I entered the Jewish Heritage Museum in lower Manhattan, passing through the museum’s heavy doors and even heavier security. After taking the elevator to the floor dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims, I sat down to watch a 15-minute video on the S.S. St. Louis. Since I had already seen all the sickening newsreels on the Holocaust back in middle school, I figured I knew what I was getting myself into.
I was dead wrong.
As her name might indicate, the Saint Louis was a godsend to the 900 Jews who were fortunate to find themselves on the ship’s manifest in May of 1939. The passengers were refugees, desperate to flee to Cuba in order to escape the tidal wave of terror that was about to hit Hitler’s Nazi Germany. And for the first half-hour of their voyage, they believed they had succeeded.
But then came a telling telegram that warned the ship’s captain that he had better put the pedal to the metal - because 2 other ships were headed to the same place for the same reason, and there were no guarantees that Cuba, still in the throes of the Great Depression, would put out the welcome mat for any or all of them.
Tragically, by the time the ship finally found haven in Havana’s harbor, the immigration waters were so muddied by Goebbels’ propaganda machine that the refugees were prevented from disembarking until further notice.
Further notice never came, of course. Hours turned into days, and days turned into an eternity. Like the chaise lounges on the ship's sun deck, negotiations were opened and then closed, re-opened and then re-closed until ultimately, by order of the President of Cuba, the St. Louis had to get the heck out of Dodge. ¡Inmediatamente!
The tearful and fearful passengers found themselves waving goodbye to their waiting family and friends on shore as the captain pointed his vessel towards, and pinned his hopes on, the United States.
Surely the land of the free and the home of the brave would extend to these exiles an invitation, he thought. Surely the residents of E Pluribus Unumville would come to the rescue of these refugees. Surely the president would bring these innocent victims under the protection of his West Wing.
Alas, the world watched in disbelief as the S.S. St. Louis found no port in the storm of American anti-Semitism. Eventually, dwindling provisions forced the captain to set sail for “home” - Nazi Germany.
In a last ditch effort to avoid delivering 900 innocent Jewish men, women and children back into Lucifer’s lair, intense negotiations continued with immigration officials in several European countries as the ship chugged across the Atlantic.
Of the 4 Allied nations who finally agreed to receive these refugees, 3 of them would soon be occupied by the very forces of evil from which the Jews were trying to flee in the first place, and the fourth was nearly blitzkrieged to Kingdom come!
When the video ended, and my 15 minutes of shame was over, I went outside for a breath of fresh NYC air. I found no relief there. Instead, I found myself staring straight into the big green eyes of the world’s most beautiful woman – the Statue of Liberty.
I tried to apologize to her, but before I could fully formulate an excuse commensurate with such egregious sinfulness, this mother-of-all-exiles recited a line from a Jewish-American poetess, saying for the 6 millionth time… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Let us never forget.