|SS St. Louis|
The Voyage of the SS St. Louis:
"Our Gratitude Is as Immense as the Ocean"
On May 27, 1939, the SS St. Louis arrived in Havana Harbor with 936 European Jews seeking asylum. The passengers believed they would find temporary haven in Cuba and, like tens of thousands of German Jews before them, would ultimately immigrate to the United States. Cuba had previously welcomed Jewish refugees: fifteen hundred in 1938 alone. But the political situation in Cuba had changed dramatic ally in the few months prior to May 1939. A new immigration law enacted in a political battle between President Laredo Brú and Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, the corrupt Director-General of Immigration, caught the St. Louis passengers in a vexing web of local politics and international diplomacy.
The Jewish population of Cuba exceeded six thousand and was located conspicuously in Havana. Cuba’s economy was depressed; businessmen and labor unions complained about competition from aliens, especi ally Jews. “ Cuba is not all rum and rumba,” one writer noted; “All the worries of the world can be found here in miniature.” The German embassy in Havana, a native Cuban Nazi Party, provocateurs sent by Germany and local antisemites had begun agitating to ban Jews. The pro-Nazi editor of Havana’s oldest daily newspaper, Diario de la Marina, claimed that they were Communists.1
Many Cubans thought that their country was being overrun by Jewish refugees. Instead of immigration leveling off at fifteen hundred a year, five hundred refugees were coming in the early months of 1939. To make matters worse, two other refugee ships, the British Orduna and the French Flanders, arrived in Havana at the same time as the St. Louis. Within a twenty‑four‑hour period more than 1,200 refugees arrived from three European ports. The Cubans allowed forty-eight refugees with proper visas to disembark from the Orduna and thirty-two refugees from the Flanders. This coincidence exacerbated Cubans’ apprehensions that they were being overwhelmed. Protected by military strongman Colonel Fulgencio Batista, Manuel Benitez had become wealthy from bribes. According to conflicting reports, officials in the Cuban government wanted either to end the corruption or a cut of the illegal money. Benitez refused to cease his extortions or to share his ill-gotten gains. Hence Brú’s government issued Decree 937 on May 5, 1939, which ended the director-general’s power to issue landing certificates.2
The arrival of the St. Louis brought to a head the agitation of Cuban antisemites, business and labor leaders and Cuban officials fighting over power, bribes and government reform. The Cuban government had alerted shipping companies to the new regulation, but only twenty of the St. Louis’s passengers had complied. Some probably knew they carried illegal landing certificates, but most did not. When the ship arrived at Havana on May 27, President Brú refused to permit the passengers to disembark. Worldwide press coverage and front-page newspaper headlines in the United States related the heart-wrenching story.3 But Brú’s action was popular with Cubans. Colonel Batista could have intervened but did nothing. His party was facing a difficult election, and he dodged the issue, claiming to be ill with the grippe.4
The United States government’s role in the St. Louis episode was both delicate and positive. The American consul-general in Havana, Coert DuBois, and Ambassador J. Butler Wright worked closely with Jewish aid groups. They urged Cuban officials to admit the refugees on humanitarian grounds. Constrained by Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and American interests in keeping Cuba in the anti-Nazi camp, the State Department would not bully the Cuban government. However, both DuBois and Wright assisted the Joint and Lawrence Berenson, its representative in Cuba. As DuBois confided to Secretary of State Hull, the “illegitimacy of the collections [of bribes] and the magnitude of the sums collected are the crux of the whole ‘ St. Louis incident.’” The State Department knew that behind-the-scenes fights for control of Cuba’s immigration policy and for a lot of money were going on, but the United States could not take sides. To force Brú to admit the St. Louis passengers would have put a stamp of approval on Benitez’s corruption. As late as May 26, the day before the St. Louis arrived, Benitez stated unequivocally that it would land.5
What happened next was part farce and part tragedy. Lawrence Berenson, a successful Jewish New York lawyer, was sent by the Joint to negotiate with the Cuban government. Harvard-educated, former president of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce in the United States and a major player in Cuban politics, Berenson appeared to be the right man for the job. He had previously purchased one thousand visas used by German Jews to immigrate to Cuba. He was close to Batista and may even have been his attorney. Berenson was confident that he could negotiate the freedom of the St. Louis passengers. He arrived in Havana with a briefcase full of cash, prepared to bribe Cuban officials and conduct business as usual.6
But Berenson miscalculated. Batista refused to meet with him. Public opinion backed Brú. The sale of landing permits had been too open and notorious, and violations of Cuban laws by foreign steamship companies had been too “flagrant and defiant.” Benitez had lost his power to issue permits. A clandestine meeting at Benitez’s finca (ranch) in Pinar del Rio (or as the Cuban Jews called it reparto judio, the suburb built with Jewish money) would not avail Berenson this time.7
Local Nazis inflamed antisemitic sentiment by manipulating the media and using Havana as a center for coordinating Nazi espionage in the United States. On May 25, 1939, the Joint learned from its agents that the Cuban Immigration Department had begun “a house-to-house check of all German refugees” and that pogroms were being organized.8
Despite the work of the Cuban Jewish community and offers by the Joint to guarantee support of the immigrants, Brú ordered the St. Louis out of Cuban waters. He was angry at the Hamburg American Line and Berenson because both knew in advance that the St. Louis passengers would not be admitted, yet the ship had sailed to Havana anyway. From Brú’s point of view, Berenson was complicit with Benitez. The State Department also knew of this situation. “Evidently,” DuBois reported, “Berenson elected to disregard the warning and play the game of Colonel Benitez and the Hamburg American Line.”9
The Joint offered to post a $500 cash bond for each passenger. This amounted to nearly $500,000 donated by American Jewry to help the victims of Nazism. But it was to no avail. On June 2 the St. Louis was ordered out of Havana Harbor, its destination undetermined. For two days it steamed northward. American immigration officials announced that the ship could not land in the United States and that the State Department could not interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs. Many American newspapers, including the New York Times, criticized this refusal to help beleaguered refugees. Others condemned Germany and Cuba. Some, like the Christian Science Monitor, blamed the Jews for being too selective in their destinations. The St. Louis was four miles off the coast of Florida when on June 4 President Brú relented. He agreed passengers could land if, within forty-eight hours, the Joint posted bonds of $650 per passenger.10
Berenson then made a major blunder. Brú had told Berenson on June 1 that he sympathized with the passengers but had to “maintain the prestige of the Cuban government viz‑a‑viz the Hamburg American Line.” However, he was willing to listen to alternatives after the ship left Havana. Had Berenson met Brú’s conditions, all of the passengers might have disembarked. Instead Berenson tried to bargain with Brú and told the Joint leaders that he could save them “a considerable amount of money.” He counter-offered less money and asked Brú to permit the refugees on the other two ships to land as well. Brú was not interested in bargaining, and to Berenson’s amazement, on June 6 the Cuban government declared that the St. Louis could not return to Cuba. DuBois told Berenson that morning that he and “his co-religionists in New York” had erred in getting the matter “off the plane of humanitarianism and on the plane of horse-trading.”11
Samuel Rosenman and Henry Morgenthau took a personal interest in the plight of the St. Louis passengers. On June 5 Morgenthau told Hull that his friends in New York – doubtless, the Joint – had stated that if funds were needed, Jewish organizations would respond immediately. Hull, too, had spoken with FDR and Ambassador Wright moments earlier about the St. Louis. He had considered issuing tourist visas to the Virgin Islands as a temporary solution, but was advised that to do so was illegal. “The Cuban ambassador,” Hull said, “talked like the main thing was the financing . . . that he believed it would be worked out as long as there was no publicity.” Hull was aware that the Jewish organizations handling “the money end of this” had representatives in Havana. He assured Morgenthau that the situation would work out if finances were truly available, and advised him to tell his friends to send a representative to Cuba “who knows how to dicker. . . . That’s the main thing.”
