Recently, I went to the United States Holocaust Museum with my family. It was one of the things I wanted to do with Eli before he heads off to college. He had been to Germany and Austria for a post-graduation trip and toured the Dachau concentration camp so it seemed like a good time to follow that up and take in the Holocaust Museum.
As expected, the Holocaust Museum was powerful and overwhelming. I earnestly encourage everyone to go here at least one time in your life. It is well worth it. Reading and hearing the testimonies of those who survived the war and the genocide of the Jews is both sobering and challenging. My family and I were repeatedly asking ourselves, “what can we do to make sure this never happens again?” It is a haunting question that deserves to be asked more than once. What can we do to ensure this never happens again?
One story I saw initially at the museum and have read up on since then is the story of the voyage of the St. Louis, a ship that left Hamburg Germany filled with 937 passengers on May 13, 1939 sailing for Havana, Cuba. Nearly all of the passengers were fleeing Germany because they were Jewish and were escaping with their lives. And though they had acquired all of the necessary paperwork before they left, they did not know that they had become pawns in the political games in both Cuba and the United States.
In Cuba, there was a great deal of resentment brewing at that time against newly arriving migrants because of the high rates of unemployment at the time and so many were afraid of migrants taking away jobs from Cubans. But these concerns were fanned into hysteria by far right-wing nativist groups who, without any basis in their assertions, began accusing the soon-to-be-arriving Jews of being communists – the terrorists of their era.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Substitute European Jews with Syrian Muslims and you have the exact same situation today in this country; baseless, hysterical accusations hijacking humane and sensible policy.
Sadly, after docking in Havana Bay for several days, and despite having legal paperwork, the St. Louis was turned away except for a handful of people. As they left Cuba they sailed so closely to Miami they could see the lights of the city. But President Roosevelt, also bowing to political pressure from a newly elected Republican Congress, refused to allow entrance to any of the passengers.
Can you imagine the pain and fear of those aboard as they were forced to set sail back for Europe, unsure of what would happen to them? Having seen the lights of Miami, knowing freedom was literally just yards away just beyond their reach? It’s like having a roomful of desperately starving people right next to a kitchen where a full course meal is being cooked and then eaten – the sounds of laughter and pleasure are heard while the smells of such a delicious meal drift through the room. People can almost taste for themselves the meal being enjoyed just a room away. But it is not for them. It is cruel to tease people in this way.
It was cruel to tempt a ship full of Jewish refugees, fleeing for their very lives, with the sights and sounds of freedom, only to be whisked away at the last moment all because of political games and the baseless suspicions fanned into full blown xenophobia by nativist political “leaders” more interested in political gain than in humane and sensible policies. Roosevelt and others blamed the restrictions put in place by the 1924 US Immigration and Nationality Act, but they never actually urged Congress to expand the number of visas being issued to the many Jews fleeing Europe. But this is what people do when they are content to allow injustice to continue and simply want to appease their conscience – they do nothing and blame others for why something is happening (or not happening). It is the golden rule of politics.
Yes, this sounds all too familiar from the current set of far right-wing politicians like donald trump, Steve King, and even Mike Pence who, when he was Governor of Indiana led the fight against resettling Syrian refugees in his state. These nativist politicians are hell-bent on scaring the rest of the weak-kneed political leadership into refusing to resettle Syrian refugees just like the right-wing nativists in the 1930s and 40s who scared Roosevelt and others from resettling the Jews. We all like to look back fondly on World War II and boast about how we as a country were on the right side of that war. Yes, we stood up to the Nazis in Germany, but we certainly didn’t stand up to the nativists on our own shores. When it came to resettling the people whose lives were most in danger of being crushed by the Nazi regime the US stood safely on the sidelines taking care of our own.
Just like we are doing today in regards to the Syrian refugees.
So, what happened to the res of the refugees on the St. Louis? 288 were admitted into Great Britain, the Netherlands took in 181, Belgium took in 214 and 224 went to France. Of the 620 passengers who returned to countries on the European continent, 87 managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe began in May 1940. 532 passengers from the St. Louis were trapped on the continent when Germany conquered Western Europe. Of those trapped, just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust.
254 people died. 254 people who had seen the lights of Miami; who had seen the possibility of their liberation died knowing freedom was denied them. I doubt there can be a worse feeling of rejection than that.