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How America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany haunts our refugee policy today

A woman cries as the St. Louis pulls away from Havana, 1939.
A woman cries as the St. Louis pulls away from Havana, 1939.
Keystone-France via Getty Images

Desperate people, fleeing a terrifying, bloodthirsty regime, try to find refuge in the US. But the American government and the public don't want to accept them. They worry that accepting refugees would put citizens at risk, and they don't see the refugee crisis as their problem to fix. So they are turned away.

This is what could happen in the US in 2015, if the governors and members of Congress pushing to stop the admission of Syrian refugees have their way. But it's definitely what happened in 1939 to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. The US (and other countries in the Western Hemisphere) could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. They didn't. At one point, the US literally turned away a ship of 900 German Jews. Shortly afterward, it rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the US for safety.

At the time, the US didn't know how terrible the Holocaust would become. But Americans did know that Nazis were encouraging vandalism and violence against Jews — many Americans had been alarmed by Kristallnacht in 1938, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued a statement condemning it. But America didn't feel strongly enough about the mistreatment of Jews to allow them to find a safe harbor in the US.

That is a moral stain on the nation's conscience, and it's what led the US and other countries, after the war, to create a way for persecuted people to seek and find refuge. Modern refugee policy, in other words, is largely a response to the failures of the Holocaust era.

The St. Louis: the ship the US turned away

On May 13, 1939, 935 people — almost all of them German Jews — set sail from Hamburg, Germany on a ship called the St. Louis. The St. Louis was headed for Cuba, but for most of the Jews aboard, the ultimate destination was the United States. Most of the passengers had applied for US visas and were planning to move from Cuba to the US once a visa became available for them.

At the time, US immigration laws set strict quotas that limited immigration, especially from southern and eastern Europe. Germany had a relatively generous quota — more than 25,000 immigrants from Germany could be admitted a year. But the US was a lot stingier in handing out actual visas to German emigrants (most of whom were Jews) during the early years of Nazi rule in Germany than it had to be. From 1933 to 1938, about 30,000 German Jews emigrated to the US — but the government only gave out 30 percent of the visas it had available for Germans. So while the passengers on the St. Louis were likely to face a long wait to enter the US, the US certainly had room for them.

Voyage of the St. Louis, 1939.
(via Joint Distribution Committee)

In the meantime, the passengers had arranged documents before their trip that allowed them to enter Cuba. But shortly before the St. Louis left Hamburg, Cuba suddenly changed its visa policy — and declared that the old admissions documents wouldn't be accepted, effective immediately. (There were a lot of reasons for the policy change, none of which were good, and one of which was plain old anti-Semitism.)

A few of the passengers on the St. Louis had managed to get new visas before the ship left. The other 900 had not. When the ship arrived in Cuba, only 26 passengers were allowed to get off.

The boat stayed docked in Havana for several days. One passenger, named Max Loewe — who was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp — tried to kill himself rather than get sent back to Europe. Loewe was allowed to leave the ship to be taken to a hospital. But his wife and children weren't allowed to visit him there; they were kept on board.

US-based Jewish organizations tried to negotiate with the Cuban government to let in the rest of the passengers. The US itself, however, felt the whole thing was a "specific and internal matter of Cuba" and didn't feel any need to intercede on the refugees' behalf; the head of the State Department's Visa Division declared that the US wouldn't pressure Cuba to accept the refugees. (US diplomats "informally" urged Cuba to take them but steadfastly avoided doing anything formally.)

In early June, negotiations stalled, and the St. Louis was ordered to leave Cuban waters. It turned toward Miami instead.

US officials had already announced that the ship would not be allowed to dock. And when the St. Louis got within a few miles of Miami's harbor, the Coast Guard started tailing the boat to underline the point.

The US could have agreed to allow the passengers of the St. Louis to land and wait in America for their visas to be processed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who a few years later would use an executive order to round up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and put them in concentration camps, could have ordered that 900 German Jews be allowed to stay. He did not do so. FDR's defenders (like his presidential library) stress that he never issued a "specific or official order to turn them away." But he didn't have to. His government was doing that for him.

After a few days of the St. Louis sailing in circles off the coast of Miami, the negotiations with the Cuban government fell apart for good. The ship started back across the Atlantic Ocean, and the refugees were divided up and sent to various European countries.

The passengers on the St. Louis who were sent to Great Britain were lucky. Most of them survived the war.
Planet News Archive/SSPL via Getty

The luckiest St. Louis passengers were sent to Great Britain; all but one of them survived the war there. The rest went to the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — all countries that would later be invaded by the Nazis and their Jews sent to the camps.

So 254 of the passengers on the St. Louis died in the Holocaust.

Congress rejected a bill to take 20,000 Jewish refugee children

A few months before the St. Louis set sail — in February 1939 — Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA) introduced a bill that would allow 20,000 German Jewish children to come to the US, over and above the annual quota for German immigrants.

As far as we can tell, the American public strongly opposed the proposal. A Gallup poll from January 1939 asked if Americans would support bringing even 10,000 German refugee children into the country, and public opinion ran 2 to 1 against. But polling wasn't yet a science, and it's possible the public was less anti-refugee than Gallup's methods indicated.

More importantly, politicians weren't in the habit of consulting polls to determine the public mood. When the Senate and House immigration subcommittees held joint hearings on the Wagner-Rogers bill in April, they were extremely enthusiastic about the idea. Fourteen hundred Americans had written unsolicited letters to Congress offering to adopt a refugee child. Star actress Helen Hayes testified before the committee and promised to adopt a refugee herself. The bill passed out of the subcommittees unanimously.

But it was already doomed. To get to the floor of either the Senate or House, it had to pass the chambers' full Judiciary Committees. The committees were dominated by members from the Southern and Western US — who had no interest in taking in refugees.

Southern and Western members of Congress had already scared pro-refugee Rep. Emanuel Celler out of introducing a bill to give unused visa slots to refugees fleeing Germany — by warning him that if he brought up such an idea, they'd come up with new ways to restrict immigration further. And now they openly boasted, before the full committee had even had a hearing, that they had "11 votes in their pockets" to kill the child-refugee bill.

The bill's opponents (both in Congress and groups like the Immigration Restrictionist League, the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, and the American Legion) took an "America first" approach to rejecting refugees: America should focus on helping its own needy and homeless citizens rather than taking in anyone new. But as is often the case, there was a fine line between "America first" and outright xenophobia. The wife of the US immigration commissioner (who also happened to be a cousin of President Roosevelt) testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

England accepted many Jewish refugee children. The US? Not so much.
Imagno/Getty Images

The bill's supporters simply couldn't marshal the support to counterbalance those arguments. And again, President Roosevelt declined to take a stand — and let restrictionist opposition carry the day. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the bill, and FDR gave her permission to advocate for it as a private citizen. But she didn't. And FDR himself refused to take a stance on the bill. When a member of Congress wrote asking what his position was, his secretary filed the inquiry as "File: No action FDR."

When the Wagner-Rogers bill was taken up by the full Senate Judiciary Committee, committee chair Richard Russell — a Southern Democrat from Georgia who would later, during the civil rights era, become the Senate's most powerful segregationist — amended it so that the 20,000 Jewish refugee children would count against the German immigrant quota for the year. This totally defeated the purpose of the bill, and the restrictionists knew it. It passed out of committee on June 30, but no one was interested in pushing it into law anymore, and no further action on it was ever taken.

After the Holocaust, the US decided helping refugees was a moral imperative

It's not that the United States wasn't interested in helping Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. The government helped set up an international committee to try to figure out a place to settle them. But the US simply didn't think it was obligated to take in Jews itself.

After World War II, that changed. The international community recognized the importance of helping refugees.

The UN set up its office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950, and the Refugee Convention was passed the next year. But even before the UN got its act together, the US was engaging in ad hoc refugee programs during the 1940s in the aftermath of the war. This wasn't just a shift in policy — it was a shift in attitudes. After World War II, the US started believing it had a moral obligation to help people fleeing persecution. It became something for Americans to be proud of. It became a value people saw in America itself.

A Vietnamese refugee from Hong Kong is welcomed at the airport, 1997.
Monica M. Davey/AFP via Getty

"The American commitment to bring refugees to the US really is birthed in the post-World War II era," historian Carl Bon Tempo told me last year. "And the example of the pre-World War II era that stands out to everyone is what happened to European refugees, especially Jews, in the run-up."

America has spent 70 years atoning for its sin by becoming the most welcoming country in the world to refugees. Half of all refugees who are permanently resettled in new countries are resettled in the United States. That is a legacy that Americans are proud of, and should be. It's the closest America has come, in the 20th century, to honoring the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

But America started being welcoming only after it had been cruel. America could have saved Jews from the Holocaust, but instead turned them away. The Statue of Liberty was standing in 1939, but just because the statue said the United States opened its doors to "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" didn't mean it was true.

America's refugee legacy isn't just about our decades-long record of welcoming the stranger and standing up for human rights. It's about what happens when we don't.