Morgenthau, a substantial contributor to the Joint, was clearly working with the rescue organization on a solution. The next day Hull informed Morgenthau that both parties were driving a hard bargain and that it did not look promising. When Hull stated that “they don’t know where the boat is,” Morgenthau asked if it was appropriate “to have the Coast Guard look for it?” Hull feared that a search by the coast guard, which was under the jurisdiction of Morgenthau’s Treasury Department, might end up on the front page. Morgenthau assured him it would not. Minutes after their conversation, Morgenthau c alled the coast guard commander in Florida and asked him to ascertain clandestinely the location of the St. Louis.
Many in the Roosevelt administration were concerned about the passengers. Morgenthau spoke with Sumner Welles the next day. He assured Morgenthau that Ambassador Wright was “seeing the President of Cuba at 7 o’clock tonight.” Welles undoubtedly guided FDR through the morass of Cuban politics. He had been assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs and ambassador to Cuba and was sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees.12 The Joint had other close contacts in the administration. J. C. Hyman, the executive director of the Joint, wrote his chairman, Paul Baerwald, on June 27 that “We had Eddie [Edward S.] Greenbaum [a high‑ranking military officer in the War Department] on this thing and Sam Rosenman.”13
The St. Louis turned back toward Germany. The passengers, their supporters and many others pleaded with Roosevelt to permit the St. Louis and the other two ships to land in the United States, but he had no authority to violate the popular immigration laws. FDR also may have known that the Joint was concerned about the fate of six thousand German Jewish refugees already living in Cuba. Half of that number was at risk because they did not have legal papers or were being supported by Joint funds. Many of these refugees had the same “Benitez landing cards” the St. Louis passengers had. They could be expelled, not to mention the threat of pogroms.14 Morgenthau and Rosenman doubtless apprised Roosevelt that the Joint was working to prevent the passengers’ return to Germany. Politic ally, the president was too weak to fight on this issue. “What could he have said?” Ronald Sanders concluded in Shores of Refuge (1988). “The Atlantic Ocean was at that moment teeming with boatloads of refugees.”
The president and his administration aided the passengers by assisting the Joint. When James N. Rosenberg, acting chairman of the Joint, cabled Brú that he had deposited $500,000 in a Havana bank and guaranteed that “none of these refugees will become public charges,” Ambassador Wright telephoned Welles for instructions. “After consulting with Roosevelt,” Gellman wrote, “Welles instructed the ambassador to speak with the Cuban President stressing the humanitarian aspects of the case.” The Cuban president, however, refused to discuss the issue. Roosevelt was informed of events and of the principle that it was American policy to help the refugees.15
The American press sympathized with the St. Louis passengers. Newspapers blamed Germany and Cuba. Walter Winchell said that the refugees’ troubles were not caused by a failure to touch Cuban hearts, but “a failure of touching Cuban palms. And we don’t mean trees.” However, American newspapers, even those that supported the Wagner-Rogers bill, opposed admitting the refugees into the United States. One exception to the law of the land was sure to be “followed by other ship loads,” and it would set a “dangerous precedent,” as one editorial commented. Indeed, many other ships carrying refugees were then at sea.16
American Jews were anxious and angry about the plight of the St. Louis passengers. The files of the Joint are full of letters and telegrams from Jewish leaders, organizations and individuals demanding that the Joint take strong action. A typical letter of June 7, 1939, from the president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Missouri, read: “As you can imagine, I am besieged with requests for information as to what the JDC is doing.” The Joint regional chairman, Herbert Mallinson, wrote, “I have never seen the people in this section so distressed as they have been over this refugee ship.” He called New York to tell the Joint “our people are just wild about the Cuban thing.” The Joint decided to put up the $500,000 it ultimately spent because of the pressure from American Jewry.17
Americans were eager to help the passengers. “The feelings of sympathy for the passengers, and indignation against the German authorities,” recorded the Joint’s minutes, created “a mandate to the J.D.C. to exert every possible effort to help land these passengers, at whatever cost.” “You know St. Louis caused tremendous excitement here,” Rosenberg wired Morris C. Troper in Paris on June 10. “Hysterical uninformed people criticizing JDC.” Hyman replied, “Extraordinary emotion sweeping throughout country respect tragedy St. Louis . . . we [are] flooded with proposals . . . Time is of essence.” The Joint felt it was being blackmailed by the Cubans. Some board members opposed putting up $500,000 because it would have to do the same for the next boat and the one after that. Benitez, through his agents, urged the JDC to fight the Brú government’s decree.18
The legal and political impossibility of the United States admitting the St. Louis passengers was well understood at the time, especially by rescue advocates. Robert Balderston of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) explained to the passengers in Antwerp “the reasons why the US couldn’t make an exception for them when they were in sight of our shores under what were really false representations.”19
The Roosevelt administration was sympathetic from the beginning of the episode. The State Department worked behind the scenes to ensure that none of the refugees was returned to Germany. Ambassador Wright met person ally with the Cuban secretary of state to urge him to help the St. Louis passengers. Morris C. Troper, the Joint’s European chairman, lobbied European relief agencies and guaranteed the maintenance costs of the passengers. The Joint appealed to the Jewish Agency in Palestine, which refused to allot immigration certificates to the St. Louis passengers. Coincidentally, when Cuba decided not to admit the refugees, Joint chairman Paul Baerwald was in London to establish the Coordinating Foundation, which was created to assist German Jewish refugees. Baerwald and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy went to work to secure British help.
