Obama, on The Eve of Destruction Meet Me in St. Louis

A man said ‘love each other’ but we changed to ‘war each other’. ” –Mario MorenoCantinflas‘, as His Excellency the Ambassador of Los Cocos, in Su excelencia (1967)

The principle of separation of powers, is essential within the less unjust political system of what is called “Western democracy“; french philosophers of the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) reasoned it very well and made it very clear: There must be independence between the three powers and not an iron party discipline or hierarchy indestructible or idolatrous cult to ‘a tribe leader’. It seems that Obama has chosen not to play John Wayne as the resolute, proud man of principle whose code of honor is as solid as his skill with a six-gun in John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Instead, asking Congress for authorization to retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons, he has taken the role of James Stewart character whose mission is to see that justice is done through the more civilized rule of law.

But back in history, not always politicians have promoted democracy as a means to achieve stability, prosperity for the entire world and respect for human rights. So, by learning the lessons of history, understanding the implications of the actions of others and delving into the past, we can better understand our present.

Despite the WWII in Europe ended with the invasion of Germany by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, culminating in the capture of Berlin by Soviet and Polish troops and the subsequent Nazi Germany unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, not always politicians and governments from those allies countries have behaved in favor of human living or freedom (like the repressive communist regime in the Soviet Union after the war). For dozens of years now, the governments with their political agendas have been sliding towards hypocrisy, double standards and appeasement.

One example is the tragic story of the Jewish passengers aboard the MS Saint Louis seeking asylum from Nazi persecution just before World War II. Turned away thrice, the ship had no choice but to journey towards an uncertain fate in Europe. The refusal to accept the Jews by the American, Canadian and Cuban governments, sent a clear message to the Adolf Hitler and his Nazi mates: The Jewish people were totally expendable. Then, the Nazis were able to take advantage of this situation; the German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry exploited that unwillingness of foreign nations to admit Jewish refugees in order to justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish goals and policies both domestically in Germany and in the world at large.

After Kristallnacht (literally the “Night of Crystal,” more commonly known as the “Night of Broken Glass“) in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that it was time to leave. Many passengers on board the MS Saint Louis had left family members behind while some were going to meet relatives that had traveled earlier abroad. On this ship was the world: There were children, the elderly, young men and women, brides and grooms, teenaged romances: It became a metaphor for life!

On Saturday, May 13, 1939, the passengers boarded. Women and men. Young and old. Each person had their own story of persecution. The St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg into the Atlantic Ocean carrying 936 Jewish refugees (mainly German). The journey started as a joyous affair; children were given swimming lessons in the on-deck pool, and even there were dances and improvised concerts; like a world of tranquility where nothing can threaten the homely complacency. “The day was bright, The air was sweet, The smell of honeysuckle almost knocked you off your feet…” It is said in Vincente Minnelli‘s classic movie Meet me in St.Louis (1944); an unashamed nostalgia for an idealized America dating back to an age of innocence before the two World Wars.

However, on the ship’s arrival in Cuba, the passengers were refused either tourist entry (which in theory was valid for their tourist visas) or political asylum (which was not the stated purpose for which the tourist visas had been issued) by the Cuban government under Federico Laredo Brú. Within two days, all the countries of Latin America had rejected entreaties to allow the Jews to land, and on June 2, the St. Louis was forced to leave Havana harbor. This prompted a near mutiny. Two people attempted suicide and dozens more threatened to do the same. The passengers could not feel anything but anxiety and distress. Their last hope was Canada or the United States

More than money, corruption and internal power struggles were at work in Cuba. Like the United States and the Americas in general, Cuba struggled with the Great Depression, so, many people resented the relatively large number of refugees because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs available. In those countries the hostility towards immigrants fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia. Furthermore, both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements, hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations claiming that incoming Jews to the Americas were communists.

On 4 June 1939, the St. Louis was also refused permission to unload on orders of President Roosevelt as the ship waited in the Caribbean Sea between Florida and Cuba. Not bothering to reply to an appeal, they sent a gunboat to shadow the ship as it made its way north. A survivor passenger recalled: “We sent a plea to Mrs. Roosevelt to allow only the children to enter the US, but it came to dead ears… We had to return to Europe knowing fully well what it meant.” Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s commented to his Secretary of State at that time: “I don’t want them in the Western Hemisphere. They have to leave.” But the United States government did not only refused their entry, they even fired a warning shot to keep them away from Florida’s shores.

The captain of the ship, Gustav Schroeder (a non-Jewish German who went to great lengths to ensure dignified treatment for his passengers) began to fear mass suicides on board. Mutiny was also a possibility. With the help of the passenger committee “suicide patrols” were created to patrol at night.

When they reached Canadian waters, the Prime Minister felt that this was not a “Canadian problem“. Then, the director of the Immigration Branch went further: “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands Jewish people who want to leave Europe: The line must be drawn somewhere.”

So, when the Nazis heard those comments, came to know the behavior from foreign governments and saw that Jews were strictly denied disembarking on foreign nations, it became obvious to them, for their pleasure, that never no country would be willing to absorb or defend Jews. The Nazis understood that nobody would bother at all what they might do with them.

There is a lesser known story behind the tragic fate of the ship. In the beginning, the captain had given to his 231 member crew stern warnings that Jews passengers were to be treated just like any others. But there was one crew member who was disgusted by this policy and was ready to make trouble, his name: Otto Schiendick. Not only was Schiendick ready to make trouble and was constantly trying, he was a courier for the Abwehr (German Secret Police). On this trip, Schiendick was to pick up secret documents about the U.S. military from a man named Robert Hoffman in Cuba. This mission was code-named “Operation Sunshine“. Schiendick managed to pick up the documents and re-board the St. Louis. So then, after completed his secret-mission, Schiendick became a major supported for a push to head back to Germany with no stop in America for fear of being caught with the secret documents. The captain Schroeder, initially got shocked that the Abwehr was connected to his ship, but he had to acquiesce.

The passengers did not return immediately to Germany. Jewish organizations negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers. But while some were saved in different countries and survived the war, many were trapped when Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe. Approximately one-third of the men, women and children of the St. Louis perished in concentration camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis, but most of them were murdered in the killing centers of Sóbibor and Auschwitz. Gone was those moments of hope and happiness that they had expressed at the beginning of the trip when they danced aboard the boat facing the vast blue sea while were lightly hit in the face by the gently cool breeze of the ocean.

As Barry McGuire sings: “Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?” What really happened on that ship was the microcosm of the macrocosm of what was the Shoah. When we understand and learn from the past, we are less likely to repeat mistakes or at least recognize the repetitious mistakes of others, then, we would be able to avoid the Eve of Destruction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdeYfV4TD1U

Jews Passengers with happy mood aboard the “St. Louis” in May 1939. They thought that American countries would welcome them. How wrong they were. They were forced to return to Europe after Cuba, the US and Canada denied them refuge with the tragic consequence that many of them eventually died in Nazi death camps. Photo courtesy: USHMM.


About the Author
Alfredo de Braganza is an award-winning independent filmmaker & chocolate-coated sufganiyah lover from Spain currently living in India. His documentary "Smoking Babas" was selected for the Madrid International Film Festival and his film "Maayan The Fisherman" for Best Narrative Film at the Florida International Film Festival. He is the first Spanish person to make a feature film in India, on celluloid and native language. His documentary "Boxing Babylon" won Best Documentary Awards at the 2013-Norway Film Festival and New Delhi International Sports Film Festival. He can be contacted at: alfredodebraganza@gmail.com www.alfredodebraganza.com
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