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November 25, 2015 / 13 Kislev, 5776
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FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’


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 the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.

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