On May 13, 1939, a cruise liner, the MS St. Louis, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees desperate to escape the Nazis set off from Hamburg, Germany. Among their numbers were the two teenage girls pictured here, Sibyll and Ruthild Grünthal, who were traveling with their parents, Margarete and Walter. The St. Louis’ original destination was Havana, Cuba where the passengers hoped to seek refuge. But, anti-Semitic protests and editorials were cropping up all over the country and, by the time the ship arrived two weeks later, only a handful of passengers were allowed to disembark; the rest of the asylum seekers were told to take their pleas to the American government. This effort too would be in vain when the ship was blocked from docking at the port of Miami, their pleas for refuge going unanswered from all levels of the government. The ship’s captain, Gustav Schröder, even considered running the ship aground to allow the refugees to escape but U.S. Coast Guard vessels shadowed it to prevent it from approaching the shore. After also being denied refuge in Canada, the ship was eventually forced to return to Europe and many of the refugees it carried later died in the Holocaust, including both Sibyll and Ruthild, who were murdered at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt respectively.
In the United States at the time, the fear of the “other” was being used to stoke Americans’ paranoia and build support for repressive measures justified in the name of “national security.” At the time, government officials argued that refugees posed a security threat, with stories appearing in the media about German spies sneaking in among the refugees. Historians now believe that the concern about refugee spies or their threats to national security were blown far out of proportion but the damage at the time was done. The US shut the door on refugees in need like the ones on the St. Louis, and within two years, the anti-foreigner hysteria would even turn inward as over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to live for years in desert detention camps.
The voyage of the St. Louis and the shame such actions cast on American history have new potency today in light of the Administration’s permanent ban on Syrian refugees — of whom, in the United States, 75% are women and children under 14. As University of Michigan law professor James Hathaway observes, the St. Louis is just one example of “what happened when people slam doors shut on refugees.” Syria, he continues, is “probably the easiest example in the world today of people being massacred by a political tyrant. That we would not read the tea leaves of history and understand that the people fleeing are the enemies of our enemy is beyond comprehension to me.” The irrationality of banning refugees for security reasons given the extreme vetting they already undergo was even pointed out by the conservative think tank the Cato Institute which asserted: “[T]errorists who are intent on attacking U.S. soil have myriad other options for doing so that are all cheaper, easier, and more likely to succeed than sneaking in through the heavily guarded refugee gate. The low level of current risk does not justify the government slamming that gate shut.”
Enacting such a ban on last Friday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day has been viewed by many as shamefully symbolic. As Jewish educator Russel Neiss, who launched an education project focused on the St. Louis last week, told the Atlantic: “People always say that if you forget history then you will be doomed to repeat it. This is one of those moments where history gives us an opportunity to think about where we are now. When folks say ‘never again’ or ‘we remember,’ it is important for us to actually do so.” And, he reflects, “There’s something just about remembering the humanity of people that is getting lost in this debate. And when we talk about the importance of refugees being welcomed, we’re not talking about people who are coming here because they want to come here on vacation. We’re talking about people who are coming here because they’re fleeing for their lives. And if we escape that, if we ignore that, if we can’t remember that, then I don’t know what our humanity is really all about.”
Several civil rights groups are already taking legal action against the Administration’s illegal ban. To support these organizations’ legal fight with your donations and advocacy, visit the ACLU Nationwide (https://www.aclu.org/) and the National Immigration Law Center (https://www.nilc.org/). To learn more about how to take a stand as an individual, visit the Indivisible Guide (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/).