Today is the 75th anniversary of the arrival in Havana Harbor of the star-crossed ship the S.S. St. Louis, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany in May 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Their story was made into a 1976 Academy Award nominated movie "The Voyage of the Damned." It was publicized in a best-selling book, "While Six Million Died," by CBS News reporter Arthur D. Morse, in which the United States in general and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in particular are cast as callous "bystanders" to Nazi genocide.
Since then the story of the S.S. St. Louis has taken on a mythic and, indeed, fictional quality in which everyone in the world ignored these victims of Nazi persecution and the passengers were forced back to Hamburg, where they were taken to concentration camps and murdered. "Everyone knows," Elie Wiesel wrote, "if the passengers cannot disembark they will be delivered to the executioner." Rafael Medloff, author of "The Deafening Silence" (the title says it all) tells us that the St. Louis "chugs slowly back toward Hitler's inferno." Gulie Arad, an Israeli, wrote in "America, Its Jews and the Rise of Nazism" that the "tragic saga of the St. Louis was another instance when American Jews could do little other than unburden their feelings of shame." According to the myth-makers, the St. Louis was refused entry by every country in the world, returned to Hamburg and the passengers all died in concentration camps while American Jews cowered in the corner.
This story is simply not true. After the St. Louis left Havana, the Jewish leadership in the U.S. worked frantically to save every passenger. An organization most Americans have never heard of, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC) headquartered in New York, lobbied and attempted to bribe Cuban officials (as they had done in the past) to let the passengers disembark. When they failed, the JDC worked with the governments of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland to take the refugees in, which they did. Of the 937 refugees who left Hamburg for Havana, 29 disembarked at Havana, 907 sailed back to Europe and 288 disembarked in England and survived the war. Six hundred and twenty went to France, Belgium and Holland which, it cannot be emphasized enough, were not at war with Germany in May 1939. World War II had not begun. The Holocaust had not begun. Death camps did not exist in 1939. The Holocaust was three years into the future. The passengers of the St. Louis were all safe. Some of those who returned to Europe were killed in the Holocaust three, four, and five years after the events of 1939, an event no one in May 1939 could have predicted. About half of the original passengers eventually immigrated to the U.S. Two hundred and fifty four perished in the Holocaust or the war. Thus, more than two-thirds of the passengers survived the Holocaust.
And the role of the American government? It is true that passengers could not come to the U.S. as the draconian 1924 Immigrant Act forbade it, the Depression reinforced it and there was a long waiting list of Jewish refugees ahead of the St. Louis passengers. The point man on the St. Louis was Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt's Jewish Secretary of the Treasury and a major contributor to the JDC. Morgenthau worked behind the scenes with the State Department, leaders of the JDC and others to see to it that none of the St. Louis passengers returned to Germany. The American Consul-General in Havana, Coert DuBois, and Ambassador J. Butler Wright, worked closely with the JDC. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was involved and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy lobbied British authorities. The JDC put up substantial money to guarantee that the passengers would not become a burden in their new places of refuge.
It is a myth that the U.S. Coast Guard followed the St. Louis off the coast of Miami so passengers could not jump off and swim to the U.S. In fact, Morgenthau secretly sent the Coast Guard to follow the St. Louis to keep track of its whereabouts while American diplomats and the JDC tried to convince the Cubans to let the passengers land in Havana.
Roosevelt's closest Jewish advisor, Samuel Rosenman, was involved in efforts to save the passengers and Roosevelt himself was kept informed by his advisors. The American Jewish community was anxious and angry about the plight of the passengers. The files of the JDC are full of letters and telegrams demanding action. "I have never seen the people in this section," one representative of the JDC wrote, "so distressed as they have been over this refugee ship."
When the passengers were saved from going back to Germany they knew the JDC and the American government had saved them. "Our gratitude is as immense as the ocean on which we are now floating," they wired Morris C. Troper of the JDC.
On this 75th anniversary of the St. Louis affair, when the usual suspects denounce Roosevelt, the American people, the American Jewish community and Jewish leaders for their "deafening silence," their "indifference" and for being "bystanders" to Nazi persecution, it is important to recall that our fellow Americans - Jews and Gentiles alike - actually did the right thing within the legal and political parameters that existed in May of 1939.
None of the passengers on the S.S. St. Louis went back to Germany.
Robert N. Rosen, a Charleston attorney, is the author of "Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust" (Avalon, 2006) and "The Jewish Confederates" (USC Press, 2000). For details on the S.S. St. Louis passengers, see www.USHMM.org/StLouis.