On June 10 Kennedy wired Hull that he and Sir Herbert Emerson, the League of Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, were working to find temporary refuge for the St. Louis passengers.20 Baerwald met with Robert Pell of the IGCR and with British Home Office and Foreign Office staff. A meeting with Ambassador Kennedy was “quickly arranged.” Baerwald described Kennedy as “extremely amiable.” Kennedy telephoned Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare and told him that he expected to see Sir Samuel that evening “to support the recommendation” that the British accept several hundred passengers.21
Kennedy and Baerwald endeavored to convince the British to take in three hundred passengers on condition that other countries took their shares. Max Gottschalk, the Joint’s Belgian representative, lobbied the king and the prime minister of that nation, while Morris Troper lobbied in Paris. In the end, 288 went to Great Britain, 181 to the Netherlands, 224 to France and 214 to Belgium. 22
One condition on which the passengers were permitted to enter these four countries was that their stay would be temporary and that efforts would be made to effect their permanent immigration to another country. More than 700 of the refugees had affidavits and other documents for visas to the United States and many already had their quota number to enter. They would have come to America but for the advent of war in September 1939.23
In this difficult, potenti ally tragic situation, American Jewry and the Roosevelt administration were spectacularly successful. Those involved in the rescue effort believed that the St. Louis passengers would ultimately immigrate to the United States. George Baker told the JDC Board that it was “merely going to bridge a time between the acceptance by the United States of these people, when they may offici ally be admitted.” At a meeting on June 10, a JDC member telephoned the French Consul in Tangier and requested temporary asylum until the passengers “were able to sail for the United States.” “The JDC’s monumental work in rescuing the 907 unfortunate wanderers . . . has been hailed with joy by everyone,” the Joint’s press release exulted. “This deed will be inscribed in golden letters in the history of the J.D.C., and Jews everywhere will be grateful.”24
Nine hundred thirty-six Jewish refugees had left Hamburg for Havana; 29 disembarked at Havana; 907 sailed back to Europe; 288 disembarked in England and lived through the Holocaust. The remaining 619 went to France, Belgium and Holland. The leading authorities on the SS St. Louis estimate that 392 of the 619 who disembarked at Antwerp survived the war (the remaining 227 likely were murdered by the Nazis). The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum acknowledges that “the majority survived the war.” Thus more than two-thirds of the passengers of the SS St. Louis likely survived the Holocaust.25
The passengers knew that the Joint had saved them. “Our gratitude is as immense as the ocean on which we are now floating,” they wired Troper. Three years later, after Hitler had conquered the Netherlands, France and Belgium and initiated the Final Solution, approximately 227 of the St. Louis’s 936 Jewish passengers were murdered in concentration camps. Of course, in June 1939, no one foresaw this tragedy.26
Belgium and the Netherlands were safe havens at that time. Ominously, there was an antisemitic demonstration in Antwerp when the St. Louis docked. “We too want to help the Jews,” a pro-Nazi National Youth Organization handbill read, “If they c all at our offices each will receive gratis a piece of rope and a strong nail.” But the Dutch were relatively tolerant of their Jewish refugee population. The Anne Frank story had begun to unfold by 1939. Otto and Edith Frank of Frankfurtmoved to Holland in 1933. Anne Frank attended the Montessori School in Amsterdam. She and her sister adapted to Dutch life, while their parents hoped to return to Germany. Relatives came through Amsterdam on their way to strange places such as Peru. In 1935 Anne visited Switzerland with her parents. Her Uncle Walter was arrested on Krist allnacht and later released. In 1939 the Franks wondered if they should move again. But where should they go? Certainly not Palestine. Life there was poor and brutal. “Sanne Ledermann’s father had been there in 1934,” Melissa Müller wrote, “hoping to establish business connections,” but returned to Amsterdam. “Nothing but flies and Arabs there,” he said with a groan, “absolutely unbearable.”27
Thus, the charge against FDR of indifference to the fate of the SS St. Louis refugees is unfounded. The Joint Distribution Committee, with the active help of the Roosevelt administration, saved the passengers on the SS St. Louis from returning to Germany. Despite this undeniable fact, many people erroneously believed the “ill-fated ship” returned to Germany and that all of its passengers were sent to concentration camps. Although, at least two-thirds of the passengers on the St. Louis survived the war, revisionist historians asserted that FDR turned a deaf ear to their pleas because he was either an antisemite or a cold-hearted coward. It was a myth that the United States Coast Guard was sent to keep the passengers from swimming ashore when Treasury Secretary Morgenthau ordered them to track the ship to help the passengers. Some scholars claimed that American Jews were scared and silent in the face of this outrage, when they obviously were not. Why are people asked to believe these myths?
The reason is simple. Scholars, historians and journalists who wrote about the St. Louiswanted to establish that everyone, particularly Americans, bore some responsibility for the Holocaust.28 After all, if everyone is to blame, Roosevelt, the most powerful man on Earth, must be especially at fault. The basic indictment of all “bystanders” to the St. Louis “tragedy”–the Roosevelt administration, American Jewry and indeed all Americans - was concocted by a sensationalist former CBS News reporter named Arthur D. Morse in 1967. His best-selling book While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (1967) had all the virtues and defects of yellow journalism: exciting disclosures (“for the first time”), reckless allegations of supposed misdeeds by high government officials, the “inside story” by a reporter with an eye for news, no opportunity for the accused to respond, interesting characters, and a one-sided verdict. It was everything a tabloid newspaper publisher could want. Morse’s account of the St. Louis was based primarily on interviews with Lawrence Berensen, the lawyer who, sadly, botched the passengers’ case in Cuba. Morse failed to interview most of the other participants, such as Henry Morgenthau, or examine the records of the Joint. Despite its baleful effect, the book influenced recent Roosevelt biographers such as Kenneth S. Davis, who based his treatment of the St. Louis on Morse’s work.29 Whether or not history repeats itself, historians surely repeat each other.
