Daughter of MS St. Louis passenger welcomes apology

Fleeing Nazi persecution, more than 900 Jewish refugees boarded the MS St. Louis in May 1939 and headed west. Annette Wildgoose's mother was among them. On Wednesday, Wildgoose will hear the prime minister apologize for Canada's decision to turn the ship away.

Annette Wildgoose's mother among 900 Jewish refugees turned away from Halifax in 1939

Annette Wildgoose holds a photo of her mother and her mother's luggage ticket from the MS St. Louis. The ship, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, left Germany in May 1939, but returned to Europe after being refused safe port in Cuba, the U.S. and Canada. (Darren Major/CBC)

From a young age, Annette Wildgoose remembers hearing wisps of her mother's story, but never dared ask more about it.

"As a family, we were somewhat scared to open the Pandora's Box," said Wildgoose, 64.

Her mother, born Alice Meister in Leipzig, Germany, was among more than 900 Jewish refugees who boarded a German ocean liner called the MS St. Louis to escape Nazi persecution on the eve of the Second World War.

The vessel departed Hamburg on May 13, 1939, setting course for Havana, Cuba. Meister, travelling alone, was just 19. The oldest of five children, her parents had pulled together just enough money to buy her a berth aboard the ship.

The MS St. Louis: A survivor's story

CBC News Ottawa

3 years ago
Annette Wildgoose's mother, who was born Alice Meister, settled in Scotland after she and hundreds of other Jewish passengers aboard the MS St. Louis were refused entry to Canada in 1939. Most of the ship's occupants died in the Holocaust after being sent back to other European countries. 1:08

"Most Jewish families, if they had financial [means], could get one child out of Germany at the time," Wildgoose said.

The ship was repeatedly turned away, first from Cuba, then the United States, and eventually Halifax, where Canadian immigration officials employed the now infamous "none is too many" policy toward Jewish refugees.

The ship returned to Europe. Eventually, about half the passengers aboard the MS St. Louis found safe haven in the U.K., the Netherlands, France and Belgium.

About 500 ended up back in Germany, where 254 perished in concentration camps.

The name Alice Meister does not appear on the MS St. Louis passenger list, but Wildgoose still has her mother's luggage ticket from when she disembarked in Southampton, U.K. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

"She never really spoke a lot about this," Wildgoose said about her mother.

Mysteriously, Alice Meister's name doesn't appear on the ship's passenger list, but Wildgoose still has the luggage ticket her mother received when she arrived in Southampton, U.K.

Meister's father, a tailor, had sewn family photographs into the lining of her jacket for safekeeping. She also kept every letter she ever received from her family back home in Leipzig she kept. Eventually, those photos and letters would be all she had left of them.

Wildgoose's mother kept all the letters her family sent her from Germany. (Darren Major/CBC)

"She kept all of her correspondence between herself and her family from about 1939 right through to '42, when unfortunately they did not survive," Wildgoose said.

Meister eventually moved to Scotland and married, but continued to face discrimination, Wildgoose said.

"My grandfather, who I think is really the unsung hero in this, would vouch for my mother at the police station, because not only was she Jewish, she was German."

Memorial stones bearing the names of Wildgoose's grandparents, aunts and uncles outside their former home in Leipzig, Germany. (Annette Wildgoose/Submitted)

The couple started their family in the small town of Shotts, where Wildgoose grew up. When it came time for her to attend university, she chose to study in Canada — the country that once turned her mother away.

Wildgoose remembers the moment she told her mother where she was going.

"I think she was happy for me, but I think there was a look in her eye that said, 'Maybe I am losing my daughter as well.'"

Alice Meister in Scotland in 1964. (Annette Wildgoose/Submitted)

It wasn't until her mother was in her 70s that she slowly opened up about her experience, and eventually penned a memoir.

"I have read this many, many times, and she always wrote that she had no idea why she would be the one to survive," Wildgoose said. "All she could say was, it was as if a secret hand had been guiding her throughout her life."

Wildgoose's mother died in 2010 at the age of 90. Wildgoose now lives in Orléans and has a family of her own.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will apologize in the House of Commons for the government's decision to turn the MS St. Louis away. Wildgoose will be watching from the public gallery.

"It is extremely important to say that the apology is not just an act; it is what we do from here on in that is important," she said.

"It's not about the ship and about why it was turned away from many ports; it's about being kinder to other people."