By D. Allan Kerr
In 1939 more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard a German ocean liner were denied entry into the United States. They hoped to escape persecution from Adolf Hitler in their native land.
The refugees were also rejected by Cuba and Canada. Eventually they were accepted into European nations, as well as the United Kingdom. However, Nazi Germany then proceeded to invade its European neighbors.
So, many of the former passengers of the MS St. Louis wound up back in the hands of those they had sought to flee. Historians believe up to a quarter of those passengers perished in Nazi death camps.
It’s a story certain self-righteous citizens might want to remember when they applaud the deportation of refugees from 21st-century America.
Among the hundreds of haunting exhibits at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the story of the St. Louis is one in particular which has stayed with me. Maybe it’s because I can imagine these refugees tortured by the memory of having been so close to U.S. soil – and freedom – even as they suffered the absolute hell of Nazi death camps. And if America had opened the door, they could have survived.
There was a strong “America First” sentiment in the states at the time. People wanted to avoid the troubles brewing in Europe and Asia – never stopping to realize the Nazis and the Japanese could then attack America along both coastlines once they’d conquered the rest of the world.
Those who had survived the Great Depression were wary of allowing into the country Jews who would compete for jobs already scarce in number.
Stated bluntly, if your name isn’t Joseph Soaring Eagle or something along those lines, I don’t want to hear you complain about immigrants who want to come to America.
As has been stated before by far more eloquent pens, we are a mongrel nation, a cauldron of many cultures. That’s our strength. Those clamoring to slam the door shut now are akin to shipwreck survivors hauling up lifelines once they’re safely on deck – even as others are still floundering in the sea.
Many of these pundits haughtily emphasize how their ancestors came to America legally – ignoring that back in the day this basically meant signing your name once you arrived at Ellis Island. They forget the animosity once directed against their own Irish and Italian and German forebears.
Prior to her recent TV shouting match with Whoopi Goldberg, I only knew Judge Jeanine Pirro as host of some Fox News show. I’ve never seen the show, or Whoopi’s show. But according to transcripts released after the media hoopla around their showdown, Pirro at one point said:
“You know what’s horrible? When people who shouldn’t be here end up murdering the children of American citizens.”
Personally, I think it’s horrible when anyone murders children from any country. I don’t imagine parents of murdered kids feel any comfort in knowing the killer is a U.S. citizen.
But to me this sounds a lot like the whole “immigrants will rape and kill us if we let them into our country” mantra advanced by Donald Trump since he decided to run for president. This rhetoric implies no one should be allowed into America because some are bad people. It’s the age-old tactic of blaming “the other” for things going bad in our own lives.
Then I read Pirro is the daughter of first-generation Lebanese-Americans. Are you kidding me? I have no doubt a lot of those applauding her stance would include refugees from Lebanon on their Keep Out list because one of the 9/11 hijackers was Lebanese.
In that vein, Italians in the last century shouldn’t have been allowed into the U.S. because doing so led to the existence of the murderous American Mafia.
Trump’s mother, grandfather and two of his wives all immigrated from other countries, but of course they had the advantage of being white. He’s made no secret of his preference for white immigrants – “more people from places like Norway” – while slandering Mexicans, Muslims and people from “shithole countries.”
A lot of these people fleeing to America are indeed escaping from “shithole countries” where they face violence, persecution and extreme poverty. They come here because they’ve always heard America is the land of freedom and opportunity – just as our ancestors did.
Yes, there are people who want to do America harm, as there has always been. But wouldn’t it make sense in this age of advanced technology to channel funds into programs to weed out potential terrorists, rather than building a symbolic but comparatively ineffective $25 billion wall?
Oh yeah, I forgot – Mexico’s paying for that wall.
In the meantime, some of the self-righteous among us might want to review our own family histories before we yank lifelines beyond the reach of others chasing the same dream.
I’m utterly convinced most Americans, knowing what we know now, would have offered refuge to the doomed passengers of the MS St. Louis almost 80 years ago.
D. Allan Kerr’s family came from Scotland, Canada and Germany – and he’s very happy they did.
(July 29, 2018)
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