American philosopher-poet George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The United States is repeating history today with desperate people huddled at our southern border hoping to get in.
They’re being held at bay — but for different reasons than in 1914, when European Jews were escaping from the Germans at the outbreak of World War I, and denied entry to the U.S. because they were Jewish. It happened again in 1939, just before the start of World War II.
That action followed the same pattern of discrimination against Asians that tarnished American history throughout most of the 1800s.
The Canadians did the same thing in 1914 against Sikhs fleeing persecution in India and seeking safety in British Columbia.
Because of those policies by both nations, Jews and Sikhs died.
On May 13, 1939, the MS St. Louis with 937 passengers aboard — mostly Jews escaping the Nazis — sailed from Hamburg, Germany and headed for Havana, Cuba where they expected to wait until receiving clearance to travel to the United States.
They never made it.
The trip across the Atlantic was pleasant enough. Children played on the deck and swam in the pool. Friday prayers were permitted — even allowing Hitler’s portrait to be covered during services. They enjoyed the dance band, watched movies and had better meals than they remembered having back home.
A boy named Lothar Molton travelling with his parents called the trip, “a vacation cruise to freedom.”
Once the ship anchored in Havana Harbor, everything changed. Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú had cancelled their authorization papers a week before the ship left Germany. Hamburg-Amerika officials knew it, but the passengers didn’t.
The right-wing Cuban press supported Brú by demanding that no Jews be admitted to the country. Adding fuel to the fire, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, director-general of immigration was exposed as having illegally sold landing certificates to the refugees for $150 or more, amassing a personal fortune of $500,000 to a million dollars.
The Great Depression was making jobs hard to find, so Cubans resented bringing in refugees to compete for employment — including the 2500 Jews already admitted.
Five days before the St. Louis sailed, Cubans knew about the pending arrival, and 40,000 took to the streets to protest. It was the largest anti-Semitic demonstration in Cuban history.
Former Cuban President Grau San Martin rallied crowds to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.”
The St. Louis arrived in Havana on May 27, and the government allowed 28 passengers to stay because they had proper documents. Twenty-two of them were Jewish.
One passenger attempted suicide and was taken ashore to hospital.
Lawrence Berenson, an attorney from the U.S.-based Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) arrived to negotiate on behalf of the passengers, but failed.
On June 2, President Brú ordered the St. Louis to leave. Slowly, the ship sailed for Miami, hoping for the best.
When they arrived off Miami, U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolled to make sure no one jumped overboard to swim to shore and freedom.
Passengers sadly watched the lights of Miami twinkling in the distance.
Some passengers sent cables to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor asking for help. “We never received a reply from FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt, whom we asked to save the children on the ship,” said passenger Herb Karliner.
The State Department however sent a telegram telling the passengers. to “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States,” though at the same time American diplomats in Havana “informally” joined Berenson in continued negotiations — all to no avail.
Two smaller French and British ships with Jewish refugees on board were also blocked by the Cubans.
While the American press generally deplored the St. Louis refugee troubles, there was little enthusiasm in the U.S. to do anything about it.
Canada also refused to accept the refugees, Frederick Blair, director of the Immigration Branch stating that “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe. The line must be drawn somewhere.”
The ship sailed back to Europe, with the Nazi invasion of Poland just ahead — its odyssey called “The Voyage of the Damned.”
All of this delighted the German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry that hoped to show the world that nobody wanted the Jews, helping justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish goals and policies.
The Canadians created a similar incident in 1914, but their target was Sikh refugees from India.
In Hong Kong, Sikh Baba Gurdit Singh chartered a dilapidated ship called the Komagata Maru and filled it with 376 passengers that included 340 Sikhs mostly from the Punjab, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus — all British subjects.
They were escaping difficult times in British-ruled India.
Their destination was Vancouver, and they were purposely challenging Canada’s exclusionary laws.
It happened during a time when Canadian culture was characterized by xenophobia, racism and government policies to keep certain foreigners out.
