MIAMI – It would become known, with heartbreak and infamy, as the Voyage of the Damned. Seventy-six years ago, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany hovered aimlessly for 72 hours just a couple of miles off the Florida coast while Jewish leaders in Washington frantically begged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let the passengers into the United States. “So near, and yet so far,” one passenger murmured to her husband as they watched traffic darting about Miami Beach.
Roosevelt said no, and the SS St. Louis sailed back to Europe, where World War II was weeks away. Many of the passengers would fall back into the hands of the Nazis they were trying to escape. About 250 of them did not survive the war.
The decision to turn away the St. Louis was a grotesquely ugly moment in American history, one for which Congress and the State Department would eventually apologize. Now the governors of 31 states are urging President Obama to turn away another group of refugees: 10,000 people fleeing the civil war in Syria. So, is this another St. Louis moment?
“Not at all,” said Herbert Karliner, a retired Aventura, Fla., baker who was aboard the St. Louis the day the United States sent it packing and lost most of his family as a result. “You can’t compare this to the St. Louis, not at all. … No one doubted who we were, people trying to get away from Hitler. But these people from Syria, I’m afraid some of them could be troublemakers.”
A thousand miles north, in Neptune, N.J., one of Karliner’s former shipmates, retired Defense Department analyst Eva Weiner, disagreed. “The situations are comparable,” she said. “However, we are living in a different time today. I’m not saying deny them all entry, but we must be cautious. … A blanket statement either way is totally wrong.”
The St. Louis has become a rhetorical touchstone in the fierce debate over the Syrian refugees, which erupted after the murderous attacks in Paris by radical Muslim terrorists. Critics of Obama’s plan to bring them to the U.S. say refugee status could easily be used to mask terrorist sleeper cells.
As evidence, they cite the fact that at least one of the Paris terrorists apparently carried a forged Syrian passport used by a refugee to enter Greece in October.
Repetition of a mistake
But supporters of the Obama policy argue that refusing the refugees is a dumbfounding and unforgivable repetition of the callous decision to send so many of the St. Louis passengers to their graves. “Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child,” wrote one Washington Post columnist.
Among survivors of the St. Louis and scholars who have studied the incident, there are differing opinions about drawing parallels between the world of 1939 and the one of 2015. Even those who see congruence agree that there are important differences.
“The blood lines are pretty clear in the case of Germany,” said Robert Krakow, director of the SS St. Louis Legacy Project. “The Nazis are coming for the Jews to kill them or incarcerate them. In the case of the Syrian refugees, it’s more blurred, because we don’t know who is aligned to who. … The factionalism of that area of the world is almost impossible to define. So, the lines are blurred. But where they converge is human suffering.”
The St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, bound for Cuba. Many passengers had decided to flee Germany after the night of Nazi rioting known as Kristallnacht for all the broken glass in Jewish shops and homes.
Thousands of Jewish men — including the fathers of Karliner and Weiner — had been rounded up after Kristallnacht and sent to concentration camps. They were released only when they promised to leave Germany within six months, not easy in a world where the high unemployment of the Great Depression — still lingering in 1939 — had triggered almost universal immigration crackdowns.
Turned away by Cuba
Cuba was an exception. But by the time the vessel arrived two weeks later, the country was being rocked by a corruption scandal — stirred up in part, researchers would later discover, by German intelligence agents in Havana — and the government allowed only about two dozen passengers to come ashore, including one who had attempted suicide.
The rest stayed aboard for the ill-fated trip to Florida. When first the United States and then Canada rejected them and the ship headed back to Europe, a few staged a halfhearted and short-lived attempt at mutiny, and many others forged a mutual suicide pact. They backed down only when the ship’s sympathetic captain, Gustav Schroeder, promised he would scuttle the ship in British waters rather than return them to Germany.
It didn’t come to that. Great Britain finally agreed to take about half the passengers, while France, the Netherlands and Belgium took the rest. Because Hitler never invaded Great Britain, all the passengers who went there survived, but the casualty rate in France was high and in Belgium and the Netherlands it approached 100 percent.
“If we hadn’t gotten lucky and been sent to England, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” said Weiner, 76.
The biggest difference between the St. Louis passengers nearly eight decades ago and the Syrian refugees of today is that the St. Louis passengers were rejected not because anybody suspected them of being secret Nazi spies and saboteurs, but because they were Jews.
“Poll after poll at that time showed that 40 percent of the American public had anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who held senior policy positions in the Carter and Clinton administrations and is now Obama’s special adviser for Holocaust issues. “It was not the United States of today. Many universities, and many professions, had Jewish quotas to limit their numbers. Jews were not popular, and that was a factor for Roosevelt.”
Eizenstat, who has closely studied the U.S. government’s handling of the St. Louis, understands the concern about terrorists posing as refugees. He thinks the problem can be overcome, citing the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who came to the U.S. after the communist victory in South Vietnam in 1975, and the more than 100,000 Cubans who came during the 1979 Mariel boatlift.
“We set up screening centers and we weeded out the people who might have been spies or government agents,” he said. “The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were serious, hard-core — well, we didn’t use the word terrorists, but that’s what they were. But we kept them out. We can do that with the Syrians, too.”