It seems appropriate, in that horrible way that sometimes things seem darkly appropriate, that it’s on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that Donald Trump signed an executive action limiting the flow of refugees into the U.S. It’s called “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” but like so many other duplicitously named bills, it’s less about protecting the country than keeping out Others, banning certain refugees, suspending the refugee program, more than halving the number of refugees who will be allowed into the country, and prioritizing Christian refugees over Muslims.
It’s horrible-appropriate because 80 years ago, those same policies, and those same actions, for those same reasons, turned away thousands of Jewish refugees who were left to die in the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe.
There are two takeaways here. One is that, in the area of “those who cannot [or will not – C] remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” a policy on Muslim refugees that echoes the one on Jewish refugees is to lead to a similarly echo-y outcome.
But on this day, the particularly important thing to remember is this:
The U.S. turned away Jewish refugees in their time of most desperate need, and they were then killed. That’s who we were then, and it’s apparent that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, we aren’t any better now. So as we’re remembering the victims of the Holocaust, we should give special thought to the ones who could have been saved so easily.
While Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most famous writings providing a striking, real-life view of the Holocaust, another set of documents has been unearthed: Otto Frank’s rejected visa applications, thwarted by the bureaucracy of the U.S.’s restrictive immigration policies.
The historian told NPR in 2007 that the documents suggest “Anne Frank could be a 77-year-old woman living in Boston today — a writer.”
Instead, she died at the age of 15 at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
In 1939, the U.S. turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 German Jewish refugees. The ship, initially loaded with 937 passengers, was originally bound for Cuba, but Cuba abruptly changed its visa policy before they departed Hamburg and only 28 passengers (plus another, a Nazi concentration camp survivor who attempted suicide in despair while the boat sat in Havana’s harbor) were allowed onshore. Despite pleas from Jewish organization in the U.S., the government declared it all to be Cuba’s problem. The St. Louis turned toward Miami regardless, tailed by the Coast Guard like a drug-smuggling go-fast boat, and there they sat, as if the U.S. was completely full up and couldn’t fit another 908 people on its shore, until they were turned away for good.
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to 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 qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” US diplomats in Havana intervened once more with the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis, but without success.
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.
On Twitter, @Stl_Manifest remembers those passengers by name.
Earlier that year, two members of Congress — Democratic Senator Robert Wagner and Republican Representative Edith Rogers — introduced a bill allowing 20,000 German Jewish children into the U.S., above the annual quota for German immigrants. The Senate and House immigration subcommittees were in favor of it, and 1,400 Americans wrote letters offering to adopt a refugee child — but the bill was defeated in the Judiciary Committee by a group of “America First” congressmen who had enough votes in their pocket to leave children to die.
The bill’s supporters simply couldn’t marshal the support to counterbalance those arguments. And again, President Roosevelt declined to take a stand — and let restrictionist opposition carry the day. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the bill, and FDR gave her permission to advocate for it as a private citizen. But she didn’t. And FDR himself refused to take a stance on the bill. When a member of Congress wrote asking what his position was, his secretary filed the inquiry as “File: No action FDR.”
When the Wagner-Rogers bill was taken up by the full Senate Judiciary Committee, committee chair Richard Russell — a Southern Democrat from Georgia who would later, during the civil rights era, become the Senate’s most powerful segregationist — amended it so that the 20,000 Jewish refugee children would count against the German immigrant quota for the year. This totally defeated the purpose of the bill, and the restrictionists knew it. It passed out of committee on June 30, but no one was interested in pushing it into law anymore, and no further action on it was ever taken.