A Warning From The Past: What The MS St Louis Tells Us About Today’s Refugee Crisis

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In observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, two educators created a Twitter account named @StL_Manifest to remind the world of the shameful story of the MS St Louis, a German ocean liner that set sail from Hamburg for Havana in May 1939, six months after Kristallnacht.

The St. Louis carried some 900 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Those aboard, most of them Jewish, had abandoned what remained of their lives, taking with them little more than a desperate hope for survival.

Upon arrival at the port of Havana, however, the Cuban government would only allow 29 passengers ashore. Turned away, the ship sailed toward Florida, where the United States government denied them permission to land. They then headed to Nova Scotia, only for the Canadian government to refuse them, too. In the infamous words of one Canadian immigration official, when it came to accepting Jewish refugees, “none is too many.”

Rejected, the ship returned to Europe. Its passengers understood: In the eyes of the world, they were considered “less-than.” Less valued, less significant, less human—in a word, as one of the passengers once put it, expendable. And when World War II broke out and the Nazis swept across the continent, 254 of the St. Louis travelers perished. Two hundred fifty-four lives that easily could have been saved were lost.

The @StL_Manifest account set out to humanize those tragic statistics. Throughout the day, it tweeted names and photos of St. Louis passengers who’d been denied asylum and left to die in camps like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Golleschau. They were couples who dined at restaurants. Families who bundled up together against the cold. Teenagers who played music with their friends. Bright-eyed children with eager smiles. To see their faces was to acknowledge their humanity, their personhood, their “somebody-ness”—as their silent gazes, frozen in time, warned of the perils of prejudice.

As it turned out, these digital alarm bells rang at an urgent moment. On that same day, the Trump administration issued an executive order blocking citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States for at least 90 days; barring anyone with refugee status for 120 days; and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely. It also cut the number of refugees the United States will accept this year from 110,000 to 50,000.

To paraphrase an apocryphal quote attributed to Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself, but some of its verses rhyme.

For some time now, I have warned that our global community suffers from a lack of social connectedness. This void has created space for dangerous voices to cast millions of people around the world as “others”; to paint every challenge in terms of “us” versus “them,” and to stoke fear, anger, and hate. In such a climate, otherwise good people can be tempted into cruelty—perversely concluding that innocent families fleeing violence abroad are not victims of our common enemy, but our enemy themselves.

The antidote, as always, is compassion, empathy, and understanding; a willingness to reach out instead of recoil, to focus on commonality instead of difference. We need to get beyond broad-brush stereotypes and strive to see refugees eye to eye—remembering the inherent dignity and unique gifts of every human being.

It is that uniqueness we see in the names and faces of the St Louis manifest. And in confronting their individuality, we must also confront what was lost. What might each of those individuals have gone on to contribute to our world? How much talent, creativity, and kindness was deprived of humankind by our indifference? Imagine how those men, women, and children must have felt, as port after port turned them away. Why did the world not feel something too? Where was our compassion, our moral courage?

And imagine, now, the anguish refugees face in the wake of the Trump administration’s actions. After all they’ve been through, to be shunned by a nation that prides itself on tolerance and freedom may be the most devastating blow of all.

I was deeply heartened that, in response to the executive order, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Canada’s pledge to welcome refugees. It seems that Canada is eager to demonstrate that we have learned from one of our darkest periods.

Tragically, those leading the United States appear eager to make avoidable, knowable mistakes that Americans—and indeed the rest of the world—will look back on with shame and disgust.

As London-based Somali writer Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” concludes,

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear



run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here

If we remember the tragedy of the MS St. Louis, can we avoid repeating it?

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