By Taylor Mayol
The vitriol is palpable. It’s captured in the headlines of newspapers from San Francisco to New York and in many conversations, with more than 60 percent of Americans opposing the welcoming of refugees onto U.S. soil from this conflict-ridden country. Seemingly everyone from mayors to presidential candidates are weighing in on what might happen if we let these outsiders call the United States their new home. Only we’re not talking about Syria, and this isn’t 2016.
Come aboard the St. Louis, where it’s 1939 and German Jews such as Herbert Karliner are fleeing Nazi persecution — and literally waiting on the shores of North America. The men, women and children on that transatlantic liner had government officials — from the State Department to the White House — debating what to do, and they were on “the saddest ship afloat,” the New York Times wrote. Everyone was wondering: Would these asylum-seekers be accepted, or were they destined to return to the rule of the Third Reich?
That journey of the St. Louis is a reminder of how high the stakes can be with refugees, regardless of who thinks we should let in more or fewer. For refugees, their futures may be on the line, with their lives possibly up for grabs, while for some Americans, there’s a bigger question about domestic safety. Politicians including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have recently argued that the risks outweigh the rewards, and late last year, the House passed legislation to suspend Syrian and Iraqi resettlement, with support from both sides of the aisle. That perspective also seems to be shared by many Americans: A Gallup poll from November found that more than 60 percent of them opposed accepting Syrians. The question, asks Robert Krakow, whose SS St. Louis Legacy Project has documented the history of that voyage, then becomes, “How do you [respond] in a way where the refugee benefits and America benefits?”
- "The first word I learned in Spanish was mañana, but mañana never came."
- -Herbert Karliner, St. Louis ship passenger
Karliner remembers standing on the deck of the St. Louis in June 1939, with the sun in his face, staring at the distant shores of Miami. Just a few days earlier, the ship had landed in Havana, where he and 936 other passengers sought safe haven. Karliner recalls Cuban officials inspecting their documents while families lined up outside their cabins. Up until that point, the journey seemed glamorous — at least in the eyes of a 12-year-old — and the passengers were treated like wealthy tourists. Captain Gustav Schroeder reportedly even covered the statue of Hitler at one point. But in the Cuban harbor, only a couple dozen people were allowed to get off the ship. “The first word I learned in Spanish was mañana, but mañana never came,” says the now 89-year-old Karliner.
Refugees aboard the St. Louis, including women and their children, are denied landing in Cuba. Source: Getty
So the captain tried taking his ship of refugees to Miami, where he was met by the U.S. Coast Guard. At the time, no special status was given to refugees in the U.S. They were treated just like other immigrants, which meant they had to prove they had enough money to live independently and provide a clean police record — difficult given the police were the Nazis and the passengers had been stripped of their belongings. Those regulations combined with extreme anti-immigrant sentiment — more than 80 percent were opposed to immigration, polls showed then — meant it would have been political suicide for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was gunning for a third term, to let the refugees come ashore. Indeed, the U.S. ultimately refused the ship, as did Canada, and the St. Louis headed back east.
But a return to Germany, where hundreds of synagogues had been burned and thousands of Jewish businesses looted, would have meant “a death sentence” for many Jews, says Krakow. And hundreds of families approached the captain, saying they would jump overboard rather than return to Germany. So the captain made his way back to Europe, where countries including Belgium, Holland, France and the U.K. took the refugees in. Yet within a year, everyone but those who remained in the U.K. were again living under Hitler’s rule. More than 250 of the passengers ended up dead at the hands of the Nazis, many in Auschwitz. Karliner was one of the lucky few. Today, just as he had dreamed, he lives in Miami.
- When new acts have been passed and refugee caps increased, they’ve usually been due to presidential edicts.
The fate of the St. Louis passengers alone didn’t directly alter U.S. immigration and refugee policy, experts say, though it did help shift policy along with other outcries. Back then, immigration decisions were focused on a country-based quota system, which favored white Europeans. Eventually, Mexican laborers and Chinese immigrants were admitted in the 1940s, while Hungarians fleeing the Soviet Union’s communist regime led to much bigger openings for immigrants in the 1950s. Refugee-assistance programs continued to roll out in the ’60s (for Cubans), when immigration began favoring skill sets and family reunification over origin-based quotas, as well as the ’70s (for war-fleeing Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians). But it really wasn’t until the 1980 Refugee Act that the U.S. adopted the United Nations’ definition of refugees and separated this group from other immigrants entirely.
Change has been gradual over the years, often taking place in the face of fierce public disapproval. Since 1939, when opposition peaked at 83 percent, the disapproval rating has hovered between roughly 55 percent and 70 percent. And when new acts have been passed and refugee caps increased, they’ve usually been due to presidential edicts, such as when Jimmy Carter doubled the number of refugees allowed in 1979, or when George H.W. Bush extended special protection to Chinese nationals involved in Tiananmen Square protests. Turns out Barack Obama’s move to increase Syrian refugees isn’t all that unprecedented.
More than 250 of the ship's passengers ended up dead at the hands of the Nazis, many in Auschwitz. Source: Getty
Still, the debate today about whether to allow more or fewer Syrians into the U.S. does bear a resemblance to the past, some experts argue. With the attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, it’s perhaps little surprise that Cruz, to CNN, has called Syrian refugees “potential terrorists.” And back in 1939, “there were national security fears — that the Germans would pressure Jewish refugees who had family back in Germany to be spies, agents and saboteurs,” says Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor at American University and author of FDR and the Jews.
So what to do this time around? The St. Louis’ return to Europe, some say, was used as so-called proof that the Jews were unwanted. “Ultimately it fit into the [Nazi] narrative of the final solution: If nobody wants them, we can finish them off and do what the world has always wanted,” says Krakow. Which means, perhaps, that a denial of entry for Muslim Syrians could be what ISIS then uses as propaganda to recruit more followers.
This article was originally posted on OZY.com on April 19, 2016. Read the original article.