Nov. 18, 2020
By STEVE ARNOLD
A Toronto suburb will strip the name of a Second World War Nazi from one of its streets.
Ajax town council voted narrowly Monday night to remove the name Langsdorff Drive from a residential street and, instead, honour an Allied serviceman.
It took a petition campaign by a local resident, the intervention of B’nai Brith Canada, and an emotional appeal from a Holocaust survivor, among others, to convince four of the seven council members that honouring a Nazi in Canada was wrong.
But the lengthy debate was marred by comments from one councillor who opposed the name change because Palestinians are “currently being oppressed by the Jewish State of Israel.”
From the start, the debate was sharply divided. Supporters of German navy Captain Hans Langsdorff claimed he was an honourable man who was respected by his enemies. Those demanding the name change, however, argued Langsdorff’s personal qualities didn’t outweigh the fact he fought for the regime responsible for one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.
Max Eisen, one of only three from an extended family of 70 to survive the Holocaust, told the councillors that experience leaves “no room for our enemies to be honoured in Canada. For me, it would represent a terrible thing if this motion fails.”
Rabbi Tzali Borenstein of the Chabad Centre of Durham Region argued the Holocaust is a wound that has never healed for the Jewish community and is torn open repeatedly in an age of growing antisemitism. That, he said, makes it wrong to honour anyone who played even a small role in the Nazi regime.
“Being a Nazi is never right,” he said. “To honour someone with a street name is to be on the wrong side of history.”
Coun. Ashmeed Khan (Ward 2) noted repeated references to the need for reconciliation between former enemies and said the lack of reconciliation for “oppressed” Palestinians is why he supports keeping the Nazi street name.
“One word I have heard repeated consistently today is reconciliation, reconciliation, reconciliation,” he said. “I’ve been having calls from people in (his ward) who are Palestinian and have no hope of reconciliation as they are currently being oppressed by the Jewish State of Israel and they are concerned about how we will address this today.
“I cannot support changing this street name and changing history,” he added. “I say the same thing I said about [the street] Graf Spee Lane: Mr. Mayor, when does this stop? When do we stop pandering to a handful of people?”
On Tuesday, Adam Wiseman, the Jewish Ajax resident whose petition campaign started the renaming effort, bristled at Khan’s remarks and fired off an email inviting the councilor to clarify his comments or apologize to Durham’s Jews.
“I understood your comment about the ‘Jewish state of Israel currently oppressing Palestinians’ as justification for not changing the street name as though you are implying that you and the Palestinian community believe Jews deserve this sort of affront,” Wiseman wrote. “(I)f that was your intention, then I am requesting an on-the-record apology to the Jewish community in Ajax.
“You also mentioned that the city should not ‘pander’ to a small number of people,” Wiseman wrote. “Do I really need to point out why there are so few Jews in Canada? Are you familiar with the quote ‘None is too many’ in reference to Canada sending ships full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany to be slaughtered?”
At the heart of the debate is a residential street named in 2004, and dedicated in 2007, for Langsdorff, a career officer of the German navy. In 1939, in command of the warship Admiral Graf Spee, he was ordered into the South Atlantic Ocean where he sank nine Allied merchant ships carrying desperately needed supplies to Britain.
In December, however, he was trapped off South America by three British ships, including HMS Ajax, for which the town is named. In a brawl known as the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee was damaged and limped into Uruguay’s Montevideo harbour for repairs.
Ordered out of the neutral country after three days, and knowing that a superior British force was waiting for him, Langsdorff ordered his 1,000-member crew off the vessel and blew it up. Three days later, in a Buenos Aires hotel, he wrapped himself in the ship’s battle flag and shot himself in the head.
The Town of Ajax, in Durham Region, east of Toronto, was founded in 1941 and has a policy of naming its streets after the ships and sailors of the River Plate battle. An attempt to name one street for Langsdorff’s ship was reversed earlier this year. It currently has a list of 160 names that could be used. The decision to name a street for Langsdorff required making a specific exception to that rule.
Langsdorff’s supporters have noted that he saved the lives of his crew, of hundreds of Allied sailors, and the crews of merchant vessels he allowed to escape before sinking their ships. Those actions, say his supporters, show Langsdorff was never an ardent Nazi and, in a spirit of reconciliation, should be honoured by his former enemies.
Jim Devlin, a member of the Ajax branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, argued that point, saying Langsdorff’s membership in the Nazi Party shouldn’t be held against him.
“I am in no way standing up for Nazis,” said Devlin, a Canadian army veteran. “I believe Hans Langsdorff was a navy man first and foremost and if he was a Nazi, it was just a formality. His treatment of prisoners was that of an officer with honour.”
Supporters also argued that since Langsdorff died in 1939, he could not have known about Nazi plans to exterminate Jews.
Local amateur historian Kevin Nesbitt argued, for example, that since the real atrocities of the Holocaust didn’t start until 1941 or 1942, “it’s highly unlikely Langsdorff knew or ought to have known about them.”
Wiseman, the Ajax resident whose petition campaign started the renaming effort, rejected those arguments.
“I understand the desire to find something good here, but it isn’t there in Hans Langsdorff,” he said. “Right up to the end he fought for the Nazis and their cause.”
Where others point to Langsdorff’s personal conduct, Wiseman points to the sailor’s suicide note, in which he remarked: “I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Fuehrer.” Langsdorff also lauded Adolf Hitler as “a prophet, not a politician.”
B’nai Brith, which supported the renaming motion, praised the town’s decision.
“Today is a proud day for Ajax, for Ontario’s Jewish community, and for Canada as a whole,” CEO Michael Mostyn said in a news release. “Taking action against the glorification of Canada’s enemies and a man who fought for the most evil regime in history sends the right signal to those concerned about the rise of hate in our time.”
Monday’s motion by councillors Lisa Bowers and Sterling Lee directs town staff to hold an open house for residents of Langsdorff Drive and to report back to council with a recommended course of action to rename the street.
The Ajax controversy is the latest development in a series of debates over Nazi symbols in Canada. B’nai Brith has been working with the town of Lachute, Que. to prevent a local ceremony honouring a Nazi pilot; has been helping residents in Puslinch, Ont. opposed to a roadway named Swastika Trail; and is partnering with the Canadian Polish Congress to remove monuments honouring Nazi collaborators in Edmonton and Oakville, Ont.