Echoes of the SS St. Louis Today

Image of passengers on SS St. Louis.

Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

On May 13th, 1939, the SS St. Louis, a luxury cruise ship, departed Hamburg, Germany bound for Cuba, where its 937 passengers, most of them Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany, expected to gain entry into the United States. After weeks at sea, likely filled with a mixture of uncertainty and hope, all but 29 of the refugees, most of whom had used their savings to pay for their Cuban visas and the trip, were refused entry.

A week after arriving, the ship pushed toward Florida in the hope that the American government would welcome them.

They were denied entry. Aware of the situation, a number of prominent Canadians petitioned their government to receive the passengers but were rebuffed. After a little more than a month, the passengers returned to Europe and were eventually granted entry by Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. The latter three soon fell to the Nazis and many of those who were on the St. Louis had to flee a second time. Some 254 of those who were on the ship through its tortured voyage were not so lucky and would die in the Holocaust.

The voyage of the SS St. Louis is an incident that is recalled today as a shameful episode for the countries that denied the passengers asylum. An eerily familiar reminder for contemporary ears were arguments made at the time by politicians about how receiving these refugees would set off a crisis as more victims of fascism sought safety on the other side of the globe.

Just as now, asylum seekers were seen as a burden rather than a moral obligation.

Today, on land and at sea, millions more refugees are on the move in much less comfortable settings than the SS St. Louis. Some are fleeing grinding poverty, but many are running from terrible violence, the growing threat of climate change, and the disasters related to it.

In the United States, which has extracted great wealth from such places over the centuries, migrants from Central America and the Caribbean are greeted not by waves of social workers bent on helping them and their children deal with their trauma but instead by what looks like an army on the country’s southern border. Far right politicians and pundits use their platforms to deny the migrants’ very humanity, calling them ‘invaders’ and worse.

A lack of historical memory allows for this. Not only were countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador ‘banana republics’ controlled by American agricultural giants like United Fruit for decades, making the majority of these countries’ citizens work under serf-like conditions to enrich mostly American investors, but the gangs that have more recently turned the region known as the Emerald Triangle into a vast killing field have their origins in the United States, specifically Los Angeles.

It was there that one of two largest such gangs, MS 13, formed for self-protection from already established gangs before many, including minors, were deported en masse during the Clinton era to countries they had little memory of, having themselves come as child refugees from various proxy wars in the region.

In Europe, boatloads arrive fleeing violence in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and much of Africa, many still sites of military conflict. As in North America, similar ghouls across the continent blame the ongoing migrant crisis on the desperate refugees themselves, calling it ‘the Great Replacement’ and exporting this absurd fever dream around the world where it has led to massacres from Christchurch, New Zealand to El Paso, Texas and Buffalo, New York.

In the years ahead, as climate change truly takes hold, wealthier nations are going to have to make even more difficult decisions about what to do about those fleeing unlivable situations. Unfortunately, as the story of the SS St. Louis and more contemporary reactions to migration show, we don’t have a very good track record in this regard.

Can we repair our historical amnesia enough to not only avoid committing moral outrage, but once again strengthening our societies by welcoming immigrants and refugees?

Derek Royden is a writer based in Montreal, Canada.