Canadian leader apologizes for ignoring Jewish refugees

Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem library, took Chretien and his wife, Aline, on a tour of the museum.

Stopping at the section dedicated to the world's response to Jewish refugees, Rozett read out the Canadian delegate's letter from the 1938 Evian Conference on how to deal with the Jewish refugees: "The trouble is that the more that is done for them the more of them there will be… So nothing will be done by Canada."

The letter visibly disturbed Chretien, whose face turned somber.

After the tour, Chretien laid a wreath in memory of the Holocaust victims at the Hall of Remembrance. Then, after walking through the children's exhibit, he inscribed a message in Yad Vashem's guest book.

"As prime minister of Canada, I pledge to you that Canada will take a leading role to ensure that such atrocities never happen again," wrote Chretien, who visited Auschwitz last year.

Until 1994, Canada tried to prosecute Nazi war criminals, with little success.

But after the acquittal that year of Imre Finta, the former commander of Hungary's Szeged ghetto who is accused of killing more than 8,000 Jews, the Canadian Justice Department changed its focus to identifying suspected war criminals and repatriating them or deporting them to the countries from which they entered Canada.

This method, used by the United States, has helped Canada reverse its reputation for leniency with Nazi war criminals. A few weeks ago, for example, Canada revoked the citizenship of Helmut Oberlander, a former SS death squad member.

The situation has "dramatically improved from '85 to '86, when Canada was in fact a [Nazi] safe haven," confirmed Jack Silverstone, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

"In fairness, I don't think [the label that Canada is a Nazi haven] is true anymore," said Silverstone, who was part of the Canadian entourage. "You can't say it's the same country it was."

Silverstone added that Canada is one of few countries that has ongoing cases against Nazi war criminals.

During his visit, Chretien also met with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Chretien was in Israel as part of a 12-day Mideast tour in which he was scheduled to visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.