The St. Louis, Then and Now
By Sarah Breger
The contentious debate over Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his actions during the Holocaust is ongoing. There are those who argue that FDR was a true friend to the Jews, who led the United States to victory against the Nazis; others say that FDR turned a blind eye to reports of what was happening to the Jews in Europe.
The St. Louis has become a symbol of the United States perceived indifference. In 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Germany with 938 Jewish passengers seeking refuge in Cuba. After being refused entry, the ship searched for other safe havens, including the U.S. From the port of Miami, passengers sent FDR cables begging for refuge. Their pleas were denied and the ship was forced to sail back to Europe. About 1/3 died in Auschwitz.
For Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, the refusal to give these passengers refuge was a moral failure of the U.S., particularly the State Department. A U.S. State department ceremony this Monday, marking the 73rd anniversary of the St. Louis’s voyage, was intended to “take care of some unfinished business,” Rosenthal said. The program’s goal was to face “our government agency’s responsibility,” she added.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns echoed that sentiment, saying, “our government did not live up to its responsibility,” and later adding, “to the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the president and secretary of state, I am honored to say what we should’ve said so long ago, welcome.”
The event included a performance of the play The Trial of FDR, by Robert M Krakow, president of the SS St. Louis Legacy Project. In the play, FDR faces a judicial court on the charges of sacrificing humanitarian need for his own political gain. Witnesses brought to testify include Joe Kennedy who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938-1940, Cordell Hull, Secretary of State under FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.
It’s interesting that the State Department brought this play in for the event. While there is a “defense” and a “prosecution,” it paints a very negative portrait of FDR.
Take a look at the opening statement:
“The Prosecution will demonstrate that his failure to act was motivated out of the Defendant’s lust for power and his single-minded determination to win the 1940 and 1944 elections. Furthermore, that the political decisions he made to further his presidential ambitions sent a message to the Third Reich that the European Jewish community was expendable.”
And the closing statement:
“Members of the jury, we ask that you hold the Defendant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, accountable for being complicit in Crimes Against Humanity. His presidency, for all its good, exposed the dangers of exceeding the term limit tradition established by the founding fathers. They feared a return to the monarchy with its inherent threats to the republic. The Defendant was perpetually seeking to maintain power and as such made decisions the consequences of which were disastrous for humanity.”
Following the performance a panel of survivors of the St. Louis answered audience questions. On a question about forgiveness, Eva Wiener, who was two years old on the St. Louis, said: “We who have come to the U.S. had to come to terms with what it would be like to enter a country that began by rejecting us.” She added: “And I have accepted the fact that the government of 1939 was not the government of 1946 when I arrived here. Thank goodness eyes were opened, not completely, but somewhat, and I was then allowed to come to the United States and establish my life and pursue my dreams.”