Libeskind chosen for memorial sculpture for Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis
The MS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba in 1936 harbouring over 930 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. On arrival, the ship was turned away by the Cuban government and continued its voyage further up the coast until it arrived at Halifax, Canada. Again passengers were met with a steely response and were turned back to their homeland unaided by the Canadian government – a sure-fire death sentence.
Of the 936 refugees, it is thought a third were exterminated in concentration camps during the Second World War after being denied a vital lifeline by government officials on the other side of the pond. This tragic story has been all but lost over the years, brushed under the carpet by those too ashamed to remember; however the Canadian Jewish Congress recently held a design competition for a memorial sculpture to shine a light on the plight of those aboard the MS St. Louis.
Daniel Libeskind’s The Wheel of Conscience was selected from the reams of entries for its demonstration of the architect's ‘expertise, experience, creativity, and sensitivity’. The immense steel wheel bears the story of the MS St. Louis etched into the rim, whilst the cylinder itself displays a map of the world. A vision of the doomed vessel takes pride of place on the face of the sculpture, with the provocative terms HATRED, RACISM, XENOPHOBIA and ANTISEMITISM emblazoned on gears that cause the wheel to turn.
The smallest and fastest rotating gear of HATRED moves first, inducing the larger gear of RACISM, which moves a little slower. This in turn moves the yet larger gear of XENOPHOBIA which moves even slower. Finally, with all three gears working in unison, the largest and most prominent gear of ANTISEMITISM begins to turn. The rotating gears fracture and reassemble the image of the ship at set intervals.
Son of two Holocaust survivors, Libeskind is no stranger to the plight of Jewish refugees. His previous works such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and Imperial War Museum in Manchester are contorted twists of metal designed to ‘emotionally move the soul of the visitor toward a sometimes unexpected realisation’. Whether The Wheel of Conscience will share this sentiment remains to be seen however as CJC National President Mark Freiman explains: “There are important universal lessons to be drawn from the St. Louis incident about the importance for democratic societies of tolerance, understanding, and respect for religious and cultural diversity.”
The Wheel of Conscience will be on permanent display in the Rudolph P. Bratty Permanent Exhibition at Pier 21, Canada’s Immigration Museum, in Halifax.