Reif: Our return to 1939

It is time we learn from our history

Jordan Reif, Staff Columnist

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“First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist…”

By 1939, Adolf Hitler had successfully come to power in Germany, circulating radical Aryan propaganda and stripping Jews of their civil rights. The previous fall, under orders from the Reich Minister of Propaganda, 1,000 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish properties were looted, 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps and 100 were killed on the spot as part of Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”).

The continued rise in strength of Hitler and his Nazi party exacerbated safety concerns for German Jews. So on May 13, 1939, a German ocean liner—the MS St. Louis—left Hamburg for Cuba with 937 passengers, all of whom were Jewish except for six.  

The passengers would soon come to suffer the ultimate consequences for America’s failure to protect those in need. Our government today has again chosen to isolate and reject immigrants seeking refuge in the United States. It is time we listen carefully to the testimony of those aboard the MS St. Louis 80 years ago, for history does repeat itself.

Cuba, experiencing financial turmoil from the Great Depression, expressed their economic frustrations through anti-Semitic actions. Upon arriving in a Havana harbor 14 days later, only 28 passengers were let off the ship. The remaining refugees were forbidden from entering Cuba. Growing worried about their fate, one refugee even “slit his wrists and threw himself overboard out of sheer desperation,” according to a BBC article. As a result, the captain agreed to sail the liner to Florida to seek asylum in the United States.

To the rest of the world, America was a shining beacon of hope. The refugees thought “America was a magic word, we knew America would not let us down.”

Upon approaching the States, several passengers sent a telegram to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) requesting support and asylum. As the St. Louis approached Florida, the only response was U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolling the waters to ensure no one, including the ship itself, made it to shore. The State Department—including then Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, who was known for his strong anti-Semitic views—told the Jewish refugees, many of whom had already qualified for American visas, that they must wait their turn on a list before trying to qualify for immigration visas.

After rejection by Canada, the passengers were out of options, and returned to Europe, with entry split among four willing countries. By the end of World War II, 254 of the passengers would be murdered in a concentration camp.

While FDR had many praise-worthy policies and practices, he also managed an “American-first” approach with the Jewish refugees. Like Cuba, the U.S. was suffering from severe economic stress from the Great Depression and wanted to focus all resources and opportunities on Americans. For what seemed to be the first time in our history, the U.S. did not feel the need to intervene; our “responsibility” to meddle seemed only to extend to overthrowing democracies in Latin America.

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement of apology on behalf of Canada for the rejection of the passengers aboard the MS St. Louis. To this day, the U.S. has failed to do the same or even acknowledge our actions.

Instead, we seem to be repeating history with our rejection and condemnation of refugees, especially those from Latin America. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to inhibit immigrants and refugees from seeking protection or feeling welcome in the U.S.

Seven days after his inauguration, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which suspended admission of refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries. He then terminated temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and Nepal. Trump caged young children and separated them from their parents, some of whom still have not been reconnected due to a failure to keep records. And most recently, he held the American people hostage while pleading for up to $70 billion to spend on a wall along the southern border. The Trump Administration appears to be mirroring the worst aspects of FDR and his decision to ignore almost 1,000 Jewish refugees.

In her book “Undocumented,” Aviva Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University, writes: “given the choice, nobody would risk his or her life walking through the desert to enter the country illegally [or the] constant fear, discrimination, and threat of deportation that comes from being undocumented.” Thousands of Latinx are fleeing their homes due to violence, partially caused by U.S. intervention policies. In response, the U.S. government is spewing hateful rhetoric and spending money on walls and cages, making migration more dangerous instead of stopping it.

When immigrants are turned away or deported by the U.S., they are potentially being sentenced to death. Manuel Antonio Cano-Pacheco, escorted across the border at age 19 after spending 16 years in the U.S. and qualifying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), was killed three weeks after returning to Mexico. Laura S. had lived undocumented in the U.S. her entire adult life. As she was being deported, she told the Border Patrol agent, “when I am found dead, it will be on your conscience.” She was murdered by her ex-boyfriend immediately upon returning to Mexico. Nelson Espina, a 28-year-old who was part of the “migrant caravan” last fall, was shot to death by gang members one week after being deported.

Perhaps instead, it is time we carefully reflect on Lady Liberty’s inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” If we ever hope to be the America of dreams and opportunities, we must first learn compassion.

Compassion is ending for-profit detention centers responsible for the detention of 34,000 immigrants on any given day, offering a path to citizenship for those undocumented, welcoming asylum-seekers and refugees and opening our arms to all of our brothers and sisters in need.

“…Then they came for the Jews, And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me, And there was no one left, To speak out for me.” (Pastor Martin Niemoller)