Today's refugees are not unlike those aboard the St. Louis

Today's refugees are not unlike those aboard the St. Louis

The tragic “Voyage of the Damned” aboard an ocean liner called the St. Louis occurred 80 years ago, yet anger and despair still permeate much of the extended American Jewish community. How could then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt – a hero and a political icon to so many; the world’s democracy-saver, the upholder of human rights and the personification of decency – allow so grievous a sin? One which, in the light of historical facts, was as much a sin of commission as it was one of omission?

They had come on the St. Louis, those 937 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany barely ahead of the Shoah, the Hebrew word for “catastrophe” and another term for the Holocaust. When all but 28 of the passengers were denied their promised entry into Cuba, the ship sailed to the United States, which refused to grant its passengers refugee status even though most had pending U.S. visa applications. “Wait your turn on line” read a State Department cable to a passenger on this now-wandering ship of Jews—a wait that would have taken years. The ship’s passengers subsequently were turned away by Canada, too.

President Roosevelt was under political pressure at the time and refused to issue an executive order allowing them to come in. The refugee quota has been reached, it was said.


In the summer of 1939, American public opinion was anti-immigrant. The last election had brought many xenophobic Republicans to Congress. The refugees would take jobs from Americans, it was said. FDR was going to seek an – wait for it – “unprecedented” third term, so helping the refugees would self-servingly shore up his Jewish vote, it was said. There also were accusations that Jews were disloyal, that dangerous communists would infiltrate among the refugees.

In other words, every excuse we hear today for denying refugees was used back then as well.

Roosevelt’s refusal to intercede “sent them back” – another familiar phrase of our time – to where, history shows, most eventually died in Nazi concentration camps. Some 288 were taken in by England; the remaining 600 were accepted by France, Belgium and the Netherlands, three countries soon to be overrun by German forces.

Although President Roosevelt did many truly great things, some people, with good reason, will never forgive this more-than-regrettable episode.

Unfortunately, President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE has selectively learned from the worst of available lessons.


Today, many refugees from Central America come on the tops of trains. They are refugees who, certainly, are not fleeing anything resembling the Holocaust—but, nonetheless, they are risking their all to save their lives. They seek refuge in a land which, despite having had the St. Louis moment that President Clinton called “one of the darkest times in our history,” still boasts of its promise to the world’s refugees.

Today, the challenge is that they arrive by the thousands, and yesterday’s excuses, newly spun, have an urgent new reality. There remains the possibility that if nothing is done, these modern refugees will be sent back to their home countries and face an unknown but tragic fate.

While there is no comparison between the often life-threatening conditions in Latin America and the uniquely evil Nazi concentration camps that became death camps for millions, questions of modern morality still arise.

Was the St Louis an exceptional moment in the development of our national persona, or is it a new, defining direction?

We are a rich, compassionate, creative, intelligent, moral and, some would add, God-fearing people. So what are we to do?

Regrettably, we cannot do everything for all of the world’s desperate people. And, yes, among the many considerations for granting asylum there must be a careful vetting of any potential applicant for national-security concerns, as well as case-by-case reviews to determine if each person meets the strict legal requirements for asylum-seekers.

Yet, surely, we cannot simply do nothing.

We may have overpromised as a beacon to the world’s desperate people. Yet, unquestionably, we have underperformed, too. In the meantime, we must provide safe harbor to today’s refugees, no matter their religion or country of origin.

Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2013. He is a partner at Gotham Government Relations and Communications.