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Jews' 'Voyage of the Damned' 75 years ago discussed at Library of Congress

'Voyage of the St. Louis' discussion at Library of Congress May 19 featured authors Marvin Kalb, Martin Goldsmith, Diane Afoumado, plus a survivor of the ill-fated SS St. Louis.
'Voyage of the St. Louis' discussion at Library of Congress May 19 featured authors Marvin Kalb, Martin Goldsmith, Diane Afoumado, plus a survivor of the ill-fated SS St. Louis.
SS St. Louis in Havana Harbor June 1 or 2, 1939. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The tragic voyage of the M.S. St. Louis, whose more than 930 Jewish refugees from Nazism were rejected by Cuba, the U.S., and Canada, and forced to return to Europe 75 years ago, was discussed by a survivor of the journey and three authors including Marvin Kalb at the Library of Congress on May 19.

'Alex's Wake' author Martin Goldsmith spoke at Library of Congress May 19 about the doomed S.S. St. Louis voyage 75 years ago
Cover image of 'Alex's Wake' courtesy of Da Capo Press

Survivor Eva Wiener, who was only nine months old during the so-called "Voyage of the Damned", told the audience, "In defense of the United States, I am a proud citizen of the U.S. -- by choice."

Wiener commended Congress for passing a resolution about the shameful incident, "I guess the U.S. saw the error of its ways and found it in its heart to apologize."

The resolution "acknowledges", more than apologizes, and "Honors the memory of the 937 refugees aboard the M.S. St. Louis, most of whom were Jews fleeing Nazi oppression, and 254 of whom subsequently died during the Holocaust."

After the discussion, Wiener showed me her blue album with a copy of the resolution, passed in 2009, 70 years after the debacle; photos of herself in her parents' arms aboard the luxury liner; her German birth certificate embossed with the Nazi seal; and her landing document for Cuba -- the official document possessed by all the St. Louis passengers, but Cuba refused to honor the legal certificates when the ship arrived in Havana harbor May 27, 1939.

Wiener told me that her parents' main reaction was "terrible disappointment in the United States...They couldn't fathom that the greatest country in the world couldn't let in 900 people, a minuscule amount."

The U.S. refusal to accept the imperiled refugees was a major focus of the fascinating discussion, "Voyage of the St. Louis", among author and former TV commentator Kalb and two authors of books about the international incident:

  • Martin Goldsmith, "Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance", newly published by Da Capo Press. It's "a tale of a lifetime of living in Alex's wake, the guilt that my family felt, and how I was affected by following in his footsteps." Goldsmith retraces the journey of his grandfather Alex Goldschmidt and uncle Helmut Goldschmidt on the St. Louis, and then through several concentration camps in France, and murdered in Auschwitz.

Kalb, whose most recent book is The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution Press, 2013), said that if President Franklin Roosevelt had been asked whether the St. Louis passengers should be allowed to enter the country, "My gut feeling is, he'd have said 'No. Let's move on'."

Kalb, a Brookings senior fellow explained, "Roosevelt was very sensitive to what he was capable of doing and not doing...We think of him as all-powerful...a four-term President... But at that time, he was rather vulnerable, and he felt his vulnerability, so he was cautious."

Historian Afoumado said, "President Roosevelt was certainly seen as the most powerful man in the world, but he can't change the law (strict quotas had been set by the Immigration Act of 1924) or the State Department." She added, "Humanitarian cause is not what usually moves governments."

Afoumado pointed out that because of the law, the U.S. government "couldn't do anything, unless it made an exception, and the government knew it would create a legal precedent...hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants would have followed then."

(Ironically, "more than 700 of the passengers were already on the U.S. quota list" she noted. But others were ahead of them on the list.)

Afoumado said that in addition to the quotas, "There was anti-Semitism in the State Department and in the population."

Goldsmith cited a 1938 Roper Poll that showed the U.S. was "a fairly anti-Semitic" country. The poll asked "What kind of people do you object to?" Goldsmith summarized:

  • "The highest number, 35 percent, answered simply 'Jews'."
  • "53 percent of the Americans asked felt that 'Jews were not like the rest of us' and should be subject to 'restrictions' in their business and social lives."
  • "10 percent of all Jews should be deported from the U.S."

Goldsmith wrote, "President Roosevelt, already gearing up his campaign for an unprecedented third term (was) unwilling to become mired in the immigration issue." Roosevelt never responded to telegrams he had received from the St. Louis passengers' committee; from the ship's captain; Hollywood stars like Edward G. Robinson and other notables; and from numerous others pleading on behalf of these Jews.

Kalb asked whether something similar could happen today in the U.S.? Both authors responded with positives and provisos.

"Today, I certainly do not see that level of anti-Semitism -- But given the anti-immigration sentiment of many in Congress and in the population, I don't know," Goldsmith answered.

Afoumado said that with the "globalism" of today, "there is more intervention on a humanitarian basis, and more and more prevention before a crisis is reached, before people would be forced to leave."

But, she added, as we know so well, "there are many wars going on."

[According to a just-released global survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), more than one-quarter of those surveyed, 26 percent, are "deeply infected with anti-Semitic attitudes" -- representing an estimated 1.09 billion adults.

Also, two out of three people surveyed have either never heard of the Holocaust, or do not believe historical accounts, noted "The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism" in its survey of 53,100 adults in more than 100 countries and territories.

And on May 24, a shooting rampage at Brussels' Jewish Museum killed three people and critically injured a fourth person, according to news reports.]

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