Travelling Exhibit in Nova Scotia Tells Dark Chapter of Canadian History

Article excerpt

MS St. Louis exhibit tells of dark history

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HALIFAX - It's a dark chapter in Canadian history, one that raises questions of a potentially anti-Semitic climate in Canada on the eve of the Second World War.

But the story of the MS St. Louis's voyage in May 1939 is one that should nevertheless be told, said Gerry Lunn, curator of exhibitions at Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

A travelling exhibition created by the museum and the Atlantic Jewish Council chronicles the trying journey of the ship's 900 Jewish passengers, who thought they were making their escape from Nazi Germany.

But when Cuba broke a promise to provide refuge, the ship searched for other countries to take those seeking a safe haven, only to be denied again and again, including by Canada -- its last hope.

The passengers eventually ended up in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, which became overrun by the Nazis, as well as Great Britain.

About a quarter of them died in death camps.

"At first, it was a very happy voyage," said Lunn in an interview at the museum, pointing to a photo of two passengers blissfully smiling as they leaned out of a porthole.

"But when it became apparent that there was no way they could avoid going back to Europe, people started to panic. Suicide attempts were made."

The Ship of Fate exhibit, which will be housed at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton, N.S., until the end of January, includes a metre-long model of the St. Louis and 11 traditional display panels that tell the little-known story of the voyage.

Visitors can use interactive kiosks to read scanned documents associated with the ship.

Also included is a postcard from a passenger on board the St. Louis a few months after the tragic voyage. Although it's not directly related, Lunn said it could be reflective of a broad anti-Semitic atmosphere in Canada at the time.

The postcard, which was addressed to someone in Halifax, includes what Lunn called a "chilling" phrase: "Good food, nice crowd, no Jews. …