'The Saddest Ship Afloat' and America's Response to Refugees - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'The Saddest Ship Afloat' and America's Response to Refugees

'The Saddest Ship Afloat' and America's Response to Refugees

By Taylor Mayol



Because the stories of Syrians and Jews have more in common than you think.

By Taylor Mayol

The vitriol is palpable. It’s captured in the headlines of newspapers from San Francisco to New York and in many conversations, with more than 60 percent of Americans opposing the welcoming of refugees onto U.S. soil from this conflict-ridden country. Seemingly everyone from mayors to presidential candidates are weighing in on what might happen if we let these outsiders call the United States their new home.

Only we’re not talking about Syria, and this isn’t 2016.

Come aboard the St. Louis, where it’s 1939 and German Jews such as Herbert Karliner are fleeing Nazi persecution — and literally waiting on the shores of North America. The plight of the men, women and children aboard that transatlantic liner confounded American officials: Should they accept the asylum-seekers, or send them back to into the arms of the Third Reich? The St. Louis was “saddest ship afloat,” wrote The New York Times. 

That journey of the St. Louis reminds us how high the stakes can be with refugees. On the one hand, refugees’ very lives may be on the line. On the other are questions about domestic safety. Politicians including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have recently argued that the risks outweigh the rewards, and late last year, the House passed legislation to suspend Syrian and Iraqi resettlement, with support from both sides of the aisle. A November Gallup poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans opposed accepting Syrian refugees. The question then becomes, “How do you [respond] in a way where the refugee benefits and America benefits?” says Robert Krakow, whose SS St. Louis Legacy Project has documented the voyage.

The first word I learned in Spanish was mañana, but mañana never came.

Herbert Karliner, St. Louis ship passenger

Karliner remembers standing on the deck of the St. Louis in June 1939, with the sun in his face, staring at the distant shores of Miami. Just a few days earlier, the ship had landed in Havana, where he and 936 other passengers sought safe haven. Karliner recalls Cuban officials inspecting their documents while families lined up outside their cabins. Up until that point, the journey seemed glamorous — at least in the eyes of a 12-year-old — and the passengers were treated like wealthy tourists. There was a statue of Adolf Hitler on board (this was a German ship), but Captain Gustav Schroeder reportedly covered it up at one point. But in the Cuban harbor, only a couple dozen people were allowed to disembark. “The first word I learned in Spanish was mañana, but mañana never came,” says the now 89-year-old Karliner.

Gettyimages 537569937

Refugees aboard the St. Louis, including women and their children, are denied landing in Cuba.

Source Getty

So the captain tried taking his ship of refugees to Miami, where he was met by the U.S. Coast Guard. At the time, no special status was given to refugees in the U.S. They were treated just like other immigrants, which meant they had to prove they had enough money to live independently and provide a clean police record — difficult given the police were the Nazis and the passengers had been stripped of their belongings. Those regulations, combined with extreme anti-immigrant sentiment — more than 80 percent of Americans opposed immigration, polls showed — meant it would have been political suicide for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was gunning for a third term, to allow the refugees ashore. Indeed, the U.S. ultimately refused the ship, as did Canada, and the St. Louis headed back east.

But a return to Germany, where hundreds of synagogues had been burned and thousands of Jewish businesses looted, would have meant “a death sentence” for many Jews, says Krakow. And hundreds of families approached the captain, saying they would jump overboard rather than return to Germany. So the captain made his way back to Europe, where countries including Belgium, Holland, France and the U.K. took the refugees in. Yet within a year, everyone but those who remained in the U.K. were again living under Hitler’s rule. More than 250 of the passengers ended up dead at the hands of the Nazis, many in Auschwitz. Karliner was one of the lucky few. Today, just as he had dreamed, he lives in Miami.

Tune in Tuesday at 11:00 p.m. EST for PBS’ new late-night series Point Taken to see OZY co-founder Carlos Watson moderate a spirited debate on whether or not the U.S. should take in more refugees or fewer.

The fate of the St. Louis passengers alone didn’t directly alter U.S. immigration and refugee policy, experts say, though it did help shift policy along with other outcries. Back then, immigration decisions were focused on a country-based quota system, which favored white Europeans. Eventually, Mexican laborers and Chinese immigrants were admitted in the 1940s, while Hungarians fleeing the Soviet Union’s communist regime led to much bigger openings for immigrants in the 1950s. Refugee-assistance programs continued to roll out in the ’60s (for Cubans), when immigration began favoring skill sets and family reunification over origin-based quotas, as well as the ’70s (for war-fleeing Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians). But it really wasn’t until the 1980 Refugee Act that the U.S. adopted the United Nations’ definition of refugees and separated this group from other immigrants entirely. 

Gettyimages 537569935

More than 250 of the ship’s passengers ended up dead at the hands of the Nazis, many in Auschwitz.

Source Getty

Change has been gradual, often taking place in the face of fierce public disapproval. Since 1939, when opposition peaked at 83 percent, the disapproval rating has hovered between roughly 55 percent and 70 percent. And when new acts have been passed and refugee caps increased, they’ve usually been due to presidential edicts, such as when Jimmy Carter doubled the number of refugees allowed in 1979, or when George H.W. Bush extended special protection to Chinese nationals involved in Tiananmen Square protests. Turns out Barack Obama’s move to increase Syrian refugees isn’t all that unprecedented.

Still, the debate today about whether to allow more or fewer Syrians into the U.S. does bear a resemblance to the past, some experts argue. With the attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, it’s perhaps little surprise that Cruz, to CNN, has called Syrian refugees “potential terrorists.” And back in 1939, “there were national security fears — that the Germans would pressure Jewish refugees who had family back in Germany to be spies’ agents and saboteurs,” says Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor at American University and author of FDR and the Jews.

So what to do this time around? The St. Louis’ return to Europe, some say, was used as so-called proof that the Jews were unwanted. “Ultimately it fit into the [Nazi] narrative of the final solution: If nobody wants them, we can finish them off and do what the world has always wanted,” says Krakow. Which means, perhaps, that a denial of entry for Muslim Syrians could be what ISIS then uses as propaganda to recruit more followers.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories