They seemed to spring out of nowhere a few years ago, those waving, grinning people in the blue-green costumes, standing on street corners all across the nation. Some seem to aspire to just look regal…
But of course their purpose is to call attention to a nearby office of Liberty Tax Service, and standing still isn’t usually the most effective way to accomplish that goal. So many of them twirl signs…
“Lady Liberty” is one of the most recognizable United States icons in existence, probably even moreso than Uncle Sam himself.
Perhaps because we don’t have a 150-foot statue of Sam looming over the New York harbor. A statue with a long, illustrious history.
Although intended by the statue’s creator to be a symbol of “liberty” in general, the statue very early on took on the specific role of symbolizing the “welcome to liberty” extended to immigrants to America the Beautiful.
And this role is emphasized in the minds of the large number of Americans who have memorized at least a portion of a famous poem connected to the Statue of Liberty. An engraved plaque of the poem is fastened to the wall inside the base of the statue.
The Statue of Liberty was created as a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. The French enthusiastically donated the cost of building the statue (in France, then disassembling it and shipping it to the US to be reconstructed). But they expected the government … or private citizens…of the US to provide a place to put it, and pay for construction of the foundation and large pedestal that would be needed to support the massive structure.
Strangely enough, there was more enthusiasm for the project in France than in the US. The US government refused to provide funds, and the average man-on-the-street seemed little inclined to contribute donations to get the job done, particularly with hard economic times in the US. The project had first begun in the early 1870s, but by 1882 there were still not enough funds to begin work on the foundation. US promoters attempted a number of money-raising projects to try to scrape together the cost.
One of these projects was an auction of donated works of art and literature. And that’s where we got the famous poem that is engraved on the plaque above, that contains the words most remember …
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those words are only a part of the poem, titled “The New Colossus,” contributed to the auction by Jewish author Emma Lazarus. Emma was not a Jewish immigrant. She was a descendant of an extended family of Sephardic Jews who had been in America since colonial times. Her family was well-to-do, so she didn’t have first-hand experience as part of any group of “huddled masses” of homeless people. But she did have a keen interest in supporting programs to help poor Jewish immigrants.
And she was an optimist about the opportunities that were available to Jews from European lands to make a new life for themselves and their families in the USA. In her poem she compares the new statue to the ancient Colossus of Rhodes (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), a 100-foot statue that loomed over the harbor in the Greek island of Rhodes. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BC. There are no clear contemporary descriptions of exactly what it looked like, no models or sketches. So all we have are speculations by various artists over the centuries, such as this one from the 1500s.
The “Old” Colossus had been constructed in 280 BC to celebrate a military victory. The “New” Colossus would instead celebrate peace and freedom.
Listen to Emma’s claims for how welcoming the land would be to exiles from the Old World.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I don’t remember when I first heard or read those words, but I’m sure it was back in grade school in the 1950s. Throughout my life I have accepted the premise that Lady Liberty was a beacon of hope for all those around the world who sincerely wanted to be free. I’d seen pics of the immigrants of the turn of the last century swarming into Ellis Island, in sight of the Statue, fleeing from oppression or miserable living conditions in Europe.
At the end of the movie Fiddler on the Roof (set in 1905), when all seems forlorn and hopeless to the Jews being forced from their homes in Anatevka during the Russian pogroms, there are glimpses of the fact that many of them plan to head to America. And I read enough books in my youth by Jewish authors, such as those by 1950s humorist Harry Golden about growing up on the Lower East Side in New York City, to know that indeed many Jews from Russia and elsewhere in Europe did come by the tens of thousands to the US in that era.
I understood a little about anti-semitism in my youth, but I thought that in America it was just an “attitude” of a limited number of prejudiced people. Certainly it didn’t have anything to do with “My Country,” in a bigger sense. Our troops, after all, were the ones who marched into Germany at the end of World War II and opened the gates to the concentration camps. “We” set free all those poor people who survived the persecution and hatred which had been the hallmark of the Third Reich. “We” were the Good Guys.
I read The Diary of Anne Frank (and saw the 1959 movie).
And I thought wistfully “If only” our troops could have made it to Holland in time, we could have vanquished those cruel, heartless Germans and rescued young Anne and her family and friends from their hiding place.
Instead, they all were discovered and deported, with Anne dying in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
Yes, “If only” we Americans had the appropriate opportunities to rescue at least some European Jews, what a difference we could have made!
