In 1939 the Nazi regime was gaining a terrifying momentum. Nine-hundred-and-thirty Jews tried to flee the nightmare that was about to descend. The SS St. Louis sailed from Germany. The terrified passengers knew what was happening. They were desperate.
The Jews on the St. Louis carried visas to Cuba, the only harbor available to them. However, even before the ship entered the port of Havana, they were told that the Cuban Government had changed its mind.
The St. Louis came close enough to the coast of Miami that the refugees could see the lights of the city. That sight proved to be just a cruel and ironic tease.
Incredibly, these innocent men, women and children were refused sanctuary by President Roosevelt and the United States of America. The U.S. Coast Guard vessels that accompanied the St. Louis were not there to protect her or escort her to the shores of America. Their presence was to assure that no Jews would jump overboard and escape.
The Jewish community in America offered politely worded pleas. The Jewish leadership failed to mount the type of irate and massive protests and demonstrations that would grab front-page headlines and shame Roosevelt into capitulating. The 930 were shipped back to the hell that awaited them.
The message was clear. The Nazis now knew that no one really cared about the fate of the Jews. The Jews now knew that even if they wished to escape, no one was willing to take them in.
How could such a shameful incident have happened? The answers are compelling. The economy was bad. The country was reeling from a depression. Americans were hesitant to take on refugees when jobs and assets were scarce. Jewish leadership was weak and unwilling to take strong and unpopular stands. Denial of the extent of the danger involving world politics was rampant.
Recently, a 70th anniversary of the St. Louis was commemorated at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. It was the very location that the ill-fated passengers gazed upon before they were returned to Germany. The surviving 33 passengers attended the event.
There are many parallels today that mirror the circumstances that allowed the tragedy of the St. Louis to occur. As Jews, we must be especially vigilant to keep our guard up and stay informed about what is happening in the world.
We are told that people who do not learn from their history are destined to repeat it. Never again is more than a slogan. It is a message that needs to be internalized and acted upon.