Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Voyage of the St. Louis

This morning as I was laying in bed thinking about the current humanitarian crisis at our own borders I reviewed what I consider to be the salient points.

  1. Children fleeing hunger, poverty, violence, corruption and nations that could care less about the death of their future.
  2. A group of people that would rather see them die in the desert from heat, land mines, open fire and armed troops than accept them as what they are...refugees.
  3. A nation more concerned with its racism, xenophobia, hate and politics than in doing the right thing.

Damn this story sounded an echo of something I had read, maybe a little known fact or preferably ignored part of history.  

Then I remembered a ship I had read about once during World War II and the horrible Holocaust.  I began doing some research (and by that I mean I googled it) to refresh my memory.  

When we think of the words "St. Louis"  We tend to think of the St. Louis Cardinals, The Spirit of St. Louis or of course the City of St. Louis, MO.  There is a darker side of history attached to the name and it is one that too many people know nothing about.  We have a tendency to whitewash and cover up things about our history that we are not proud of and this is one of those moments.

Shortly after the infamous "Night of the Broken Glass," Kristallnacht, in Nazi Germany the refugees began pouring out of the country in a justified fear for their lives.  As the refugees, mostly Jews, fled for their lives countries began shutting their doors to them.  The United States was one of these countries.  We placed quotas on how many immigrants we would take. 

In the middle of this crisis a small, insignificant seeming ship fled from Germany, a Hamburg-Germany liner named the S.S. St. Louis.  On this ship were 938 refugees, mostly Jews fleeing Germany in what was their last chance of survival.  They had been told that the port in Cuba would accept them and many of them had paid for certificates of landing.  By the time they had arrived in Cuba a corruption had been discovered and it turned out a dirty politician had been selling these certificates for his own profit and the Cuban government declared that it would not recognize them.  Only about 28 of the passengers with valid visas were allowed to disembark.  They then turned to other countries for a place to find refuge.  South American countries rejected them.  They were close enough to see the lights of Miami.  They wired the United States President, President Roosevelt.  He never responded.  The State Department rejected their calls for asylum because the quota for immigrants had already been met.  The Congress refused to act, in fact refusing to even vote on a bipartisan bill to allow 20,000 more CHILDREN to enter the country even if the quota had been met.

"Following the US government's refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France."

So why this visit to such a little known part of history?  Because the similarities to what is happening at the border is, on a much smaller scale, haunting.  Now I am the first to hesitate to compare anything or anybody to the evil of Hitler, the carnage of WWII and the pain, sorrow and horror of the Holocaust and let it be clear that I am NOT comparing a few lost children in the desert to what is one of the darkest times in human history.  Instead the American reaction to it is what I find so similar and the worthlessness of lives to people that claim to be pro-life.  That is what I find so haunting.  Consider these facts:

  • 83% of the American public were against relaxing the immigrant quotas even in the face of such carnage and hate.
  • The Press (in the case of the St. Louis, the German press led by Joseph the case of today's crisis Fox News led by Sean Hannity) vilified the passengers to make them more undesirable to countries that could have saved their lives.
  • Congress refused to even act.  A bipartisan plan by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-MA) did not even see a vote.  
  • The excuse of jobs following the Great Depression was used to cover the xenophobia of a selfish nation.
  • The president COULD HAVE acted and with the stroke of a pen could have admitted these refugees but did not due to political considerations.
  • The American people would rather people starve and die, children perish in the heat or better still in the violence and starvation at home then recognize a humanitarian crisis that is developing right on our doorstops.
Does any of this sound familiar?  It should. It really should.  And we should be ashamed.

(For more information on the St. Louis read:



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