There’s a lot I could say about the United States Holocaust Museum. Too much. It’s a compelling and wrenching place. I could tell you about waiting in line. I could tell you and the Nazi films and the broken pieces of destroyed synagogues. I could tell you how the museum is packed with people all the time, and you have to silently push your way through to read the signs and look at the artifacts. I could say a lot about the museum. But I’m just going to tell you one story.
On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner the M.S. St. Louis sailed from Germany towards Havana, Cuba. Of the 938 passengers on board, 937 were refugees. They were fleeing Nazi Germany, and had applied for visas to the United States. Some had already received their visas and intended to leave for the U.S. shortly after docking in Cuba. Others planned to wait in Cuba until their visas were granted. All desperately wanted out of Europe.
When they left Europe, the passengers had already received landing certificates for Cuba. What they didn’t know was that a week before they sailed, the Cuban president had invalidated all recently issued certificates. Anti-semitism and xenophobia were strong in Cuba, with rallies being held against immigrants and accusations being launched that incoming European Jews were all communists. By the time the ship arrived, hostility overwhelmed public sentiment in Cuba.
Only 28 passengers were allowed off the St. Louis when it landed in Havana. Twenty-two were jews that already had their U.S. visas, four were Spanish citizens, and the remaining two were Cuban nationals. One additional passenger was admitted to the hospital in Havana after attempting to commit suicide. Over 900 people remained on the ship, and the Cuban government refused to allow them to disembark.
The St. Louis turned towards the United States, sailing so close they could see the lights of Miami. Some of the passengers sent a cable directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for refuge. The immigration restrictions at the time called for strict quotas that had already been met for the year, but Roosevelt could issue an executive order to allow the passengers entry. However hostility towards immigrants in the public and growing isolationism in congress kept him silent. Not to mention he was about to run for an unprecedented third term. The president never responded to the passengers. After ten days of sailing aimlessly off the shores of Cuba and the United States, the St. Louis returned to Europe.
Jewish organizations managed to negotiate with other European countries for refuge, keeping the passengers from having to return directly to Germany. Passengers were split up between Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. However as the war spread and countries were overtaken, many passengers found themselves back under Nazi control. Before the war’s end, 254 of the original passengers would die in concentration camps.
When I was little I remember being a bit confused by German Jews. Clearly the Nazis were ruining their lives, even before it got to the point of mass murder. Why did they stay? I understand feeling a sense of pride for one’s country, but they must have feared for their lives. So why not leave? Why not run away when they took your home and your business and forced you into a ghetto? And for the first time, I understand.
Jews were leaving Germany in droves, which the Nazis originally considered a success. But over time the rest of the world began to turn. Who were these Jews that the Germans hated so much? What was wrong with them? And what would they do when they got out of Germany and onto new soil? In the years leading up to the war, the world was in the midst of the Great Depression. While many in the United States felt sympathy for the passengers of the St. Louis, there was no real push to allow them into the country. With so little to go around, Americans were afraid of European Jews taking their jobs.
In case you missed that, 254 people died in the holocaust because Americans were afraid of immigrants taking their jobs. It is the most horrifically familiar fact I have ever heard.
We make a lot of movies about World War II. We make video games and write books. It’s held up as the perfect example war, primarily because the Nazis are so unarguably awful. No one feels bad for shooting a Nazi in a video game or cheering when a handful of them die in a movie. Unlike so many wars before it, in World War II there was a sense that for once, we really were in a battle between Good and Evil. And Good prevailed. Brave men and women worked and fought and in the end, the world was safe from the hatred of the Nazis.
But at best, that’s only how the story ends. It begins in the same muddy way that all wars begin. With fear and suspicion. With xenophobia and propaganda and a monstrous confidence that everyone else must be doing something wrong. Americans have a tendency to see themselves as the heroes of the second world war (despite the battle numbers telling a different story). But in the beginning, we were just as awful as everyone else. We were in a bad spot and looking for someone to blame.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if a man like Hitler had been born in Illinois. Would American citizens have followed as the Germans did? Would we have accepted the Jews as a scapegoat, blaming them for our economic problems? Would we have sat back and watched them die, too scared for ourselves to take on the risk of defending them?
Yes, we would. We already did.
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