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FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’


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Miami Beach was certainly a fitting choice as the site for this month’s reunion of passengers from the ill-fated SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees that sailed from Nazi Germany in May 1939. As children, they gazed at the lights of Miami as the St. Louis hovered off the Florida coast, hoping desperately for permission to land.

In the 70 years since that tragic voyage, the story of the St. Louis has been told and retold, taught and studied, researched and pondered. It has been to Hollywood, in the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned,” starring Faye Dunaway. It was the subject of a U.S. Senate resolution expressing remorse over what happened. It was featured in a full-page political cartoon in the Washington Post (by Art Spiegelman of “Maus” fame and this author). It was the focus of a project by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to trace the fate of each of the more than 900 passengers.

And it continues to fascinate historians – including an Israeli scholar who has uncovered a new document that sheds light on President Franklin Roosevelt’s attitude toward the St. Louis.

The Saddest Ship Afloat

Hans Fisher, today a professor at Rutgers University, grew up in the German city of Breslau. He still vividly remembers the torments he and other Jewish children endured there in the early years of the Hitler regime.

“When my friends and I would come out of our school building, members of the Hitler Youth would be waiting nearby,” he recalls. “They would chase us, and if they caught us, they would beat us.”

His father, George Fisher, was one of the tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested during the November 1938 Kristallnacht program and sent to concentration camps. After nearly two months in Buchenwald, George was released on condition he leave the country within two weeks. He secured a visa to Cuba and immediately upon his arrival there began making arrangements for Hans, his sister Ruth, and their mother to join him. They purchased tickets to sail on the SS St. Louis in May 1939.

Hans’s grandparents, Wolf and Emma Gottheimer, chose to stay behind.

“My grandfather was convinced that since four of his sons had given their lives for Germany in World War I, the Nazis would never persecute him,” Hans explains. “In fact, my grandparents had gone to Palestine in 1935, but then returned to Germany, to the shock and amazement of their friends.”

Hans’s grandparents would eventually perish in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The two-week voyage from Hamburg to Havana proceeded without incident. “I was young, I was happy that we were getting away from Nazi Germany, I certainly couldn’t appreciate how tenuous our position was,” Hans says.

“When we reached Havana, all of our suitcases were brought up to the deck as we got ready to disembark. It was a terrible shock to be standing there by the rail, our suitcases in hand, and told we could not get off the ship.”

All but thirty of the passengers held documents granting them entry to Cuba as tourists, which they had purchased in Germany, at the astronomical sum of $500 each, from an unscrupulous Cuban government official. Cuba’s authorities, furious at the backroom profiteering and sensitive to domestic anti-Semitism, refused to recognize the validity of the entry documents.

The St. Louis remained in the Havana port for several days as officials of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with Cuban leaders. Meanwhile, relatives of the passengers rented small boats and rowed close to the St. Louis, hoping to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.

“I could see my father in one of the rowboats,” Hans recalls. “But they were not allowed to get close enough for us to hear each other. It was very painful.”

When the Cuban government refused to budge, the “saddest ship afloat,” as The New York Times called it, sailed north and hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping that the American president, who was known as a humanitarian and a champion of “the little guy” would take pity on them.

For three days, the refugees gazed longingly at the lights of Miami. The passengers sent a telegram to the White House, pleading for mercy and emphasizing that “more than 400 [of the refugees] are women and children.”

The reply came in the form of a Coast Guard cutter, dispatched to the scene to make sure the St. Louis did not approach America’s shore.

‘Filthy, Un-American, and Dangerous’

Though many German Jews hoped to escape Hitler by fleeing to the United States, immigration was severely restricted. America’s traditional open door immigration policy, which had permitted the unfettered entry of millions of newcomers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was reversed in the early 1920s as Congress enacted a tight quota system based on national origins.

The number of immigrants from any single country each year could not exceed two percent of the number of immigrants from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1890 national census. This sharply reduced the number of Jews and (predominantly Catholic) Italian Americans, since the bulk of Jewish and Italian immigrants in the U.S. had not arrived until after 1890.

Keeping Jews out was one of the motives for the new system. The original version of the quota bill was submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service characterizing would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits . . . lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”

Anti-Semitism was only part of the reason behind the strong public and congressional support for immigration restriction. The 1917 Soviet revolution in Russia sparked anxiety about Communism and the danger that European radicals would import it to America. The changing face of American society as a result of the influx of European immigrants provoked fears of foreigners. And prominent anthropologists

and eugenicists contributed to the public’s growing racism and paranoia by promoting theories that non-Caucasian races were corrupting Anglo-Saxon society.

Saving Lives Without Changing Laws

As Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews intensified during the mid and late 1930s, the U.S. quota system functioned precisely as its creators had intended: it kept out all but a handful of Jews.

The annual quota for Germany and Austria was 27,370. For Poland, it was just 6,542. Even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled, as zealous consular officials erected bureaucratic obstacles to immigration – what Prof. David S. Wyman called “paper walls.”

In 1933, Hitler’s first year in power, the German quota was only 5.3 percent filled (1,324 immigrants). It was 13.7 percent filled in 1934, 20.2 percent in 1935, 24.3 percent in 1936, 42.1 percent in 1937, and 65.3 percent in 1938. The only year between 1933 and 1945 that the German quota was fully filled was 1939.

This meant that between 1933 and 1939, there were 106,484 unused quota places for German citizens.

Later, during the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 until early 1945, only ten percent of the quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were used. That means almost 190,000 quota places were unused.

The question of unused quota places is important because when American Jewish refugee advocates privately asked the Roosevelt administration, in the 1930s, to permit more immigration, they were told nothing could be done because the administration could not persuade Congress to liberalize the immigration laws.

