Early on in NEVER AGAIN two ships carrying Israeli refugees steam into Boston Harbor. They are turned away by the United States, which has closed its doors to all asylum-seeking refugees. This episode was inspired by a similar incident in 1939, at the start of the Second World War.
After Kristallnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, when hundreds of synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses were vandalized and torched and more than 100 Jews were murdered, the handwriting was on the wall. German Jews desperately sought a way to escape. The problem was finding a safe place that would take them in. In May 1939, 937 men, women and children scrambled onto the SS St. Louis, a German passenger ship that had a regular route between Germany and the United States. They’d bribed a Cuban consular official to issue transit visas to Cuba and they hoped to get from Cuba into the United States.
When the ship arrived in Havana, Cuban officials cancelled the visas and demanded a large ransom before allowing the passengers off the ship. Only 22 Jewish passengers were allowed to remain in Cuba.
The ship left Havana and sailed to Miami. Despite frantic pleas to President Franklin Roosevelt to allow the refugees to enter the United States, they were barred from the country. When authorities learned the ship’s captain planned to drive the St. Louis onto the beach so the passengers could escape, Coast Guard ships were assigned to patrol around the SS St. Louis. A suicide committee was established on board to keep passengers from taking their own lives.
Official American justifications for denying asylum to these Jewish refugees from Nazism are eerily similar to reasons given in recent years for denying asylum to Syrian refugees, to Mexicans, to Central American refugees. A State Department telegram ignored the deadly threats they faced in Germany and stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
President Roosevelt repeated rumors that Nazi spies had been hidden among the refugees on the ship. At a press conference FDR warned that “among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries,” explaining that “especially Jewish refugees” could be coerced to report to German agents under the threat of harm to their families. A Saturday Evening Post article warned the public that “disguised as refugees, Nazi agents have penetrated all over the world, as spies, fifth columnists, propagandists, or secret commercial agents.”
The SS St. Louis was sent back to Europe in June 1939. Jewish agencies negotiated with European governments to accept the passengers, rather than having them returned to Germany. Eventually, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands admitted St. Louis passengers. Except for those accepted by Britain, their safety was short lived. Within weeks, Germany invaded France, Belgium and the Netherlands and continued rounding up Jews. A post-war survey showed that 254 of the 620 passengers in France, Belgium and the Netherlands were killed in the Holocaust, mostly at the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór.
A year after the SS St. Louis passengers were denied entry into the United States, thousands of English schoolchildren were taken in by American families to protect them from a threatened German invasion of Britain. In contrast to the paranoia about Jewish refugees, a Gallup Poll in 1940 indicated that 5 million American families were willing to welcome children from Britain into their homes.
Just as history has not been kind concerning the internment of Japanese-Americans in detention camps, the rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany left a black mark on America’s otherwise heroic role in the Second World War. In 2012, the United States Department of State publicly apologized in a ceremony attended by 14 survivors of the SS St. Louis.
A chilling Twitter site includes photos of St. Louis passengers with the caption “My name is [passenger name]. The US turned me away 79 years ago today. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”
In 1976, a Hollywood movie was made about the SS St. Louis, Voyage of the Damned. The cast included Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Malcolm McDowell, Orson Welles, James Mason, Lee Grant, and Katherine Ross, who won a Golden Globe for her role. The entire movie can be viewed on YouTube here. I watched it. The movie is dated. And slow. But it captures the trauma of the event, and the times.
And finally, In NEVER AGAIN, Boston-area Jews are inspired by the fate of the St. Louis passengers in the actions they take in the novel, setting the stage for the remainder of the book.