It was Thursday night, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. St. Louis-based Jewish educator and technologist Russel Neiss and his friend across the country, Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, had put their heads together.
“We were looking for something to do to commemorate the Holocaust but, at the same time, the draft executive order banning refugees was floating around,” Neiss told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “No one was sure if or when it was coming. We were thinking: Is there a story from the past we can tell here?”
And so they did.
In the span of two hours, Neiss and Schwarz created a Twitter bot that automatically tweeted the names and chilling, sparse descriptions of the passengers aboard the MS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees that was turned away from the U.S. in 1939, who died after they were forced to return to mainland Europe during World War II.
Of the 937 passengers on that ship in 1939, 254 would go on to perish in the Holocaust. From midnight on Jan. 27, every five minutes the Twitter account @Stl_Manifest tweeted the name and fate of those who died, for the following 21 hours.
Neiss said the information and photographs came from research done by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum years prior when they tracked down the fates of each of the passengers of the St. Louis.
My name is Joachim Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz pic.twitter.com/pfvJtMpIps
— St. Louis Manifest (@Stl_Manifest) January 27, 2017
Neiss was totally taken aback by the response to account. When he took his kids to school on Friday, the account had 77 followers.
“And I’m like: this is amazing! This is totally blowing up!” Neiss said.
By the time he dropped his kids off at school, he had four media inquiries from The Atlantic, The Daily Beast and a couple of other mainstream publications. Six days later, the account has over 70,000 followers and tweets from the account have been seen by over 5 million people, not counting media exposure, Neiss said.
“We saw an opportunity to stand up and try to add to the conversation,” Neiss said. “That was our goal. What voice can we add to this at this particular moment that may be poignant in some small way?”
By the time the refugees on board the MS St. Louis left the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1939 en route to Havana, Cuba, Kristallnacht and the targeting of Jews in Nazi Germany’s population had already begun. Most of those on board the ship thought they would have documents arranging for their settlement waiting for them in Havana. While on the trip over, however, the documents were pulled.
When they were denied entry to Havana, they attempted to sail on to the port of Miami, Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard interceded before they could make it there, sending the ship back to Europe.
“Approximately half of the refugees resettled back in mainland Europe perished during the Nazi occupation and throughout the Holocaust thereafter,” Neiss said.
At the time, there was a huge flurry of anti-semitism in both Cuba and the United States. In the U.S., Jews were viewed as a security threat, associated with fears of communism. It was also the time when phrases like “America First” began to circulate, Neiss said.
In 1939, only 27,000 Germans were allowed to immigrate to the United States. In that same year, some 300,000 Jewish Germans lined up to get some of those 27,000 allotted spaces, encouraged by Nazi Germany to emigrate.
A couple of months prior to the MS St. Louis fateful trip, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was proposed in Congress to increase the quota of Jewish children who would be brought to the United States from Nazi Germany to 20,000. It failed to pass.
Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the U.S. commissioner of immigration was quoted as saying at the time: "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."
The rhetoric used about Jews in 1939 sounds eerily similar to that which is used to describe refugees who seek to shelter from the United States today.
“This project was primarily created as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust — we weren’t the ones who thought it was appropriate to sign an Executive Order banning refugees on international Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Neiss said.
“I want to be cautious to draw parallels to the Holocaust and what is happening today,” Neiss said. “A situation doesn’t need to be as dire as the Holocaust for us to remember our shared humanity. When we talk about refugees, we’re not talking about faceless hordes of people. We’re talking about people whose lives are at stake, that’s why they are refugees.”
Neiss does not currently have plans to continue the project beyond its 24-hour span of 250 tweets, but he encourages those who have not seen it to read through the timeline of @Stl_Manifest.
He wants people to know that he is not an activist for a day job, but rather just a normal guy who has to go back to work as a software developer in the morning.
“I saw an opportunity to stand up and make my voice heard,” Neiss said. “I think if people mean the words they say when they say ‘never again’ and if they mean what they say when they say ‘we remember,’ they need to stand up and act where appropriate and where they can.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.