In the months before the start of the Second World War, more than 900 Jews boarded the MS St. Louis in Hamburg harbour in hopes of escaping the racism of Nazi Germany. All of these people had witnessed Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and a number had survived internment at concentration camps such as Dachau. They boarded the ship in hopes of finding safety elsewhere in the world.
The ship was destined for Cuba but once it arrived, the passengers were not allowed to disembark. Efforts to land in the Dominican Republic, the United States, Canada and several other countries also failed.
The MS St. Louis was major news at the time. A group of academics and clergy lobbied the Canadian government to allow the ship to land in Halifax. But Canada’s director of immigration, Frederick Blair, would have none of it. His anti-Jewish policy has been well documented and he was supported by the administration of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
The MS St. Louis had to return to Europe. All of its passengers obtained visas to other European countries, notably the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, after the onset of the war, most of them found themselves in Nazi-held territories. The vast majority died during the war.
The tragedy of the MS St. Louis is a tragedy for all of us. Here we had a ship full of gifted souls, ready and willing to use their talents for the betterment of humanity. The fear that they would in some way be a detriment to society was nothing but an appalling myth. Jews living in Germany at the time tended to be well-educated professionals with a strong family system. Imagine where Canadian society would be today had we been able to see beyond the lies of racism.
A recent Stanford University study notes that “German Jewish émigrés (after 1933) had a huge effect on U.S. innovation. They helped increase the quality of research by training a new generation of American scientists, who then became productive researchers in their own rights.”
And now the fear of immigration is rampant again.
Yes, there are false refugees. We need to keep in mind, however, that refugees are heavily screened. This is especially the case in countries like the United States and Canada, since refugees need to board airplanes to reach their destinations. Immigration officials working in refugee camps know what they’re doing. They follow an effective formula and only bring the best people they can find into our countries.
The same can be said for all immigrants arriving in Canada. Those of us who have families long established in this country need to ask if we would even be here had such stringent controls been in place when our ancestors arrived.
According to a 2005 Statistics Canada study, “Second-generation Canadians (children of immigrants) are much more likely to have a university degree; their incidence of reliance on government transfer payments and rates of employment and unemployment are no different, and their average earnings are higher than those young adults of Canadian-born parents.”
And this trend will likely increase in the future because, due to changes in Canadian policy, today’s immigrants tend to be more educated than those of a generation ago.
We all benefit from immigration. Efforts to keep out entire groups of people based on religion and ethnicity are not only morally reprehensible, they’re foolish.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.