Morse’s newspaper-story-as-history only works if FDR and the American Jewish leadership are portrayed as apathetic, cowardly, indifferent or even complicit with the Nazis, which is, of course, the opposite of the truth. In Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? (1985), the story of the St. Louis moves from incomplete facts to sermonizing fiction. In the preface to Lookstein’s book Elie Wiesel claimed that “Everyone knows: if its passengers cannot disembark they will be delivered to the executioner,” as if the death camps - not yet built and probably not yet planned in June 1939 - were already in operation. Wiesel damned American Jews for not taking to the streets “to vent their anger at Roosevelt.” But he did not seem to appreciate what the American Jewish leadership and the Roosevelt administration actually did. American Jews had no reason to “vent their anger” at Roosevelt, because they were not angry with the man whose administration was cooperating with the Joint to save the passengers and who was emerging to the world as its only hope to stop Hitler.30
This story needs a villain at the highest level. Who better than Roosevelt himself? Virtually everyone who has written on the St. Louis has condemned Roosevelt for his failure to reply to telegrams from the passengers. He “did not reply to or even acknowledge the two telegrams sent to him by the passenger committee on the St. Louis,” Gordon Thomas and Max Witts wrote in Voyage of the Damned (1994), the only book-length treatment of the St. Louis incident.31 But the only truthful telegram Roosevelt could have sent was:
Dear Passengers: I cannot violate the immigration laws of the United States enacted by an overwhelming majority of the Congress fifteen years ago, and therefore I cannot allow you to disembark in the United States. I am, however, encouraging my State Department to help the Joint bribe governments in Cuba and Europe to allow you to enter. I could make the St. Louis a big issue but that might well derail my secret plan, which I have not shared with Congress or the American people, to help France and Great Britain stand up to that Jew-hating Hitler. P.S. Please do not tell anyone I am involved in a secret war against Hitler. FDR.
Had Roosevelt sent a telegram telling the passengers why he could not help them and wishing them luck, he would have long ago been skewered for sending a bland, insensitive, politically-motivated message designed to garner Jewish votes.
Revisionist historians have ignored the embarrassing fact that all of the passengers on the St. Louis were actually saved from going back to Germany at that time. Geoffrey Perrett in Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph, the American People, 1939 - 1945 (1973) told his readers that “the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands agreed to take most, but not all, of the refugees in. The rest (no one knows exactly how many there were) sailed to Hamburg, to torture and death.” Arthur Hertzberg wrote in The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter...A History (1989) that the “desperate passengers...telegraphed the President, but he ignored them. The ship had no choice but to go back to Hamburg; most of its passengers ultimately perished in Nazi-held Europe.” The ship returned to Hamburg but the passengers did not. Rafael Medoff, author of The Deafening Silence, tells us histrionically, if not historically, that the St. Louis “chugs slowly back toward Hitler’s inferno,” but death camps, ovens and crematoriums did not exist in June 1939. The fact was that according to the U.S. Constitution only Congress, by amending the statutes on immigration, could allow the St. Louis passengers to enter the United States. The president of the United States - even FDR - could not change laws enacted by Congress by issuing dictatorial decrees. 32
The story of the St. Louis as it is currently told has become a modern fairy tale. Like all fairy tales, it has an important “lesson” to teach. The moral is that “bystanders,” namely Americans (especially Jewish Americans) and the antisemitic Franklin D. Roosevelt, failed to help the victims of Nazism. By their sins of omission, these alleged “bystanders” were therefore accomplices of the Nazis. (The fact that Americans rescued the passengers somehow disappears from the story.) Newsweek magazine, in a story on evil in American society, told the St. Louis fairy tale this way.
When Hitler saw that the 900 Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 on the ship St. Louis had been turned back by Cuba, refused entry by every other country and had returned to the Third Reich, “he took that as a rationalization,” says Dr. Carl Goldberg, a psychoanalyst at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “See, the world doesn’t care about these people. We can do with them whatever we like.” [Emphasis added]33
Historians knew the truth but chose to emphasize Roosevelt’s alleged failure to save the St. Louis passengers from returning to Germany at the time. Wyman’s Paper Walls (1968) fails to tell the story of the St. Louis in depth, and omits the critical roles of the State Department and the Joint. Wyman apparently was not interested in relaying the positive accomplishments of his bêtes noirs, the Roosevelt administration and the American Jewish leadership, because the St. Louis episode contradicts his charges of America’s “abandonment of the Jews.” In a later preface (1985), he repeated the New York Times story that the coast guard patrol boat was sent to prevent attempts by refugees to jump off when he had to have been aware of Morgenthau’s conversation with Hull about sending the cutters to keep track of the ship so it could return to Cuba. The necessary evidence existed in Morgenthau’s diary, which Wyman quoted, but only when it served his purpose.
To call Roosevelt an antisemite and condemn his administration as accomplices of the Nazis with regard to the SS St. Louis is contrary to the known facts. Obviously it was a human tragedy of the first order that people, so close to freedom, were returned to Europe where some would become victims of the Holocaust. But Roosevelt had no way of seeing three years into the future. Roosevelt knew, through Welles, Hull, Morgenthau and Rosenman, that the Joint was doing all that could be done for the St. Louis passengers and that his confidant Sumner Wells was assisting in that effort. Roosevelt thought it wiser not to do anything publicly. He understood and approved bribery and behind-the-scenes diplomacy and knew that the Joint with the active cooperation of his administration saved every passenger on the SS St. Louis from going back to Germany.34
Stella Suberman, the young Jewish woman from Miami Beach whose husband, Jack, served in the army air corps, recalled seeing the SS St. Louis off the coast of Florida. “I did not know that in time this ship would become a cause célèbre...[but] I was confident that our government was in some unpublicized way seeing to those Jews.” Years later, Stella was told and consequently believed that the ship was denied the right to land by President Roosevelt and “the Voyage of the Damned” ended tragically in Europe. But, as it turns out, the belief of the young Stella, the one who naively thought that “our government was in some unpublicized way seeing to those Jews,” was correct.35
1 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 144-45. There were 937 passengers. One was a gentile. Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Re ally Happened,” 203-5. The New York Times put the number at 907 after passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana (June 15, 1935, page 14); June 18, 1935, p. 1. Gellman stated that 29 passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana. 936 Jewish refugees: Memorandum from Harold S. Tewell, American consul in Cuba, to the State Department, 6-10-1939, p. 2, 837.55J/39-54/St. Louis/box 5969, State Department Records, N.A. Gellman, Roosevelt and Batista, 168-69; State Department Archives, Box 5969, RG 59, Decimal File 1930-1039 837.55J Dispatch no. 282 (1-19-39) outlined the new Cuban immigration policies. Dispatch no. 1017 ( 6-7-1939) gave a detailed background of events in Cuba. The Rivero family, which owned Diario de la Marina, was pro-Franco and pro-Nazi and utilized German propaganda daily. Dispatch 814 (June 20, 1939), State Department Archive. The Joint believed there were 6,000 to 6,500 German Jewish refugees in Cuba. JDC Collection, Memos to File, 5-23-39 to 5-27-39, 6-8-39, File 378 (3 of 4); Minutes Exec. Comm. 6-5-39 (File 378, 4 of 4).
