On Nov. 7, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized on Canada’s behalf for turning away the MS St. Louis from the Halifax harbour almost 80 years ago. Canada refused to accept the 907 shipboard Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 — as did Cuba and the United States. While some passengers eventually found refuge elsewhere, over 200 were returned to Nazi Germany’s clutches, to be murdered in the Holocaust. Canada has said little over the decades, at least officially. Now that is changing.
The timing of the prime minister’s apology – two days prior to the commemoration of Kristallnacht– is significant. The “Night of Broken Glass” — Nov. 9, 1938, when the Nazis and their henchmen rampaged through German Jewish neighbourhoods, destroying buildings and lives – made Hitler’s intentions clear. Just months later, the St. Louis and its precious cargo took off from Hamburg, a ship of Jews in search of safe harbour that would prove beyond reach. And worse: a harbinger of what was to come.
As we reflect on Trudeau’s apology, we might ask two questions: First, can a government apologize in any meaningful way for such a massively fatal dereliction of responsibility? After all, however sincere the regret, how can words make up for the deaths of innocents so casually flung back into harm’s way?
The short answer: an apology, yes; a meaningful one, not so likely. But there’s a fuller answer, too. There are different, sometimes unexpected, ways to acknowledge past evils other than through words. They too can constitute an apology.
I understood the compelling nature of non-verbal apologies best while wandering the streets of Berlin some years ago. I was stunned that the city’s architecture and buildings revealed all of 20th century Berlin’s history — literally all of it. Nothing of Berlin’s modern past is erased or hidden, save for what was destroyed during the Second World War — and even some of that has been restored. It’s all there, out in the open.
Berlin’s architecture conveys the message that a city and its people, once complicit with evil, need not pretend the past away. And, in fact, such a city is best served by preserving what was, rather than hiding it. Better to recall than to repress, better to know what happened than to forget or destroy it. Berlin’s preserved physical history conveys in architectural form much the same lesson that the Talmud records about the profound relationship between forgetting the past and the doing of evil. That is, the one who represses his past, especially its painful ignominies, is the most prone to committing evil.
But there is the second question we must ask about Canada’s apology: how do we determine if an apology is genuine? This is perhaps more difficult to assess, but I’d venture one thought: if Trudeau takes the apology seriously, he will have done his own homework. His own reading and lots of it, his own thinking. It won’t hurt, too, for the prime minister to know what the Talmud teaches with regard to sincerity: that which is a genuine product of the heart, once articulated, can touch the heart of the other.
The evil done to the St. Louis passengers 79 years ago is not unrelated to the anti-Semitism of today. In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, it is essential for the prime minister and his government to remember that. And of course, there is a clear link between the most recent manifestation of Jew-hatred and its most pernicious manifestation – the desire to rid the world of Israel. Would that Trudeau remind his countrymen and women that, had there been a Jewish state in 1939, the St. Louis would have sailed there — and found refuge rather than refusal.
Reconciliation begins with remembering evil. If he gets it right, and follows through with appropriate action, Trudeau’s apology can be very meaningful – even all these decades later.
Rabbi John Moscowitz is Rabbi Emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. This article was originally posted by the Canadian Jewish News.