Canadian exclusionary laws in 1908 required that immigrants must come from their native countries to Canada “by a continuous journey and or through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or nationality,” later adding that “No immigrant of Asiatic origin shall be permitted to enter Canada unless in actual and personal possession in his or her own right of two hundred dollars,” followed by some fine print.
The law effectively stopped immigrants from India because it was virtually impossible for ships to sail the long distance to Canada without stopping to refuel and resupply.
A Global News report from Canada stated, “more than 350 people were denied entry to Canada and sent back across the Pacific Ocean — some of them to their deaths — because they weren’t the right colour or religion.”
The Canadian government wouldn’t let the ship land, so it sat in the harbor for two months.
The passengers tried to force the government’s hand by going on a hunger strike. When it appeared that the ship might sail to Japan, the passengers hijacked it.
Finally, the Canadian Government had enough and sent the cruiser HMCS Rainbow to force the ship to leave.
With thousands lining the shore of Coal Harbour expecting a battle, the Komagata Maru headed back to India without further incident.
Arriving in Calcutta on Sept. 27, 1914, the ship was stopped by a British gunboat, and the passengers placed under guard. When they tried to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and about 20 others, a riot broke out and 19 passengers were killed.
It was a dark chapter in Canada and India’s history.
While the Canadians were keeping the Sikhs out, the U.S. was similarly hostile towards Jews. In 1917, when America entered the war, Jews were called “slackers’ and “war profiteers.” Even the U.S. Army manual told recruits, “The foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native-born.”
President Woodrow Wilson to his credit ordered the manual recalled after complaints from the Anti-Defamation League.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reports that of the 907 passengers aboard the St. Louis that were forced to return, 288 who went to Britain survived the war, except one who died in a German air raid. Of those who went to continental Europe, 365 survived, while 254 were murdered during the Holocaust — most of them at Auschwitz and Sobibór.
After the war, some of the St. Louis voyage survivors were admitted to the U.S.
In May 2016 before the House of Commons, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized on behalf of the government for the Komagata Maru incident; and today, Sikh Harjit Singh Sajjan is Canada’s minister of defense, formerly serving in The British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own) in Vancouver — the same regiment that enforced keeping the Sikhs out in 1914.
In 2012, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns told 14 surviving passengers of the St. Louis, “To the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the president and secretary of state, I am honored to say what we should’ve said so long ago — Welcome.
“Our government did not live up to its ideals. We were wrong.”
Today’s “right” American ideal is “border security.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Survivor who made it to U.S….
“In terms of the St. Louis, we who have come to the U.S. had to come to terms with what it would be like to enter a country that began by rejecting us. And I have accepted the fact that the government of 1939 was not the government of 1946 when I arrived here. Thank goodness eyes were opened — not completely, but somewhat — and I was then allowed to come to the United States and establish my life and pursue my dreams.”
— Eva Wiener, passenger on St. Louis at age 2
“As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day,” he said. “We should not and we will not.”
— Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (2016)
“FDR and his administration turned their backs on a series of desperate Jewish pleas for asylum. Bureaucrats were instructed to obfuscate and delay all Jewish applicants in every way; they certainly did so. According to Krakow, the Virgin Islands stood ready to accept the passengers. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions threw up every conceivable roadblock. The law only allowed them to accept tourists; what was the return address of these refugees? Dachau?”
— The Jewish Voice
Fate of the ship…
After the failed voyage to freedom, the MS St. Louis became a German naval accommodation ship from 1940 to 1944. At Kiel, Germany she was heavily damaged by the Allied bombings, then repaired and used as a hotel ship in Hamburg. She was sold for scrap in Bremerhaven in 1952.
The heroic captain…
Gustav Schröder, captain of the St. Louis was a hero. On the return voyage to Europe he refused to return 907 passengers to Nazi Germany, and instead arranged for the passengers to be accepted in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Britain. After the war, he was honored by both Germany and Israel. He died in 1959 in Hamburg at age 73.