Sunday, July 13, 2014

Voyage of the Damned

I ruminated on Facebook, the other day, about the great tragedy of sending all those children from Central America, who had illegally crossed into America over our border with Mexico, back to their homelands. How sad for all those kids. I just thought America should be greater than that and I invoked the engraved words on the statue of liberty (from a poem by Emma Lazarus): “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
by Charlie Leck
A Facebook friend responded and asked me if I remembered “the boat full of Jewish children during the 2nd World War?” I didn’t remember. Unsettled, I looked at a couple of sources to find out what she was talking about.
Ah ha!
A children’s book, “So Near, and Yet So Far; Klara’s Voyage,” tells the story of the journey of a luxurious German ocean-liner in 1939 that was loaded with hundreds of Jewish refugees. The ship’s destination was Havana. It left from Hamburg on 13 May 1939 with 938 passengers on board. It expected to drop anchor in Havana and to unload its passengers who would then begin to carve out new lives for themselves – far, far away from Adolph Hitler. At the time, however, it seemed that Jews were the most unwanted race on the face of the earth. The ship and its passengers were turned away from Cuba. Was this to be seen as a justification of Hitler’s extermination policies? The passengers ranged from countesses, medical doctors, academics, entertainers and the rudimentary and ordinary types of European Jews – along with many, many children.
Gustav Schroeder captained the S.S. St. Louis. He appears to have been a man of integrity and great conscience. He tried everything to convince the Cuban government’s leader to allow the passengers shelter and safety in Cuban. He couldn’t do it. He sailed with his passengers up the coast of the United States and began conversation with U.S. State Department officials about bringing his Jewish passengers to someplace in America. He initiated the same conversations with the Canadian Ministry of Citizenship.
In the little children’s book, eight year old Klara stands beside her father as the ship passes near Miami. Klara sees the grand city with her own eyes. With a sigh, her father says to her: “So near, and yet so far away!”
Most Jews in Germany had seen the handwriting-on-the-wall as early as Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938), a night of prolonged and frightening violence against Jewish property in Berlin. The voyage of the S.S. St. Louis was only one of many attempts to move Jews out of Germany and into safer conditions. But, even on the day that the big ship pulled out of the harbor at Hamburg, the owners of the S.S. St. Louis knew their passengers might have a difficult time finding someplace to go ashore. Cuba was struggling with the great depression and was still not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. The nation certainly could not allow more competition for the few scarce jobs that there were. A large anti-Semitic demonstration took place in Havana on 8 May, just five days before the St. Louis sailed. The gathering drew more than 40,000 spectators. Many thousands more listened to the rally on the state-run radio.
Upon the ship’s arrival in Cuba, 28 passengers were allowed admittance to Cuba (22 were Jews who had valid U.S. visas). No others (908 passengers) were not allowed to leave the ship. Stories about the ship and its homeless refugees ran in newspaper all around the United States. On 2 June, the Cuban government ordered the ship out of its waters. The St. Louis sailed toward Miami and the eastern coast of the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was contacted by several Americans who were sympathetic or connected with passengers on the ship. None of them received a response from the president.
America had strict immigration quotas. Those for German-Austrian citizens was quickly filled at the very beginning of the year.The nation was still experiencing the ravages of the depression and it had very little room for sentiment and kindnesses. Roosevelt could have intervened and he could have generated a special, executive order, but he did not. Robert Wagner (Senator from the state of New York) introduced a bill to raise the limit by another 20,000, but the legislation failed to pass.
Failing to get Canadian support, the big ship turned back toward Europe. Before arriving in Germany, the ship’s captain received word that England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands had agreed to divide the passengers among their nations.
In 1976, the story of the sailing of the S.S. St. Louis, was produced as a movie (Voyage of the Damned) starring Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow.


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