Only recently have I discovered our nation indeed had some amazing opportunities to do just that—but unlike Oskar Schindler, we didn’t choose to pursue the opportunities.
Let me introduce you to the cruise ship SS St. Louis.
This German luxury liner was commissioned in 1939 to take a load of over 900 Jewish people, who were being deported from Germany, to The New World. The full fury of the Nazi Final Solution had not yet been unleashed, and the concentration camps were not yet full. There were still some opportunities for Jews in Germany and elsewhere to emigrate.
This is not to say that the Third Reich had not yet made its intentions regarding the Jews clear. It had. Numerous oppressive measures against the Jewish population had been implemented over a period of several years, including restricting their ability to earn a living. In 1935 all Jews were stripped of their citizenship and intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden. By 1938 circumstances were so bad that over 300,000 German and Austrian Jews were attempting to find ways to escape German rule.
And then came the infamous Kristallnacht:
…a pogrom (a series of coordinated attacks) against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by SA [brownshirts] paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht [Crystal Night] comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed.
At least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. [This massive group below are new Jewish arrivals at Buchenwald from that round-up.]
Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked, as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned (95 in Vienna alone) and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged.
Martin Gilbert writes that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from the foreign journalists working in Germany sent shock waves around the world.
The Times wrote at the time: “No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.” [Wiki: Kristallnacht]
In other words…none of this was done in a corner. Kristallnacht made the front pages of newspapers all over America.
“What was happening” to the Jews in Germany and German-occupied areas was common knowledge among Americans.
Which brings us back to the SS St. Louis, which set sail a few months after Kristallnacht.
At the time it was still possible for some Jews to “pay their way” out of Germany…IF they had enough money. Which in many cases only came from outside help from friends and relatives in other countries. The Jews who booked passage on the SS St. Louis in most cases gave up everything in order to make the trip.
On Saturday, May 13, 1939, the passengers boarded. Women and men; young and old. Each person who boarded had their own story of persecution.
One passenger, Aaron Pozner, had just been released from Dachau. On the night of Kristallnacht, Pozner along with 26,000 other Jews had been arrested and deported to concentration camps. While interned at Dachau, Pozner witnessed brutal murders by hanging, drowning, and crucifixion as well as torture by flogging and castrations by a bayonet. Surprisingly, one day Pozner was released from Dachau on the condition that he leave Germany within fourteen days. Though his family had very little money, they were able to pool enough money to buy a ticket for him to board the S.S. St. Louis. Pozner said goodbye to his wife and two children, knowing that they would never be able to raise enough money to buy another ticket to freedom. Beaten and forced to sleep amongst bloody animal hides on his journey to reach the ship, Pozner boarded with the knowledge that it was up to him to earn the money to bring his family to freedom. [Source]
Although many of the passengers had already applied for visas to enter America, the opportunity for the trip had arisen so quickly that the visa process had not been completed. Without a visa, none could enter the US. So they had instead purchased visas from Cuba which would allow them to stop in that country, wait for the US visas to be available, and then travel on to the US. So the cruise ship headed out from Hamburg toward Cuba on May 13.
It was a strange two week trip across the Atlantic. The head of the ship was Captain Gustav Schröder, a German who was not sympathetic to the Nazis.
The journey to Cuba was a joyous affair. The passengers aboard the St. Louis were “treated with contempt before they boarded, but once on the ship they were treated like privileged tourists.” “Crew members treated the passengers well—Captain Schröder insisted on this. Elegantly clad stewards served foods that by 1939 had been rationed in Germany; there was a full-time nursemaid to care for small children when their parents sat to eat.
There were dances and concerts, and the captain allowed passengers to hold Friday evening religious services in the dining room and even permitted them to throw a tablecloth over a plaster bust of Hitler that sat there. Children were given swimming lessons in the on-deck pool. Passengers felt that they were, in the words of Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, on ‘a vacation cruise to freedom.’“
However, even with the excellent treatment of the crew and the attempted negotiations of Captain Schröder, the passengers could not feel anything but anxiety and distress when it was announced that they would not be allowed to enter Cuba.
Yes, the Cuban government had changed its mind and changed its laws to prevent the entry of the Jews into the country when they arrived in Cuban waters. And at that point they entered Limbo. A highly-publicized Limbo.