2 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 145-48; State Department Archives, Box 5969, op. cit.; Dispatch 1017 (DuBois to Hull, 6-7-39). Yehuda Bauer portrayed Brú as a corrupt official attempting to shake down the JDC. Bauer, My Brother’s Keeper, 278-79.
3 / Jewish refugee organizations, including the JDC, were well aware of the trouble brewing in Cuba. Boatloads of Jews escaping Germany were not welcomed anywhere. The voyage of the refugee ship Stuttgart resulted in the closing of South Africa to Jewish immigration. Sources inside Cuba reported that 1,000 Jewish refugees might arrive in May and “their landing will raise great difficulties.” Memorandum on SS St. Louis, HAPAG, 6-27-39, pp 1-3, citing earlier Bernstein letter, File 386, JDC Collection.
4 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 146-48; Gellman, Roosevelt and Batista, 169; State Department Archives, Box 5969, op. cit. G-2 Report of Major Henry Barber Jr., U.S. military attaché, 6-3-1939.
5 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 148-49; Medoff, The Deafening Silence, 60; State Department Archives, Dispatch 1017 (6-7-1939).
6 / Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Re ally Happened,” 203-6.
7 / Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Really Happened”, 205-6; State Department Archives, Dispatch 1017. Batista later apologized to Berenson for failing to deliver the goods. Enclosure 8, Dispatch 1017. J. C. Hyman, executive director of the Joint, wrote Herbert Mallinson on June 2 that the issue was “a factional struggle between two groups in the [Cuban] government which have made up their minds to beat each other down, and the Jewish refugees happen to be in the middle of this most terrible conflict” (6-2-39, JDC Collection 33/44, File 378 [4 of 4]).
8 / Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Really Happened,” 206-7; “Conference call,” May 25, 1939, JDC File 3787.
9 / State Department Archives, Enclosure 5 to Dispatch 1017 (May 31, 1939).
10 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 150-51; Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Really Happened,” 208; Lipstadt, Beyond Belief, 115-17. The initial cost to the Joint would be $453,000.
11 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 153; Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Really Happened, ” 208; State Department Archives, Enclosure 6 to Dispatch 1017 (June 1, 1939) and Enclosure 12 (June 6, 1939). Arthur D. Morse portrayed Berenson as the hero and Roosevelt as the villain in c hap. XV, While Six Million Died . Berenson was a biased source, as he himself was arguably the reason negotiations failed. Brú refused to deal with Berenson at one point. Enclosure 9, June 5, 1939, to Dispatch 1017.
There was much criticism of Berenson within the Joint. Even the e xecutive d irector, J. C. Hyman, admitted privately that Berenson “may not have been the best man to send down to negotiate . . . undoubtedly he committed a number of errors in judgment . . . obviously this sort of thing cannot be retailed in the public press” (Hyman to Baerwald, 6-27-39, JDC Archives, JDC Collection 33/44, File 379B).
On the other hand, Baerwald believed early on that the Cuban government never intended to allow the passengers to land and that Berenson “was deliberately misled.” Hyman wrote Baerwald on June 27, 1939, and stated his opinion that “the Cuban authorities never intended at any time actually to give asylum. ” He arrived at the same conclusion D uBois had, namely that Brú was “fed up on the activities of Col. Benitez” and wanted “to get back at the Batista crowd” (Minutes of AJJDC, 6-15-39, File 378, 1-2; Hyman to Baerwald, 6-27-39, JDC Archives JDC Collection 33/44, File 379B).
12 / Gellman, Secret Affairs, chap. 3; Morgenthau Diaries, Book 194, 79-82, 229-31, 234-35, 350-51 (reel 52), June 4-7, 1939, FDRL; Hyman to Baerwald, 6-27-39, JDC Archive Collection, 33/44, File 379 (B). “Contributions made by Secretary and Mrs. Morgenthau, January 1936 through December 1944,” Henry Morgenthau Papers, Box 169, Joint Distribution Committee, FDRL.
13 / Hyman to Baerwald, 6-27-39. Edward S. Greenbaum was the executive officer of Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson. Greenbaum later prepared a draft of the “arsenal of democracy”/Lend-Lease speech that included the famous phrase. Rosenman, Working with Roosevelt, 260-61. Rosenman worked closely with the Joint and agreed to chair the steering committee to create the Coordinating Foundation to rescue German Jews. The minutes of the executive committee of the Joint indicated approval of the foundation idea. Minutes, 6-5-39, JDC, pp. 1-3, JDC Collection 33/44, File 378 (4 of 4). A subcommittee of the Joint had “placed itself in touch with important personalities in our government, as it had also done previously.” Minutes of the meeting of the Executive Committee of the AJJDC (“Highly confidential”), File 378.
14 / File 378 (3 of 4), Memos to File 6/8/39, 5/23/39 to 5/27/39; Minutes, Exec. Comm. 6-5-39, 4; File 378 (4 of 4); minutes 6-1-39, 15.
15 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 154; Sanders, Shores of Refuge, 467. Newton, ed., FDR and the Holocaust, 77-78; DuBois’s memorandum of June 6, 1939 (Enclosure 13), Dispatch 1017.
16 / Lipstadt, Beyond Belief, 116-19.
17 / Memorandum 6/8/39; various cables; letters to Hyman from Irvin Bettman, president JF of St. Louis 6-7-1939; letter to Hyman from Mallinson, 6-6-39, minutes of informal discussion, 6-1-39, 14, JDC Archives, JDC Collection, 33/44, File 378 (3 of 4) and (4 of 4).
18 / Minutes, Exec. Comm., 7, 6-5-39, JDC Collection, 33/44 File 378 (4 of 4); Rosenburg to Troper, 6-10-39; Hyman to Troper, 6-10-39 (2 of 4); 33/44, File 378 (3 of 4), memo “On May 23 rd from Margolis.”
19 / Eleanor Slater to J. C. Hyman, 7-12-39, enclosing Balderston, memo to file, File 379(a) (2 of 2). Some of the passengers may have been aware of the visa problems because refugee organizations warned European Jews before the St. Louis and other ships sailed. (Hyman to Arthur S. Meyer, 6-28-39, File 379b).
