American xenophobia has imperiled the innocent, and may again

     The SS George Washington is shown during its years in U.S. Navy service during World War I.

    The SS George Washington is shown during its years in U.S. Navy service during World War I.

    Never again. Never again. This phrase has been drummed into my head from the first time I entered religious school, the first sermons I ever heard, and the first lessons I heard about World War II. If you ask any Jew you’ve ever met what the phrase “never again” means, you will get the same answer: We should never let the prejudice and racism of the Nazis infiltrate the world ever again. I was taught that it was my mission, our mission, everyone’s mission to not let that kind of ignorance and hate repeat itself.

    Most Jews alive today, whether they consider themselves religious or not, have been touched in some way by a relative or family friend dying during the Holocaust. Most of my father’s family was wiped out at concentration camps during the war.

    ‘Voyage of the damned’

    On May 13, 1939, the SS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, bound for Cuba with a full load of passengers who were mostly Jews trying to escape the Nazis. On May 27, the ship arrived in Cuba, but the passengers were not allowed off the ship. With the exception of a few passengers who had visas, had Spanish citizenship, or were Cuban nationals, the passengers were denied entrance into Cuba.

    In desperation, the ship headed for Miami six days later. But again, the passengers were turned away. Roosevelt would not allow any more refugees into the country. He had the authority to issue an executive order to allow them entry, but he chose to do nothing. He bowed to the xenophobia taking over the country at the time. With that, the ship had to turn around and head back to Europe. By the time it arrived, a few generous countries allowed the passengers into their countries on a temporary basis.  

    Great Britain took 288 passengers. On the continent, the Netherlands took 181, Belgium 214, and France 224 — and 254 of these refugees never survived the Holocaust.

    Some were luckier

    But my dad told me another true story of Jewish emigration. It is near impossible to find any information about this occurrence. A Google search comes up empty, but my dad swears it to be true. Another ship, the SS George Washington, delivered Jewish refugees just days after the St. Louis was turned away from Florida.

    My father knows because he was there to greet the ship when it arrived in New York City on June 8, 1939, at 8 a.m. Dad’s Aunt Olga was on board. My dad and his mother and father stood on the dock waving to my aunt, who was excitedly waving back. But by 9 a.m. they were all getting very nervous. The passengers were not being allowed off the ship.

    Polling at the time suggested that most Americans were against the immigration of Jews fleeing Europe. And quotas required travelers to secure visas far in advance. With news that the St. Louis had been turned back, everyone was fearful that the U.S. would again turn away asylum seekers.

    It was my aunt’s birthday. My grandma always gave her a basket of cherries and a bouquet of red roses for her birthday. Grandma stood at the dock, cherries and withering roses in hand, hoping upon hope that she would be able to give them to her sister.

    The passengers were finally allowed to disembark. The war would start in Europe just three months later, and the days of refugees escaping the conflict would soon end. But my aunt received her cherries and roses and spent the rest of her life safe in the arms of America — one of the last to receive such refuge before the war.

    Are we doomed to repeat?

    All the recent news about Syrian refugees, and the talk of the banning of all Muslims from entering the United States, reminds me of my childhood lesson of “never again.” Never again should we be so xenophobic, but we are. Never again should we be so racist, so full of hate, so ignorant. But here we are, 76 years later. Aren’t we allowing the same thing to happen again?

    My dad is now 83. I don’t want him to live through it all again. Although I don’t know any refugees trying to enter this country to flee racism, hate, and personal abuse, I can understand their desperation to preserve their families’ safety and freedom. After all, isn’t that what America is supposed to be all about? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

    Will someone please take some cherries and a bouquet of red roses and greet another exhausted and desperate human being seeking freedom?

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