After Cuba denied entry to the passengers on the St. Louis, the press throughout Europe and the Americas, including the United States, brought the story to millions of readers throughout the world. Though US newspapers generally portrayed the plight of the passengers with great sympathy, only a few journalists and editors suggested that the refugees be admitted into the United States. [US Holocaust Memorial Museum website article]
For several days there was some hope for negotiations to work to allow the passengers to disembark.
On May 28, the day after the St. Louis docked in Havana, Lawrence Berenson, an attorney representing the US-based Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), arrived in Cuba to negotiate on behalf of the St. Louis passengers. A former president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce, Berenson had had extensive business experience in Cuba. He met with President Bru, but failed to persuade him to admit the passengers into Cuba.
On June 2, Bru ordered the ship out of Cuban waters. Nevertheless, the negotiations continued, as the St. Louis sailed slowly toward Miami. Bru offered to admit the passengers if the JDC posted a $453,500 bond ($500 per passenger). Berenson made a counteroffer, but Bru rejected the proposal and broke off negotiations. [ibid]
While the ship was waiting in Cuban waters, there was plenty of concern (very valid) that some or many of the passengers might attempt suicide by jumping overboard rather than return to Hell in Europe! The answer? The ship was circled with small craft to prevent any success at such a venture.
By June 2 the ship was forced out of Cuban waters. The captain headed for Florida, hoping that the US might offer emergency refuge to the passengers under the extenuating circumstances. “Homeless, tempest-tossed” certainly seemed to more than apply to this group!
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” US diplomats in Havana intervened once more with the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis, but without success. [ibid]
Why on earth was the US taking such a cruel stand under these horrific circumstances?
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 27,370 and was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years. US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. [ibid]
So in spite of the historical reality of mass immigration to the US around the turn of the century, by 1938 Ms. Liberty no longer held up her beacon to the world’s “wretched refuse.” I had somehow missed this “turn about” in my history studies back in the 50s and 60s. I was totally unaware of that 1924 Immigration and Nationality Act which had essentially closed the doors to all but a trickle of immigrants from most countries.
It [the Depression] also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia [fear of “outsiders”], nativism [“political position of demanding a favored status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants”], and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. [ibid]
And it became very obvious that the extenuating circumstances of the time in relation to the looming Nazi Holocaust did not affect the opinion of the 83 percent.
President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause. [ibid]
This decision regarding the St. Louis was not made in a vacuum, nor without precedent.
Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.). This bill would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota. [ibid]
No, evidently from the point of view of most Americans, rescuing those Jewish children would have put an unbearable burden on the job situation in the US.
In other words…if Anne Frank had somehow been on that ship and we had a chance to save her…we wouldn’t have. There was no room in the inn. (Guess we wouldn’t have let the Baby Jesus in either if his family was fleeing from Hitler instead of Herod. Good thing Egypt let them in as refugees back then. Even though they were Jewish…)
But…but…why couldn’t the US just have let the St. Louis passengers (and those 20,000 Jewish kids) in on “temporary” visas such as a tourist would get? On “humanitarian” grounds? Oh, there was a “Catch 22” for that too.
Legally the refugees could not enter the United States on tourist visas, as they had no return addresses. [Wiki: SS St Louis]
Uh, what happened to the welcome for the “homeless, tempest-tossed”??
Yes, I guess it would have been a very cruel irony if Aaron Pozner had submitted an application for a tourist visa, giving his “return address” as “Cell 304, Dachau, Germany.” Frankly, this alleged “legal reason” used to deny even temporary visas to Jews fleeing from the Holocaust leaves me speechless.
While looking into this topic, I discovered that I had somehow totally missed a movie made about the voyage of the St. Louis! It was based on a 1974 documentary book written by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. (I had read some of their works back in the 1970s but somehow missed this book.) The book and the star-studded 1976 movie were titled Voyage of the Damned.
I can only imagine how tragic and heartbreaking the movie was! To “bring to life” scenes like this one, of the passengers looking down in agony on Havana harbor from the ship, would be extremely painful to watch.
But this is not to isolate just the US as having isolationist attitudes regarding The Damned.
