As a rabbi, I must walk an incredibly fine line. My job is to be of moral support to every member of this community, but also to teach about morality. Unfortunately, all too often, the line between morality and politics is a blurry one. Please understand as I write this that, while it is my duty to speak out on moral issues, you are obviously free to agree or disagree with anything I say, and wherever you stand on any moral or political issue, it in no way changes my commitment to you and your family.
This week, the world marked the liberation of Auschwitz. After Kristallnacht, the terrible “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that it was time to leave. Though many German Jews had emigrated in the preceding years, the Jews who remained had a more difficult time: not only were visas needed to be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave Germany. Since many countries, especially the United States, had immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short time available. For many, the visas were acquired after it was too late.
The opportunity that the S.S. St. Louis presented seemed like a last hope to escape. It was scheduled to take Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba. Once the refugees arrived in Cuba they would await their quota number to be able to enter the United States. The nearly one thousand refugees were required to pay a small fortune for their passage, and because most Jews had already been forced out of their jobs and savings under the Nazi regime, most didn’t have the money. Some families had to pool resources to send even one member to freedom.
On May 13, 1939, the passengers boarded. Women and men; young and old. Each person who boarded had their own story of persecution. One, Aaron Pozner, had just been released from Dachau on the condition that he leave Germany within fourteen days. In Dachau he had seen hangings, drownings, crucifixions and torture. His family had very little money, but they managed to pool enough for a ticket before the deadline. Pozner boarded the St. Louis with the knowledge that it was up to him to earn the money to bring his family to freedom.
As the passengers boarded they remembered the many years of persecution that they had been living under. Some had come out of hiding to board the ship and none were certain that they would not receive the same kind of treatment once aboard. Indeed, one crew member was a member of the German Secret Police tasked with picking up secret documents about the U.S. military in Cuba.
At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of Saturday May 13, the ship sailed. However, on approaching Cuba on May 23, the ship’s Captain received a cable stating that the passengers might not be able to land in Cuba because the visas purchased by the company were under scrutiny.
In Cuba in early 1939, the economy had begun to stagnate and many blamed the incoming refugees for taking jobs that otherwise would have been held by Cubans. On May 5, a decree was passed that voided the landing permits of almost every passenger on the S.S. St. Louis. However, none of the passengers realized this.
The passengers remained anxious to disembark, not realizing the international and political negotiations which surrounded their fate. After the St. Louis arrived, the American Joint Distribution Committee began to realize the seriousness of the predicament. They would send two professionals to negotiate – but they would not arrive until four days later.
Goebbels then decided to use the S.S. St. Louis and her passengers in as propaganda. Having sent agents to Havana to stir up anti-Semitism, Nazi propaganda fabricated and hyped the passengers’ criminal nature – making them seem even more undesirable. The agents within Cuba stirred anti-Semitism and organized protests. Soon, an additional 1,000 Jewish refugees entering Cuba was seen as a threat.
The anxiousness and expectation of imminent arrival transformed into anxiety and suspiciousness as the waiting was prolonged from hours to days. Max Loewe, previously a prisoner at Dachau, became increasingly paranoid, slit his wrists and jumped overboard. The days continued to progress and the passengers all became increasingly suspicious and fearful. They knew that if they were forced back to Germany, they would be sent to concentration camps. The Cuban navy ensured that none of the passengers would be able to jump overboard and swim to shore.
The world, including the government of Roosevelt, followed the fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis. Their story was covered around the world. When the Cuban cabinet met, it was decided that the passengers aboard the St. Louis would not be allowed to land. The ship’s captain began to fear mass suicides on board.
The two Americans from the JDC arrived in Havana June 1 and managed to convince Cuba’s President Bru to reopen negotiations, but only once the St. Louis was out of Cuban waters. So the St. Louis was to encircle Cuba, waiting and hoping for a successful negotiation to be concluded.
The Cuban government wanted approximately $500,000 (as valued in 1939) in total for visas, treating the passengers as immigrants rather than refugees. While the negotiations continued, the St. Louis milled around Cuba and then headed north, following the Florida coastline in the hopes that perhaps the United States would accept the refugees. Roosevelt ignored their requests and turned them away. Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota was just 27,370 and there was a waiting list of several years. A U.S. Coast Guard ship and planes followed the St. Louis to prevent it from landing.
Around noon on June 6, President Bru of Cuba closed the negotiations. One day later, the JDC offered to pay Bru’s every demand but Bru said it was too late. The option of landing in Cuba was officially closed.
With a diminishing supply of food, the ship’s captain ordered the ship to change heading to return to Europe. Though the situation was desperate there was still hope that negotiations for their landing in Europe somewhere other than Germany could be possible to avoid the fate that awaited the refugees there.
Through intensive negotiations, the JDC was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees. However, with World War II just months away, many of these passengers were sent East to concentration camps. By the end of the war, over half those who had been on the St. Louis were dead.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution in majority-Muslim countries like Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The reason they don’t want to be there is because of civil war and radical Islamist terrorism.
Might some small percentage of these people become radicalized? Obviously. Might some small percentage of these people threaten the United States? Obviously. Some of the Germans and Austrians who were admitted to the United States in the 1930s were Nazi spies who provided damaging military intelligence to Germany.
We need border controls, visa interviews and as strict a vetting process as we can create. None of that, however, changes the reality that we have a moral responsibility to help refugees fleeing for their lives.
In the Hebrew Bible, God says:
“I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against those who… deprive the foreigners among you of justice” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)
And having read from the book of Exodus today, we must never forget its essential message:
“Do not oppress a foreigner because you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
I’d like to ask you today to consider those Jewish refugees who tried to flee the Nazis and were rebuffed by the United States. I’d like you to consider whether doing the same to others, fleeing equally merciless, equally fanatical oppressors, is any different.