The St. Louis and the Two Faces of America

The St. Louis and the Two Faces of America

German Jewish refugees, looking through portholes aboard the MS St Louis on arrival at Antwerp, after they were turned away from the United States and had to return to Europe. June 17, 1939.

( Gerry Cranham/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In a June 6 op-ed for Religion News Service—the same day as more than 20 nationwide St. Louis Vigils commemorating the day the ship was turned back to Europe—HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield tells the story of the fateful journey as seen through the eyes of one of its 937 passengers:

Ilse Marcus approached American shores twice.

The first time was in June 1939, on the deck of the St. Louis. She was traveling with her husband, brother, mother, and father, and as they neared America, they were drawn by the lights of Miami — to them, a sign of freedom and safety.

The second time Ilse saw the shore of America was after the war. This time, she was alone.

Between those two sightings, the Nazis deported Ilse’s father to Majdanek, Poland, where he perished. Ilse was sent to Auschwitz, as were her husband, mother and brother. Her loved ones were murdered in the gas chamber. Ilse survived.

“On June 6, 1939 — 78 years ago this week — the U.S. turned the ship away, knowing it was returning over 900 Jews to Nazi Germany,” Hetfield writes.

To commemorate the anniversary, communities from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Tucson, Arizona are organizing vigils to recall the tragedy of the St. Louis and to demand that we do better for today’s refugees.

“When developing policy for the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, we should always be asking one question: Would this have saved the people on the St. Louis?” Hetfield writes.

Click here to read the full op-ed on Religion News Service.

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