"Complicit": FDR's Refusal to Save the Jews on the MS St. Louis
"Complicit": FDR's Refusal to Save the Jews on the MS St. Louis

The more we learn about the Holocaust, even as it recedes into the “mists of time,” the more my blood boils, the closer I come to tears.

Last night, I traveled far out into Syrian-Jewish Brooklyn, where there are not only Syrian shuls but Egyptian, Lebanese, and Iraqi shuls as well—sometimes two or three on a single block. Many of the homes are quite grand and must resemble the kind of neo-European villas that once existed in certain Jewish neighborhoods in the Arab Middle East, a region whose ancient history is, even as I write, being physically destroyed; yes, even Nineveh, even Avraham’s Ur Casdim. (Another loss to those “misty times.”)

Sharay Shalom, a Syrian shul in Brooklyn, together with The Jewish Voice, was hosting an evening to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sol Cohen, who had co-ordinated the evening, introduced Rabbi Avraham Ben-Hamou. The Rabbi shared a few words of Torah. He reminded us that at the moment Aharon’s sons died, he was silent. And when Yakov’s beloved Rahel died in childbirth (and, I might add, his only daughter Dina was kidnapped), he said nothing. “There is silence in the immediacy of tragedy, but we are commanded to memorialize and mourn later on.”

Retired lawyer and filmmaker Robert Krakow was screening his film Complicit, which is about America’s and FDR’s refusal, in 1939, to allow the Jewish passengers on the German ship, the MS St. Louis, to enter the country. More than 900 Jews were on board the luxury liner that was sent back to the European death camps.

Only 278 would survive the Holocaust. And two of them were there last night: Eva Weiner and Judith Steel.  

They say that these survivors, this precious remnant, are dying off, yet these two women were remarkably robust, alert, fashionably dressed, vital. They reminded me of the extraordinary film Woman in Gold, in which the great actress Helen Mirren plays Maria Altman, a woman who escaped the European Holocaust, and whose family owned many Gustav Klimt paintings—all expropriated by Austrian Nazis and kept thereafter by the Austrian government.

The MS St. Louis left Hamburg in 1939 bound for Cuba. The passengers had bought visas to enter Cuba but the country was closed to all but 28 of them. The consul who had issued visas had been dismissed and was, perhaps, now in disfavor. Jewish-Cuban relatives bobbed desperately in small boats on the water trying to see, speak to, or at least, rescue the children. They were not allowed to do so.

The kind German Captain was not a Nazi. He sailed north to southern Florida. And then—there they were, in plain sight of the lights and palm trees of Miami. But here they were surrounded by menacing Coast Guard cutters which prevented the ship from docking and any passenger from jumping ship and trying to swim to shore.

According to Robert Krakow, FDR’s “political ambitions won out over humanitarian need.” Roosevelt wanted to “win a third election.” He therefore decided that he had to convince American voters that he was strongly “isolationist and anti-immigration.” He was enabled in this undertaking by his anti-Semitic advisors, including diplomats such as Joseph Kennedy, FDR’s Ambassador to the UK, who hobnobbed with his Nazi German counterpart and conveyed that many Americans shared Germany’s anti-Semitism.

FDR and his administration turned their backs on a series of desperate Jewish pleas for asylum. Bureaucrats were instructed to obfuscate and delay all Jewish applicants in every way; they certainly did so. According to Krakow, the Virgin Islands stood ready to accept the passengers. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions threw up every conceivable roadblock. The “law only allowed them to accept tourists;” what was the return address of these refugees? Dachau?

According to Krakow, Hitler then understood that the Jews were disposable, that no one would rescue or fight for these “criminals.”
The decision to turn back the MS St. Louis gave Hitler an important propaganda victory. In the film, Hitler says: “I will send the Jews away on luxury liners [which the MS St. Louis was] and whoever wants them can take them.” America did not take them. According to Krakow, Hitler then understood that the Jews were disposable, that no one would rescue or fight for these “criminals.”

Neither Cuba nor America, for which the passengers were on the quota list, would allow them entry. They returned to Antwerp; some were accepted by the UK, France, Belgium, and Holland; however, the majority were murdered in the Holocaust.

Why is it that I take such small comfort in the amazing but little known fact that finally, 73 years later, the American State Department formally apologized to the survivors of the MS St. Louis? Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said: “To the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the President and Secretary of State [both non-present], I am honored to say what we should have said so long ago, welcome… Our government did not live up to its ideals. We were wrong.”

For Burns, the “takeaway” is a rather universalist one. He says: “Your story challenges us to act faster, do more and do better—for all people, everywhere.”

I seem to share the Viennese-born Jewish-American Maria Altman’s view of government officials, both during the Nazi era and long afterwards. In her case, she fought to have her aunt Dora Bloch-Bauer’s painting, known as Woman in Gold, returned to her and she won an unprecedented legal decision in the United States. The movie is very moving, quite powerful, a real gut-wrencher and tear-jerker and thus, I am not at all surprised that many critics savaged it.

The film is entirely from the point of view of the victims who were suddenly evicted from their cultured and sublimely assimilated lives; all at once, they were disenfranchised, publically cursed, humiliated, beaten, impoverished, and murdered. 

People, including film critics, are simply not used to seeing Jews as victims. Jews have too much; they are “privileged.”

Thus, a true story with real Nazi villains (we don’t like them), only a handful of good Gentiles, and utterly innocent Jews must grate, gall, puzzle and enrage.

I loved this film and urge everyone to see it.