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Jewish Journal

Canada’s Jewish community unveils monument to M.S. St. Louis

by Jonah Lowenfeld

January 20, 2011 | 1:07 pm

Photo by Courtesy Brian Melcher

Photo by Courtesy Brian Melcher

Imagine this: Seventy years from now, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services will spend a few million dollars to build a memorial in the Arizona desert. The structure, which will be sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, will be designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, will remember the thousands of immigrants who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hard to picture? Well, today in Canada, a monument that memorializes and commemorates the Jewish refugees who tried to escape from Nazi Germany aboard the M.S. St. Louis was unveiled in Halifax, Nova Scotia – and, in 1939, the notion of it would have certainly raised Canadian eyebrows, as well.

That was the year when 937 Jewish refugees boarded the St. Louis, a German passenger ship, in Hamburg, hoping to reach Havana. The passengers aboard were denied entry to Cuba and then also turned away from the United States, and, later, from Canada. The ship’s captain had no choice but to bring the refugees back to Europe, and 254 of those who had tried to flee died at the hands of the Nazis.

Designed by Daniel Libeskind, an American Jewish architect born in Poland in 1946 to Holocaust survivor parents, the monument is titled “The Wheel of Conscience,” and consists of a wheel—a thick metal drum that stands upright on its side and has a circular face 6-feet in diameter. A black-and-white photograph of the St. Louis covers the wheel’s entire face and extends across four circular gears of different sizes. The smallest and fastest-turning cog is labeled “HATRED.” Its teeth intersect with those of another, larger gear—this one labeled “RACISM”—which, in turn, moves a third, larger gear that reads “XENOPHOBIA.” As the gears get larger, each one revolves more slowly than the last. The largest and slowest-moving gear says “ANTI-SEMITISM.”

“That ship demonstrated the power of anti-Semitism in Canada at that time to deport these hundreds and hundreds of refugees,” Libeskind says in a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/user/cdnjewishcongress#p/c/34AD4B3EB6E962CD) about the monument. Libeskind’s design was selected in a competition held by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The monument is to be the centerpiece of an exhibition about the St. Louis to be mounted later this year at Pier 21, Canada’s Immigration Museum in Halifax, which is being funded by a $500,000 (CDN) grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the government department dealing with immigration.

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