009, said Lunn.

Some of Canada's key immigration officials at the time were blatant anti-Semites, but it wasn't the only factor preventing the entrance of the ship's passengers, Lunn said.

"Canada's economy was in terrible shape, so there was fear that letting in too many people of any sort, let alone a group of German Jews, would be poorly perceived by the Canadian public," said Lunn beneath the wood beams of the museum's library.

The exhibit has already made its way to Charlottetown, P.E.I., and several museums in Nova Scotia. Lunn said fundraising efforts are underway to help send the exhibit to more museums in Nova Scotia and across Canada.