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November 23, 2000 ‘The ship that shamed the world’ still haunts our history



by Wendy Fletcher

Complicity among North America’s establishment, including George W. Bush’s great-grandfather, led to the turning away of some 450 desperate Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis.

The 40-day voyage in 1939 by “the ship that shamed the world” is the subject of an hour-long documentary, The Voyage of the St. Louis, made in 1994 by Concordia graduate Maziar Bahari, who now works in the U.K. The film was part of a Holocaust Education Series, sponsored by the Montreal Holocaust Centre.

The screening, co-hosted by filmmaker and Communication Studies professor Rick Hancox late last term, came two weeks after a surprise apology in Ottawa by Canadian clergy to 25 St. Louis survivors, including Herbert Karliner, one of the subjects of the documentary.

The German ocean liner S.S. St. Louis set sail on May 13, 1939, with 937 German-Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis’ “final solution,” the murder of all the Jews in Europe.

The ship and its compassionate German captain were bound for Havana, but the Cuban government revoked their permission to land, and the American and Canadian governments refused them entry. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where the war had broken out. The passengers dispersed, and by the end of the war, many had died.

Bahari’s documentary was a co-production of the National Film Board and Gala Films, and was commissioned by TVOntario. It won an award as Best International Documentary Special at the CableAce Awards in 1997.

The Voyage of the St. Louis blends footage and stories of the voyage with an account of a reunion of St. Louis survivors in the U.S. “It is something not taught in history books,” Hancox told the small crowd of mostly older Jewish couples.

It contains such details as a journal entry by Canada’s then prime minister Mackenzie King, complaining about the number of Jews moving into his Ottawa neighbourhood. Neither King nor U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to get involved with the St. Louis for fear of hobbling their re-election campaigns.

Further Canadian opposition to aiding the St. Louis came from Fred Blair, King’s deputy minister of immigration, whose remark about Jewish refugees, “None is too many,” became notorious. At the recent apology ceremony in Ottawa, Baptist minister Doug Blair apologized for his great-uncle.

In the course of documentary and volunteer work at the Holocaust Centre, interviewing survivors as part of the Centre’s Witness to History project, Hancox dug up the fact that the U.S. president-elect’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, sat on the boards of directors of pro-Nazi business interests. “Bush was one of the directors of the Hamburg-Amerika Line, a line subsidized by pro-Nazi newspapers,” he said.

Hancox himself made a documentary, Moose Jaw, which won an award in 1992.