As the St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade the nation’s Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship’s passengers, as it was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia. But, Canadian immigration officials and cabinet ministers hostile to Jewish immigration persuaded the Prime Minister on June 9 not to intervene. [Wiki: St. Louis]
So there they were. People without a country. Wanted by no one in the Western Hemisphere. The “wretched refuse” was sent back to the teeming shore of the “ancient land” of Europe from which it came.
This story put me in mind of a famous incident in 1987.
The Mobro 4000 was a barge made infamous in 1987 for hauling the same load of trash along the east coast of North America from New York to Belize and back until a way was found to dispose of the garbage. During this journey, local press often referred to the Mobro 4000 as the Gar-barge.
Chartered by entrepreneur Lowell Harrelson and Long Island mob boss Salvatore Avellino, it set sail on March 22 from Islip, New York, escorted by the tugboat Break of Dawn and carrying 3,168 tons of trash headed for a pilot program in Morehead City, North Carolina, to be turned into methane. The barge was docked at Morehead City, until a WRAL-TV news crew, acting on a tip, flew by helicopter to the coast to investigate. Action News 5 Reporter Susan Brozek broke the story on the 6 p.m. news on April 1, 1987, and North Carolina officials began their own investigation, which resulted in an order for the Mobro to move on.
The barge then proceeded along the coast looking for another place to offload and continuing to meet stiff resistance. The Mexican Navy denied it entrance to their waters. It made it as far south as Belize, again being rejected, before returning to New York. Upon arrival it was met with a temporary restraining order and a heated legal battle preventing it from docking. In October, the trash was finally incinerated in Brooklyn and the resulting ash was buried where it originated, in Islip.
The reality in 1939 was that the passengers of the St. Louis were viewed ultimately by many not as humans made in God’s image and worth “saving,” but as being an impersonal “threat” on the same level as unwanted trash.
Gratefully, some European countries, in spite of their own troubled circumstances and imminent war there, opened their doors to The Damned.
Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France.
Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France. [Holocaust Museum article]
Here’s what one of the survivors has to say:
“If not for the SS St. Louis, there would never have been a Warsaw Ghetto,” noted SS St. Louis surviving passenger Col. Phil Freund, U.S. Army (Retired) when he visited the Warsaw Ghetto this summer with his family.
When my family (wife, son Mark with his wife and their son (our grandson}, our daughter her husband (three grandsons) and I toured the Warsaw Ghetto this summer, I made this comment outside of the orphanage.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comment to his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, at that time was “I don’t want them in the Western Hemisphere. They have to leave.”
The Canadian Minister of Immigration at the time commented that “None is one too many”, as was reported in the local Canadian papers.
My personal opinion is that when the Nazis heard those comments and saw that we were denied disembarking, it became obvious that no country was willing to absorb 917 German Jews. Therefore, if no one cared they could proceed to do as they wished with European Jewry as Hitler’s outlined plans for us Jews in his “Mein Kampf”.
Whether you agree with Col. Freund’s conclusion or not, it is certainly thought-provoking.
But wait! Although this whole story of The Voyage of the Damned may be a fascinating, poignant, heart-tugging vignette from the past, what does it have to do with the underlying topic of this blog series? For at the end of the most recent blog entry I noted that we would be exploring the topic of Eugenics. I wrote:
From what I can tell, many, if not most, 21st century Americans have never heard much, or anything, about the topic of Eugenics. Even most of those who have, have long assumed it was an esoteric topic that flourished for a couple of decades among a small circle of kooks and crackpots in the early part of the 20th century, but then died out almost completely.
That describes my assumption until recently. In the past year I have discovered that this assumption has been totally in error. I have been astonished to discover just how deep the roots of eugenic theory and practice went into American society, and how influential it still is to this day.
And how terrifying.
I invite you to explore with me what I discovered in upcoming entries in this series.
So what does Eugenics have to do with The Voyage of the Damned? The answer is in the law that pushed away the ship carrying those pathetic people:
“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.”
Even in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, the President of the US didn’t dare attempt to get past the limits imposed by this infamous Act.
Limits which were created in part as a direct result of the acceptance by much of the American public and many American lawmakers of the aggressive theories and propaganda of the American Eugenics movement.
We’ll take a deeper look at the origins and growth and startling, long-lasting influence of that movement in the upcoming entries in this series.
For more details about the voyage of the St. Louis,
its significance, and its aftermath,
visit The St. Louis Project website.
It includes first-person stories by survivors, and much more.
Go on to the next entry in this series: