It was a travel ban with life-or-death consequences.
In May 1939, with the Nazi noose tightening, the SS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg carrying 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe and expecting refuge in Cuba. The ship’s passengers held documents issued by the Cuban government, which were revoked a week before the ship launched. The ship’s owners knew that the documents were no longer valid but the passengers remained in the dark until they reached Cuba and were not allowed to disembark. The ship was turned away from U.S. shores as well, in line with U.S. immigration policy at the time. The refugees were eventually released in England, France, Belgium and The Netherlands. 254 of them were later killed in the Holocaust.
On the 78th anniversary of that fateful voyage, and with President Trump’s travel ban targeting those from majority-Muslim countries at the front of the national conversation about immigration, representatives of more than 20 Manhattan synagogues gathered last week for a vigil in front of the Midtown offices of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer. The June 6 event was one of 22 across the country, including one held at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, noted the significance of the St. Louis incident in bringing about modern conventions to protect refugees that are now being attacked. Modern protections for refugees “came out of the lessons and the shame of the St. Louis,” he said. “At that time there were no protections for refugees, and today there is, but that law is under threat.”
Some on the Jewish right, who say that the threat of terrorism demands stricter vetting for refugees from Muslim-majority countries, have criticized the comparison of today’s refugees to those who fled Europe on the St. Louis, arguing that they found safety elsewhere and were not marked for death, as were the Jews of Europe.
Dozens of protests and vigils have been organized in Jewish communities across the country since the president issued his executive order on immigration in January. Protests have been staged by other Jewish organizations, including T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Bend the Arc Jewish Action. HIAS organized the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees in February and, along with the International Refugee Assistance Project, has brought legal challenges to the executive orders. The Justice Department has appealed the ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked the president’s executive orders, sending the case to the Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit in San Francisco blocked the orders on Monday.
The senators were each represented by members of their staff. Gregory Smiley from Gillibrand’s office, an immigrant from Jamaica, assured the attendees that their advocacy “did not go unnoticed.” Hetfield said it was important for senators to “lead on this issue” and to maintain their focus on immigration amidst today’s political turmoil.
Amy and Arnold Weintraub, members of the Upper West Side’s West End Synagogue, said they attended the vigil as an expression of their Judaism. “I feel very strongly that as a Jew it’s my responsibility to support people who are fleeing from persecution,” said Amy Weintraub. Her husband, who had previously worked for HIAS as a social worker assisting refugees from the Soviet Union, agreed. “Like the Torah states, you were slaves in the land of Egypt, so it seems that there’s a Torah mandate to do something like this,” he said.
Pam Mendels, one the speakers, told the story of her mother, Gertrude Scheuer, who travelled on the St. Louis to reunite with her fiancée, Ms. Mendels’ father, in the United States. Her mother “could see the lights of Miami” as the passengers waited to be admitted to the U.S. and were eventually sent back to Europe. Gertrude was saved by a Catholic family in the Netherlands and eventually was reunited with her fiancée, who was serving in the U.S. army at the time.
Other speakers also told anecdotes about St. Louis passengers, interspersing stories from the 1930s and ’40s with the present day. The older attendees hummed along as Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn sang Irving Berlin’s composition of Emma Lazarus’ “Give me your tired, your poor.”
Sandy Cheiten, chair of the synagogue coalition that organized the vigil, called on Congress “to oppose actions to restrict, defund or halt the refugee program” and thanked Schumer and Gillibrand for their work on this issue.
Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, executive director of community engagement at HIAS, ended the vigil by calling on the White House to welcome refugees. “When the White House threatens to shut the doors of our country to refugees, we have just two words: Never again.”
“We’re inheritors of a prophetic tradition that says we have to stand up for righteousness and wholeness in the world and repair brokenness,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of the Upper East Side’s Temple Shaaray Tefila, whose grandparents came to the United States as refugees from Europe. “We can’t just espouse those values in the pews and not live them in the world.”
Ed’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ships passengers disembarked in Germany. It has since been updated.