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Haunting Twitter Account Shares the Fates of the Refugees of the St. Louis

In 1939, Cuba and the United States turned back a ship full of German Jews, 254 of whom were later killed during the Holocaust

German-Jewish refugees are shown at the rail of the German Liner St. Louis in Havana Cuba on June 1, 1939. (AP Photo)
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In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, ceremonies remembering and mourning the victims of Hitler’s “final solution” are happening around the world, like in Auschwitz-Buchenwald, where survivors, political leaders and members of Poland’s Jewish community gathered to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the camp's liberation by Soviet soldiers. But one of the most sobering remembrances is taking place on Twitter. Software engineer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz are using the medium to share the manifest of the MS St. Louis, a passenger ship full of German Jewish refugees turned away by Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe in 1939, a time when officials were aware of what sending Jews back to Europe meant. Many of the passengers were later murdered during the Holocaust.

The @Stl_Manifest's bio states, "On Holocaust Remembrance Day #WeRemember the victims of Nazism turned away at the doorstep of America in 1939. #RefugeesWelcome."

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the St. Louis departed Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, bound for Havana, Cuba. The majority of the 937 passengers aboard had applied for visas to enter the United States and hoped to remain on the Caribbean island until they got the green light to enter the U.S. However, most passengers were not aware that the situation in Cuba had changed just a week before their voyage. President Federico Laredo Brú had issued a decree rescinding all recently issued landing certificates, and entry into the country now required authorizations from two state agencies and a $500 bond.

Anti-refugee fervor and anti-Semitism had been rising in Cuba, the museum writes—just days before the ship had set sail, an anti-Semitic rally there was broadcast on the radio and drew 40,000 protestors. One speaker urged Cubans to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.”

When the St. Louis arrived in Havana, only 28 passengers had the correct papers to disembark. One more person would be allowed off after attempting suicide. Then on June 2, the ship was ordered out of Cuban waters. It slowly sailed toward Miami, hoping that the U.S. would relax its immigration quotas and allow them entry to the country. Dara Lind at Vox reports the ship circled in Miami Harbor, tailed by Coast Guard boats, hoping that negotiations by Jewish groups would eventually allow them to dock in Miami or enter Cuba. But those negotiations fell apart.

The State Department sent a telegram to the ship stating: “[Passengers must] await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

With no further progress to be made, the ship sailed back to Europe. Four European nations, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, did agree to take the refugees when the ship returned to the continent. However, as the Nazis invaded western Europe over the following years, 532 of the former passengers found themselves in German-controlled territory. In the end, 254 were killed during the war and Holocaust.

The St. Louis Manifest Twitter feed is like a slow dirge, steadily announcing the names of the St. Louis passengers who were killed, following a simple format: “My name is Fritz Lichtenstein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at The Netherlands.” The tweets include pictures of the passengers if they are available.

In 2012, the U.S. State Department held a ceremony to officially apologize for turning away the refugee ship.

“In terms of the St. Louis, 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. And I have accepted the fact that the government of 1939 was not the government of 1946 when I arrived here,” said Eva Wiener, during the ceremony. She had been 2 years old when the St. Louis was turned away. “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.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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