The S.S. St. Louis and the Human Cost of Punitive Immigration Legislation
A struggle rages in Congress between a bi-partisan group of moderates and liberals seeking a fair-minded, compassionate set of immigrations reforms and the hardline Republican right which seeks a punitive immigration bill. Thankfully, the immigrant communities of this nation are rising up against the latter and saying “Enough!” Enough racism, enough Know-Nothingism, enough anti-immigrant animus masquerading as national policy.
This is the season of Passover, which commemorates an ancient Jewish migration to Egypt which led to my people’s enslavement and eventual liberation through the Exodus. When I think of contemporary Jewish exoduses, the mind travels back to the period before the Holocaust when hundreds of thousands of Jews were on the move, seeking refuge from the Nazi onslaught. There were very few places in the world that would have them. And the U.S. was NOT one of them. Our borders were closed. In fact, anti-Semitism was so prevalent in 1930s America, that I have no doubt that Jews were the wetbacks of their day. Remember that horrid Nazi propaganda picturing Jews as slovenly beasts with long noses and avaricious eyes? Perhaps Americans weren’t as overt in their hatred, but anti-Semitism was there right beneath the surface if not on the surface.
No event more poignantly illustrates this than the tragic fate of the S.S. St. Louis, the ship carrying a thousand German Jewish refugees which sailed around the western hemisphere seeking refuge until it was turned back to Europe where many of the passengers died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust:
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, passengers on the “St. Louis” cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never answered the cable. The State Department and the White House had already decided not to let them enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and then qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” American diplomats in Havana asked the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis…
President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit additional refugees, but chose not to do so for a variety of political reasons.
American public opinion, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, still favored immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of Americans unemployed and fearful of economic competition for the scarce few jobs available…
Few politicians were willing to challenge the mood of the nation. At about the same time that the “St. Louis” passengers were seeking a haven, the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have permitted the admission of 20,000 Jewish children from Germany outside the existing quota, was allowed to die in committee. On the Wagner-Rogers bill and the admittance of the “St. Louis” passengers, President Roosevelt remained silent. Following the U.S. government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the “St. Louis” sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939.
After their return to Europe, 250 of the 937 St. Louis passengers died in the Holocaust.
Is there any doubt that the xenophobia and lack of compassion exhibited by America under FDR (remember he also refused to bomb the rail lines leading the extermination camps) stalks the halls of Congress today? People like Eric Maher (who I assume is Jewish) should be ashamed of themselves for ‘shaking a stick’ at America’s illegal immigrants and telling them to ‘get in line’ just as the State Department told the Jews of the St. Louis. We Jews know what it’s like to be oppressed whether as immigrants in Egypt or as non-persons in the days leading up to the Holocaust.
A nation or people that no longer cares for the plight of the downtrodden migrant does not deserve to be called the “land of liberty.” Rather, it should be called the land of “I’ve got mine Jack.”
9 thoughts on “The S.S. St. Louis and the Human Cost of Punitive Immigration Legislation – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Thank you for sharing this story, Richard. I knew about FDR’s refusal to bomb the rail lines but not about the plight of the SS St Louis and its passengers. Pachacutec published a wonderful post at FireDogLake the other day about the immigrant experience, the demonstrations and the need for a sane, compassionate policy to address the issues we’re facing today, including this auido link on how good policy can serve the interests of immigrants and labor, too. Thought I;d share it with you and your readers . . . thanks again for your post.
I recall this incident – like a typical American – from a movie The Voyage of the Damned from my high school days… What a shameful incident.
This topic hits very close to home for me. My grandparents and some of their cousins immigrated to Chicago in the 20’s and 30’s. They did their best to try to get their family out of Europe – with varying degress of success.
Of particular note was one of those family stories you remember from your childhood. My “Aunt Yollie” who I have some distant memories of this sweet woman who was both Jewish and Mentally Retarded. I’ll have to get a recap of the story from my mother – I don’t remember all the details – but they were having serious problems getting her papers until one relative (I think my grandfather) realized that a Senator (not sure if it was a State Senator or US Senator) played tennis regularly at the same city park every weekend morning.
My relative was bold enough to approach him and introduce himself and ask for assistance – which he got. I can only imagine what would have happened had she stayed in Europe (the city they lived in is in current day Slovakia). The family members that stayed behind all ended up in Auschwitz…
CS: Thanks for those links. I’ll check them out.
Dan: Thanks for that powerful story. Your grandfather did a tremendous mitzvah & the senator as well. Sometimes politicians actually CAN do the right thing. If only our latter day pols would be as compassionate in the immigration bill they pass.
sir….can you tell us what roll did cordell hull have in the ss st louis tragedy! our impression was and still is, that he had the ear of fdr, and it was he who influenced fdr to ignore this grave situation….can you respond please?? SJLevine, virginia beach , va
I’m not an expert on the FDR administration, but I do know that the State Department was generally hostile to Jewish interests during the Holocaust & stymied efforts to help Jewish refugees. I believe he was the secretary of state at that time & so I think you’d be right in what you write in yr comment.
I’m removing yr mailing address fr. yr comment as I don’t want anyone to use it for the wrong purpose. These days you have to be careful about personal information like that & the uses to which it may be put.
T/Y 4 PIXX IM DOIN’ A HOLO. RESEARCH REPORT ON THE SS ST. LOUIS EVENT.
can you tell me what started it and why did people kill each other
As for Hull, from what I can tell (and contrary to some interpretations), rather than actively hostile, his approach to the St. Louis was what I would call “legalistic” – from his point of view this was an internal Cuban affair and the US could not meddle. Behind the scenes he was aware that there were “New York” people (meaning prominent Jews) working on putting the necessary bribes in place with the Cuban authorities and he seemed to have no problem with that. He would not admit the refugees to the US again for legal reasons – they did not have visa, there was a quota for visa, etc.
The reason we know this is that the (Jewish) treasury secretary Morgenthau called Hull to discuss the situation and their calls were recorded.
I’m not sure that a cabinet secretary today would react much differently to a similar situation, if say a ship full of Rwandans arrived off the US coast. I would however, place a lot of blame at Roosevelt’s feet – as President he wielded a great deal of executive authority and could have authorized visa waivers, etc. Hull clearly did not advocate FOR the Jews but I don’t see any real proof that he advocated AGAINST them either. He just saw them as foreign persons to whom the US owned nothing- it’s not that he hated them, he just didn’t feel he had any special responsibility toward them and no particular interest in doing anything for them or in stretching any laws on their behalf. Now this was bad enough in a time when lives were at stake (though that these people were in danger of their lives was not as clear then as it is clear in hindsight – in 1938 not even Hitler had a firm plan to exterminate all the Jews), but it’s not quite the same thing as active anti-Semitism.
I must start by saying after reading this story..I was speachless. If someone had ask what I thought, no words come to mind. Only a deep low groan in my stomach. America could have saved those who perished. I am not Jewish but I do have close family ties to Austrian Jews whose family ran from Hitler. Only now in the autumn of my life do I began to understand the pain and loss of hope. The voyage back East must have been some of the most horribles days of their lives. The anguish and the not knowing of where someones else ‘whim” or greed would send them. I am disguted with the politics in this country and if I had lived then in 1939 my feelings will have been the same. Admiring Roosevelt thru history, I can say that I do not feel the same towards him after reading about the S.S. St Louis. It didnt matter that the ship was full of Jews, what mattered is that they were human beings with feeling, families and a rite to live without fear. This country is not rite I see it everyday in the news. If it were to happed today, would the US do the rite thing ? Will our goverment politicos put their own desire aside or would they continue to serve self interest ? A very sad thing…