This Ship Of Jewish Refugees Asked For Shelter 80 Years Ago — And The US Said No | St. Louis Public Radio

This Ship Of Jewish Refugees Asked For Shelter 80 Years Ago — And The US Said No

Jun 5, 2019

Updated at 5 p.m., June 5 with information about a new location for the event The lecture and vigil will now be held at the Missouri History Museum to avoid traffic issues during the St. Louis Blues game.

Eighty years ago, the U.S. turned away a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany — forcing them to return to Europe.

Of the 937 passengers on the MS St. Louis, about a quarter were later killed in the Holocaust.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis is spearheading an event to commemorate the voyage of the MS St. Louis, which also coincides with the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The MS St. Louis represents a “moment of embarrassment” for the U.S., said Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

After Cuba, Canada and the U.S. blocked the ship from docking, said Picker Neiss, its passengers became increasingly desperate.

“They were telegraphing to everyone they could think of in the United States, including President Franklin Roosevelt,” Picker Neiss said. “They even sent a message to the mayor of St. Louis to say, ‘We share a name with you, maybe you can help us.’”

Their pleas went unanswered, and in June 1939, the ship returned to Europe.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 254 of the ship's passengers died in the Holocaust, including many who tried to resettle in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay apologized in 2016 on behalf of the city in a letter to MS St. Louis passenger and Holocaust survivor Hans Fisher.

“Dr. Fisher, please know that we remember the MS St. Louis,” Slay wrote. “Through its tragic example, the City of St. Louis and its People are attuned as never before to calls for help from refugees the world over.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also formally apologized last year, calling it “long overdue.”

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, a passenger ship sent back to Europe during World War II. About one-quarter of the passengers were later killed in the Holocaust.
Credit United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Dr. Liane Reif-Lehrer

Despite the lessons of the past, history is repeating itself, said Picker Neiss.

“We’re looking at new populations of refugees who are trying to escape from famine and war, and we’re saying the same messages,” she said. “We’re saying they’re criminals, they’re going to take our jobs, they’re going to undermine our political systems.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council has partnered with several organizations, including the Missouri History Museum to commemorate the anniversaries of the MS St. Louis and D-Day.

An archival story from the New York Times, dated June 8, 1939.
Credit New York Times digital archive

The event held June 6 at Soldiers Memorial Military Museum, will include a lecture from historian Deborah Dash Moore, author of GI Jews, about the American Jews who fought in WWII.

Dash Moore will also lead an interfaith vigil to recite the names of the MS St. Louis passengers who perished in the Holocaust and the St. Louis residents who died on D-Day.

“We have a teaching in Judaism that anyone who destroys a life, it’s as if they destroy an entire world,” Picker Neiss said. “Every one of those people who was murdered had the potential to build an entire world. If we can keep reciting their names, then we can find some hope in learning from history.”

If you go:

Lecture and community vigil

Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis

When: Doors open at 5:30 p.m., program begins at 6:30 p.m.

Cost: free

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