Canadian War Museum: The story of the St. Louis reveals a dark chapter in Canadian history

A view of the St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Hamburg, Germany. Photo supplied by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert and Vera Karliner.

By Evelyn Myers

A new exhibit at the Canadian War Museum explores the tragic Second World War saga of the St. Louis, which saw more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis aboard a German ocean liner were turned away from Canada, the U.S. and other countries.

“We have an image of ourselves as a country that’s always been open and available to the proverbial huddled masses yearning to be free,” said York University historian Irving Abella, author of the definitive history of the St. Louis, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948. But until the 1960s, Abella noted, Canada had a white-only immigration policy.

“It’s important for Canadians to know their history, the foundations of our immigration policy — which was built on a foundation of racism at least until the 1960s, for the first hundred years of our existence as a country,” said Abella, who is also president of the Academy of Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada.

The St. Louis exhibit is an acknowledgement of a dark moment in Canada’s past that will allow people to better understand their history, said Yasmine Mingay, the museum’s director of public affairs.

“We hope that this provides visitors of all ages an opportunity to learn about or learn more about this story and this tragic part of our own history — and to keep it in mind moving forward in life.”

Captain Gustav Schroeder of the St. Louis negotiates landing permits for his passengers with Belgian officials in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Betty Troper Yaeger.

In May 1939, Jewish passengers who had been stripped of everything they owned boarded the St. Louis with an entry visa to Cuba, said Abella. When the ship arrived there, the government had changed and the passengers were refused entry.

The ship was subsequently turned away from every Latin American country as well as the United States, said Abella. The St. Louis turned to Canada but Mackenzie King’s Liberal government turned the refugees away, said Abella. 

With nowhere else to go, the ship returned to Europe and many of the passengers found refuge in neighbouring European countries, said Gerry Lunn, curator of exhibitions for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. But after the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and Nazi Germany overran much of Europe and 254 of the passengers turned away by Canada died in Nazi death camps, noted Lunn.

The MMA, part of the Nova Scotia Museum, produced the travelling exhibit in collaboration with the Atlantic Jewish Council and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Lunn said the story of the St. Louis is relevant in the 21st century.

“Today, particularly with the global refugee crises, so many people, so many millions of people around the world seeking refuge from persecution,” said Lunn, “it’s absolutely essential that we remember these things.”


Members of the Dingfelder family boarding the St. Louis in Hamburg harbour. Pictured from left to right are: Leopold, Rudi and Johanna Dingfelder. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gerri Felder. Photo by Max Reid.

The exhibit includes photographs, texts and interactive audiovisual displays to tell the story. Unlike other exhibits, this one “modest in size, not in content,” said Lunn.

He said the exhibit was organized with relatively few artifacts so that it could travel to smaller cities and venues hoping to host the display.

The war museum has supplemented the MMA exhibit to add to the visitor experience, noted Mingay, but the format and themes of the original are preserved.

The museum’s version of the exhibit has been supplemented with large wall graphics, a slideshow of photographs taken during the ship’s crossing to Cuba and back to Europe, and a reading corner with books and transcripts of archival documents, said Mingay.

St. Louis – Ship of Fate will remain at the Canadian War Museum until April 29.

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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