To this day, FDR’s supporters continue to blame the 1920s immigration laws as the obstacle to refugee immigration in the 1930s. “It has always seemed to me a bit unfair to blame President Roosevelt for a law that was passed and signed by … Calvin Coolidge,” military historian Gerhard Weinberg asserted in a recent radio interview. “Until the Congress changed the immigration law … President Roosevelt, like any other president, was obliged to enforce the law.”

Similarly, Roosevelt Institute president William vanden Heuvel wrote in American Heritage magazine: “Roosevelt’s critics severely underestimate limitations on presidential power . Clearly, the President could not unilaterally command an increase in quotas.”

But in fact, many lives could have been saved without changing a single law or fighting Congress. All FDR had to do was quietly instruct the State Department to admit as many refugees as the law allowed. That alone would have saved more than 100,000 German Jews before World War II – and nearly 200,000 more during the Holocaust years.

’20,000 Ugly Adults’

Meanwhile, just as the St. Louis crisis was escalating, members of Congress were considering legislation, introduced by Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA), to admit 20,000 German refugee children outside the quota system.

Supporters of the bill included prominent church figures, leaders of the AFL and CIO labor unions, university presidents, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the 1936 Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and former First Lady Grace Coolidge, who announced that she and her friends in Northampton, Massachusetts would personally care for 25 of the children.

Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill. Typical of their perspective was a remark by FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration: she warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

FDR responded negatively to a private appeal to him by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for his support of the bill. He did tell Eleanor that he would not object if she endorsed it, but she refrained from doing so. When a congresswoman inquired as to the president’s position on the bill, FDR returned the note to his secretary marked “File No action FDR.”

Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed to more immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it. Without his support, the Wagner-Rogers bill was buried in committee.

‘Roosevelt Was Apathetic’

FDR’s silence with regard to the St. Louis has long intrigued historians. On the one hand, Roosevelt is well known for his tendency to refrain from committing his private thoughts to writing. On the other hand, it is remarkable that an episode such as the controversy over the St. Louis, which made the front page of America’s major newspapers for nearly a week, and which raised important questions about U.S. policies, did not elicit any comment from the president.

A newly-discovered document offers a rare insider’s account of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the St. Louis.

The document was unearthed by Dr. Bat-Ami Zucker, a historian at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who has written extensively on America’s response to the Holocaust and whose latest book is Cecilia Razovsky and the American Jewish Women’s Rescue Operations in the Second World War (published by Vallentine Mitchell).

Cecilia Razovsky, a refugee advocate and senior official of the National Council of Jewish Women, went to Havana in May 1939 and took part in high-level discussions with Cuban and U.S. officials in an attempt to resolve the St. Louis crisis. In Razovsky’s papers, Dr. Zucker discovered an unpublished memoir about the St. Louis episode that Razovsky wrote after the war.

In the memoir, Razovsky described how, when the Cuban authorities refused to yield, she met with diplomats from “other South American countries” in the hope they would take at least some of the St. Louis refugees, but to no avail. (Canada also refused a request for haven.)

Then Razovsky wrote: “We again at that time tried to get permission from Secretary of State Hull to take them but our State Dept. was unsympathetic and Franklin Delano was apathetic, although Eleanor did everything in her power to change their attitude.”

Razovsky’s assessment of Hull’s lack of sympathy, FDR’s apathy, and the First Lady’s unsuccessful intervention seems to have been based on her direct contacts with official Washington. During the 1930s and 1940s, Razovsky met repeatedly with senior U.S. officials, including cabinet members, to lobby for the rescue of Jewish refugees. She was one of the best-positioned eyewitnesses to the response of the Roosevelt administration to the plight of the Jews.

Her memoir provides additional first-person evidence of the president’s decision to turn a blind eye to a humanitarian crisis on America’s very doorstep.

What could FDR have done to aid the Jews on the St. Louis? He could have issued an executive order placing the refugees in a temporary detention center until it was safe for them to return to Germany. He could have put meaningful pressure on the British to let the passengers go to Mandatory Palestine. Or he could have leaned on America’s Latin American allies to take in the refugees.

Instead, he was, as Razovsky put it, “apathetic.” He turned away, in effect forcing the St. Louis to return to Europe. The same apathy would characterize Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi mass murder of the Jews in the years to follow.

“Roosevelt was a very shrewd and conniving politician,” Hans Fisher recalls. “He did what was politically useful for him.”

Havens – But Not For Long

With America’s doors closed, the St. Louis slowly sailed back towards Europe. A Nazi newspaper, Der Weltkampf, gloated: “We are saying openly that we do not want the Jews, while the democracies keep on claiming that they are willing to receive them – then leave them out in the cold.”

At the same time, however, the Joint Distribution Committee was negotiating with the governments of England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and convinced them to each accept a portion of the St. Louis passengers. For a time, it seemed the refugees were saved.

Those who were admitted to England did indeed survive the war. And some of those who went to the other countries found ways to escape Europe. Hans Fisher, his mother, and sister were among those who disembarked in France, but within six months Hans’s father had managed to procure another set of Cuban visas for them. They left Europe for good in December 1939, on a ship carrying refugees from the Spanish civil war.

But many of the others were not so fortunate. In the spring of 1940, the Germans invaded France, Holland, and Belgium. Nearly half of the St. Louis refugees who were admitted to those countries were murdered in Nazi death camps.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (www.WymanInstitute.org).

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C., and author of 14 books about the Holocaust, Zionism, and American Jewish history. His latest book is 'FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith,' available from Amazon.


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