20 / State Department Archive, op. cit. Telegram from Kennedy to Hull, June 10, 1939.
21 / File 378 (1 of 2), “Memorandum of Mr. Baerwald’s Discussion with American Ambassador, Mr. Kennedy,” June 12, 1939. A June 12 cable from London described Kennedy as “using good offices” to secure entry of 300 passengers (June 12, 1939, cable, JDC Collection 33/44, File 378, 2 of 4). (“The Voyage of the St. Louis,” 6/15/39, File 378, 1 of 2.) A June 12 memo, “Matters for Discussion with Mr. Pell,” included suggestions for influencing British opinion (File 378, 1 of 2). On Baerwald see Bauer, My Brother’s Keeper, 277-83.
22 / Telegram, Kennedy to Hull, June 12, 1939, State Department Archive. Gellman gave the British credit for being the first to agree to take a portion of the St. Louis passengers (155). Thomas and Morgen-Witts (Voyage of the Damned) gave the credit to Belgium (208, 2 nd ed., 1994), relied on Morse, While Six Million Died, 285. Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 155; State Department Archives, Enclosure 3 to Dispatch 1017 (conversation May 30, 1939); Morse, Six Million, 283-87; Segev, The Seventh Million, 44. Thomas and Morgan‑Witts, Voyage of the Damned, 207-11. The authors described FDR as “the man who fin ally prevented the St. Louis from discharging its passengers on to US soil, fearing the political backlash” (217). Kennedy’s motives in helping solve the St. Louis problem were simple: he did not want this minor event to wreck British negotiations with Germany to avoid war. He had toyed with his own plan to transfer Jewish refugees to Africa and America (with Jewish funds, of course) and met with German officials in an effort to reconcile American and German interests. Roosevelt, meanwhile, was sick of British appeasement and asked Kennedy to “put some iron up Chamberlain’s backside” (Beschloss, Roosevelt and Kennedy, 180-89).
23 / Herbert Katzki for J. C. Hyman, to Ben Foster, 6-28-1939 and Foster to Hyman, 6-24-39, JDC Archives, JDC Collection, 33/44, File 379(B).
24 / Minutes of informal discussion, AJJDC, June 1, 1939, 17, File 378; memorandum on St. Louis - HAPAG, 6/27/39, p. 9 “Report” of 6-10-39, File 386. Baerwald was explicit in his negotiations with the British that only “those with American affidavits” would disembark in England (Memo. Ibid, 19a). The director of the Belgian Comite D’assistance Aux Refugies Juifs confirmed in writing to the AJDC that “all these refugees shall be in possession of an affidavit for the United States” and that (of course) the AJDC would put up $500 per refugee (Letter to AJDC from Comite June 14, 1939, File #386). On June 28, Herbert Katzki explained to a JDC supporter that “all the passengers . . . are expected to leave the countries which admitted them within a reasonable time for permanent settlement elsewhere” (Katzki to Foster, 6-28-39, File 379b).
25 / Thomas and Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned (1994 ed.), 8, 238. The authors estimated the survival rate in the same proportion of those Jews who survived in their host countries: 180 would have lived out of 224 in France (44 would have died); 152 out of 214 in Belgium (62 would have died); only 60 of 181 in Holland (121 would have died); www.ushmm.org (photo archives of SS St. Louis; see photograph 38552 as an example).
26 / Press release, 6/14/39, JDC Archive, File 378 (1 of 2); “Memo on St. Louis - HAPAG, 6/27/39, 28-30, File 386. Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 154-56; New York Times, June 14, 1939. Wyman conceded that “systematic extermination was not foreseen.” Preface to the paperback edition, vi. Penkower agreed that “none could ration ally predict” the threat in the f all of 1939 (Decision on Palestine Deferred, 26). One Jewish American, a Mr. Herzfeld, wrote the National Refugee Service (a sister organization of the JDC) in July 1939 and threatened to sue if the $710 he had put up for his relative Mrs. Meyerhoff to go to Cuba on the St. Louis was not returned. (Mrs. Meyerhoff was then in Holland.) Mr. Herzfeld told the NRS that Mrs. Meyerhoff could “return to Germany [where] she would have the protection of her father’s home – he is the head of a Jewish School and an outstanding German Educator.” (Letter to National Refugee Service from H. Herzfeld, 7-14-1939, and reply, 7-24-39, File 379a, 2 of 2). No good deed, the old saying goes, goes unpunished. One can only marvel at the saintly patience of the Joint staff and board members.
The St. Louis has become “Exhibit A” against FDR because the story was dramatic and the sad spectacle demonstrated in a compelling way that no nation on Earth wanted Jews. Morse was correct in While Six Million Died that the voyage “would hold up a mirror to mankind” (270). Yet nowhere did Morse mention the State Department efforts to assist the Joint. “The story had a temporarily happy ending,” he said – as if the events of three long years, from June 1939 to June 1942, meant nothing – “but the happiness was not to last for long.” The “lesson” Morse drew was that it “was only one of many indications that [Hitler’s] treatment of the Jews would not expose him to the wrath of the United States” (287).
27 / Gellman, “The St. Louis Tragedy,” 155; Müller, Anne Frank, 68-90; Dwork and Van Pelt, Holocaust, 107-10.
28 / Not all historians are critical of FDR and American Jews regarding the St. Louis. Irwin F. Gellman wrote a relatively accurate scholarly essay, “The St. Louis Tragedy.” Howard M. Sachar, who has no bias against FDR, is one of the few historians who more of less correctly summarized the St. Louis episode and explained the pivotal role of the Joint, although he omitted the role of the Roosevelt administration. See A History of the Jews in America, 492-93. Ronald Sanders also correctly summarized the incident in Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Immigration, 466-67, as did Martin Gilbert in The Holocaust, 80.
