Six months after Kristallnacht, the MS St. Louis departed from Hamburg, Germany with 937 passengers on board. Most of the passengers were Jewish refugees seeking to flee the growing tide of violence from the National Socialists. Every passenger had obtained landing certificates for Cuba, where they believed they would wait on approval for their U.S. visas.
Upon arrival at Cuba, only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. All had the proper paperwork, but were refused entry due to rising anti-Semitism among the Cuban populace and government. Nazi agents had been using propaganda in Cuba, which had proven effective.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee tried to negotiate with Cuba to allow the Jews who had proper paperwork in hand to stay. Fear of being denied entry resulted in one man slashing his wrists and jumped overboard. He was taken to a Cuban hospital and permitted to remain on Cuban soil.
The ship set sail for Florida in the hopes of the United States taking the refugees. It was then President Roosevelt’s State Department refused entry for a single Jew. U.S. Coast Guard ships was ordered by the Administration to shadow the MS St. Louis to ensure the ship could not dock and not one passenger would be able to jump without being noticed.
The State Department to the refugees they had wait their turns, which would take several years. The MS St. Louis made way for Canada in hopes of finding someone to take them and were shadowed by the Coast Guard the entire time. They were not allowed to resupply at any port and no ship was sent to them with supplies.
There has never been a time when the Coast Guard answered to the State Department and would not have gotten orders from them. They both answered to the Administration and nothing was done without then President Roosevelt’s orders. He was the one to make certain not a single Jewish refugee entered the United States.
The Canadian government was their last hope, but turned away the same as the United States and Cuba had done. With no means to resupply, the ship had no choice other than to return to Europe with 907 Jews still on board, where Belgium did agree to take them.
Of the 907 who were refused entry by Roosevelt, 255 died during the war. Most of those deaths were at concentration camps where they joined millions of other Jews. 255 deaths could have been prevented had Roosevelt been something other than an anti-Semite.
Had it been just those 907 who were refused entry, perhaps Roosevelt could have gotten a pass, but they were a small part of what had been happening. As Freda Kirchwey, staunch New Dealer, Roosevelt supporter and editor in chief of The Nation put it in early 1943, “We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted just one cautious hand, encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”
In November of 2015, the Smithsonian Magazine released an article detailing some of what happened. “In late 1938, American consulates were flooded with 125,000 applicants for visas, many coming from Germany and the annexed territories of Austria. But national quotas for German and Austrian immigrants had been set firmly at 27,000.” There was no consideration for Jews at all and did not matter how many had already died.
According to the same article:
Immigration restrictions actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened. Wartime measures demanded special scrutiny of anyone with relatives in Nazi territories—even relatives in concentration camps. At a press conference, President Roosevelt repeated the unproven claims from his advisers that some Jewish refugees had been coerced to spy for the Nazis. “Not all of them are voluntary spies,” Roosevelt said. “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
Only an anti-Semite would take the steps Roosevelt did to prevent Jews from entering the United States. Even after the United States entered the war, the policy remained unchanged. It was no secret what was happening to the Jews under the National Socialists brutal regime and any number of things could have been done to free them before the camps were liberated.
After his death, President Truman was sworn in and left with Roosevelt’s cabinet. When Israel became a nation, his entire cabinet threatened to resign if he supported the Jewish nation. Truman ignored them and welcomed them to the world of nations.
In May of 2008, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs released an article written by Ambassador Richard Holbrook, who was directly involved in what was happening at the White House. “From the beginning, I had also supported the creation of the Jewish state, even though this put me in opposition to an entire generation of senior foreign policy makers whom I admired and numbered among my friends, because I considered such action a historical and strategic necessity… I knew Marshall and Lovett would argue that we should continue to support trusteeship, and delay in recognizing the new state – but by “delay” I was convinced that State in fact meant “deny”.”
The entire generation referred to were handpicked by Roosevelt and shared the same anti-Semitic views. Truman stood firm against them and was willing to risk whatever it took to welcome Israel to the world. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, who proved to be a friend to the Jewish people.
Roosevelt’s action and inaction cost countless Jewish lives and should never be forgotten.