Nonetheless, most well-respected historians relied on the Roosevelt decriers’ many books and articles and got the story wrong. A prominent scholar, Leni Yahil in The Holocaust, claims “the Germans loaded more than nine hundred Jews” onto the ship; that the “major part” of the refugees went to the four countries but “the rest of the refugees met the dreaded fate [being sent to a concentration camp] at Hamburg” (119). All Professor Robert S. Wistrich told his readers in Hitler and the Holocaust was: “The American government callously turned back German Jewish refugees on the ocean liner Saint Louis” (189). Conrad Black, author of the acclaimed biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom omitted Roosevelt’s positive role, criticized him for failing to “muscle the Cuban president on the issue,” omitted the heroic role of the Joint (and instead criticizes the Joint), and then stated that “the admirable performance of Captain Schroeder led to Belgium’s admitting the St. Louis and its passengers. The whole episode ... reflects no credit on anyone except Captain Schroeder” (493-95). David M. Kennedy got the story wrong in Freedom from Fear, a highly-respected volume in the distinguished Oxford History of the United States series. Schroeder was again the only hero who “managed to distribute his passengers” among the various countries without the assistance of the Joint or the State Department. “The bright lights of Miami remained a sorrowing memory.” Kennedy concluded (417-18). It appears that Kennedy relied on Morse. (See p. 415) What then are local historians such as Selma S. Lewis, who wrote a history of the Jews of Memphis, to do? They rely, with justification, on the Roosevelt decriers. Thus without a footnote, she told her readers (because she presumably knew the fairy tale version of the St. Louis) that a “few passengers were admitted to Britain, Holland and France. Many of the refugees on board later died in extermination camps” (A Biblical People in the Bible Belt, 158).
29 / Morgenthau interview of John Pehle, 24, FDRL; Davis, Into the Storm, 370-71, 655 (“I have leaned heavily upon Morse”).
30/ “Wiesel...is the bearer not of intellectual analysis but of a moral message.” Steinweis, “Reflections on the Holocaust from Nebraska,” 167-68.
Lookstein, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? 10. In his chapter “The Saddest Ship Afloat,” Rabbi Lookstein berated every Jewish organization in America for not protesting the handling of the St. Louis episode when he ought to have known that the Joint, a well-known component of the American Jewish organizational network, existed to address the problem. The “lesson” of this sermon-as-history is that American Jews failed as their brothers’ keepers, when in fact they succeeded brilliantly.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the “passengers returned to Europe in June 1939. With World War II just months away, many of these passengers were sent East with the occupation of the countries to which they had been sent.” www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/stlouis.html. The reader gets the false impression that the round-up of Jews began in 1939 not three years later in 1942. This same fallacious reasoning appeared in The World Must Know, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s history of the Holocaust by Michael Berenbaum: “For a while, the sad voyage of the St. Louis seemed to have a happy ending. … But within months, the Nazis overran Western Europe. Only the two hundred, twenty-eight passengers who disembarked in England were safe. Of the rest, only a few survived the Holocaust.” This is a distortion of the chronology of events. Poland, not Western Europe, was overrun in months. Most of the St. Louis passengers survived the Holocaust. This is like saying that Lincoln freed slaves for a while but then lynching claimed thousands of black lives in the early 1900s. As William Rubinstein observed, this logic means that all world leaders were guilty for not knowing that Hitler would conquer France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, totally reverse his policy from persecuting and exiling Jews to exterminating them, and that three years later, in 1942, Jews would be rounded up. “The writing of history cannot easily be more illogical or misleading,” Rubinstein correctly concluded (Berenbaum, World Must Know, 58; Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue, 62).
Lookstein did not look at the records of the Joint because if he had, he would have learned that in 1939 American Jews knew which organization was charged with the task of saving the passengers on the St. Louis, and they loudly demanded that the Joint do so. To his credit, Lookstein did describe the political reality that no force on Earth could change America’s strict immigration laws, and he did inform his readers in passing that the Joint saved all the passengers on the St. Louis. A fellow rabbi, Barry J. Konovitch, published “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis: What Really Happened” in the academic journal American Jewish History in 1989. Because of the “callous decrees” of the State Department, the lack of “moral courage” of the American Jewish community, and a president who “refused to interfere in an internal Cuban affair...907 Jews sailed back to Europe, most to their deaths,” Konovitch erroneously concluded. This, Konovitch told us, foretold “the complicity of the Western democracies in the destruction of European Jewry.” These allegations are demonstrably false. As we have seen, the passengers of the St. Louis were not taken off the ship in June 1939 and executed as a result of a callous “decree” of the State Department while cowardly American Jews looked on. In fact, the Western European democracies took the passengers in at the behest of American Jewry and with the cooperation of the president, his administration, and his Jewish friends (Konovitch, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of the St. Louis,” 203, 209). Most of the passengers lived. Konovitch even stated as a fact that there was “a direct communication from Washington to Havana requesting that the Jews not be given passes to disembark because they would eventually request permission to continue on to the United States” (207). And what was the proof of this outrageous calumny against the United States? State Department records? Telegrams? Letters? No. Interviews in 1989 (fifty years after the event) with five unidentified people (presumably some former passengers of the St. Louis), including Manuel Benitez Valdez (the former Immigration Director’s nephew). Over coffee fifty years later Yudel Steinberg and Ben Volpe (not further identified) told Mr. Konovitch in a gossip session about a document that no one to date has located, including Messrs. Konovitch, Steinberg, and Volpe.
31 / Ed Koch, the fiery and outspoken former mayor of New York City and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, has joined the Roosevelt decriers. “Every Jew is a Holocaust survivor,” he told the Third National Conference of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (New York, September 18, 2005), “because Hitler wanted to kill every Jew in the world.” Yet despite Roosevelt’s success in thwarting Hitler’s plan, Koch told the conference and Medoff that “I am sure [FDR] is in purgatory, for his sin of abandoning the Jews” (Jewish Community Chronicle, May 11, 2005).
Thomas and Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned (1994), 252. The cable “was to become typical of the attitude of the American government to the entire affair” (Voyage of the Damned, 1994, 155); “no instructions . . . from the White House,” 240); “the millionaire Morgenthau” did not think much of Hull (250).
Gordon Thomas and Max Witts published Voyage of the Damned in 1974. It described the efforts of American diplomats but blamed the State Department, “itself filled with its share of prejudiced men,” for not allowing the St. Louis passengers to land in the United States. They blamed “Franklin Roosevelt, the ‘liberal’ president, but always a president mindful of public opinion” for not overruling the State Department, leaving the reader with the erroneous impression that the president could have somehow circumvented the immigration laws, a power he did not possess. There was no “decision to bar the refugees.” The refugees did not have the legal right to immigrate to the United States, just as refugees today (e.g., Haitians) have no such right. Thomas and Witts ignored the positive results of the efforts of the Joint, the State Department, and Roosevelt’s men.
Roosevelt’s sins somehow worsened between 1974 and 1994. In the 1994 edition of Voyage of the Damned, the authors blamed Roosevelt as “the man who finally prevented the St. Louis from discharging its passengers onto United States soil, fearing the political backlash...” Roosevelt, of course, did not “prevent” the passengers from coming to the United States. Congress and the American people (83 percent of whom did not support changing the immigration quotas) “prevented” it, only in the sense that American immigration laws, enacted in the 1920s, limited immigration of all aliens. The authors’ condescending and moralizing tone emphasized the alleged failure of the American government to solve the problem by allowing refugees to enter the United States, while downplaying the actual success of the American government in helping the Joint place the refugees in safe havens.
32 / Auschwitz was built to murder Jews from all over Europe. According to Martin Gilbert, on July 15, 1942, more than three years after the docking of the St. Louis at Antwerp, the first deportees were sent from Holland to Auschwitz (The Holocaust, 375). Perrett, Days of Sadness Years of Triumph, 96; Hertzberg, Jews in America, 293. Hertzberg’s statement is a perfect example of Thomas Macaulay’s warning to historians that “He who is deficient in the art of selection [of facts] may, by showing nothing but the truth, produce the effect of grossest falsehood.” Macaulay quoted in Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, 65. Hertzberg is a member of the Academic Council of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Medoff, The Deafening Silence, 60-1; Druks, The Failure to Rescue, 3, 17-25.
The leadership of the Joint attracted as much criticism as Roosevelt himself. An Israeli historian, Gulie Ne’eman Arad, writing in the late 1990s, informed her readers in America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism that the “tragic saga of the St. Louis was another instance when American Jews could do little other than unburden their feelings of shame.” American Jews were too scared to appeal to their own government, she claimed. “The Jewish leadership was virtually paralyzed,” she asserted. Her poor, misinformed readers never learned that the St. Louis passengers were saved by the Joint, the “President’s Jews” (her words), and quite unparalyzed American Jewish leaders, including many close to Roosevelt. Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, 204-5, 275, n. 95; on FDR, 163-67. Arad misapprehended what the State Department tried to do in Cuba. “Rather ironically,” she wrote, “the State Department did try, but unsuccessfully, to pressure the Cuban government to provide refuge for the passengers.” Not so ironically, the author appeared to be blissfully ignorant of what the State Department actually did do.
Professor Druks’s The Failure to Rescue contained an intemperate chapter, “The Seas of Indifference,” which denounced the “Jews of America and their organizations” as “inept,” “weak, badly disunited, and afraid.” He never informed the reader that the Joint actually saved the passengers from returning to Germany at that time. He ridiculed the Joint, claiming it was only concerned about its prestige.
Medoff, in The Deafening Silence, blamed American Jewish leaders for failing to demand that the Roosevelt administration allow the passengers on the St. Louis to enter the United States. “The St. Louis episode,” Medoff told his readers, “was a painfully embarrassing reminder of the hesitancy and impotence of the American Jewish leadership” and that the ship was turned away “while U.S. Jewish leaders looked on in silence” (Medoff, 60-61). Medoff relied on Morse and Thomas and Witts (197). The author appeared to be oblivious to the most important fact about the St. Louis episode, namely that the Joint saved the passengers from going back to Germany and that Jewish American leaders were in constant communication with the secretary of state, the under-secretary of state, and the Jewish secretary of the treasury.
Medoff never told the reader that it was the Joint and American government officials, including many American Jewish leaders, who saved the passengers. These bothersome facts contradicted the thesis of Medoff’s book. While Medoff stated that an “agreement was reached” for the refugees to enter various countries, he omitted the easily accessible story of who reached the agreement (the supposedly “cowardly” American Jewish leaders) and how they did it - with extensive help from the Roosevelt administration (Medoff, 59-62).
Medoff went so far as to claim, as others have since, that the “deafening silence of the American Jewish leadership during the St. Louis crisis sent a powerful message to Hitler” and because of the St. Louis episode, the “Führer could now rest assured that he could deal with the Jews as he pleased.” Hitler now saw, according to Medoff, that the “nations of the free world...would take no concrete action” on behalf of Jews. Of course, if Hitler read the newspapers, he would have seen exactly the opposite on this particular occasion (Medoff, The Deafening Silence, 59-62). Medoff was co-author with Wyman of A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust (2002) and is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. See www.wymaninstitute.org. This group seems dedicated to promoting the Roosevelt-decrier, America-as-bystander version of American history. FDR and ER were the chief evildoers in America’s abandonment of the Jews at the Third National Conference of the David S. Wyman Institute, held in New York City on September 18, 2005. There was loud applause from the audience when former mayor Ed Koch said that he “I am sure [FDR] is in purgatory, for his sin of abandoning the Jews.”
33 / Newsweek, May 21, 2001, 32. “When the facts become the legend, print the legend,” the cynical newspaperman in the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” exclaimed. Quoted by Frederick Taylor, Dresden ( New York: Harper Collins, 2004), xi.
In Peter Wyden’s book Stella, the story of Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish woman who hunted Jews for the Gestapo, we are told that there were one thousand, one hundred, seven passengers on the St. Louis and that two hundred passengers “were returned to Hamburg and the mercies of the Nazis,” including Manfred Kübler, Stella’s first husband. Wyden calls Roosevelt “that flawed Messiah, the politician Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Not surprisingly, Wyden relies on Professor David S. Wyman, citing his “painstaking work” and thanking him for his assistance in writing his book (Peter Wyden, Stella, 84-7, 347).
Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl gave a sermon on November 12, 1999, in which he added the firing of a “warning shot” by the coast guard cutter and alleged that Roosevelt “succumbed to the anti-Semitic and nativist pressures of the State Department and placed severe restrictions on the refugee quotas.” http://www.beth-elsa.org/be_s1112.htm..
Deborah E. Lipstadt in Beyond Belief (1986) blamed the United States government for failing to act. Her chapter title was “Barring the Gates to Children and Refugee Ships.” “The only action taken by the American government,” she told us, “was the dispatch of a Coast Guard cutter...to apprehend any passenger who might jump overboard in an attempt to swim ashore and return them to the ship.” There was no footnote and no evidence to support this allegation (118-19). Lipstadt acknowledged that one “cannot totally discount these fears” of an influx of an unreasonable number of refugees.
Wyman’s PBS documentary “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” told viewers that the passengers’ pleas to Roosevelt “fell on deaf ears,” which is not true and omitted any mention of the successful efforts of the Joint and the Roosevelt administration in saving the passengers.
34 / William D. Rubinstein observed in The Myth of Rescue that in order to blame the future Allies for the St. Louis, one had to believe “the leaders of France (with a standing army of 1.5 million men), Belgium and the Netherlands (neutral in the First World War) were blindly moronic” for not knowing that they would soon be conquered by Germany and that three years later the Jews of Western Europe would be deported and murdered, “something unimaginable by anyone in 1939” (62).
35 / Suberman, When It Was Our War, 6-7.
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