Rescuing FDR, abandoning the ‘St. Louis’

No amount of revisionism can change the fact that the voyage of the St. Louis remains, as former President Bill Clinton has called it, “one of the darkest chapters” in America’s history.

Statue of Liberty 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Statue of Liberty 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Seventy-five years ago this week, the 930 German Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis, having been turned away by Cuba and the United States, were forced to return to Europe. Within a year, the majority found themselves under Nazi rule, and within five years, nearly of those who were trapped in Hitler’s inferno were murdered. Incredibly, several new revisionist accounts of the infamous “Voyage of the Damned” are claiming that President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually rescued the passengers of the St. Louis. This fairy-tale version seeks to rescue FDR’s public image, while leaving the historical record in tatters.
According to divorce lawyer and author Robert Rosen (Jerusalem Post op-ed, June 17), “the passengers could not come to the United States as the draconian 1924 Immigrant Act forbade it.” The annual quota for German immigrants was indeed full in the spring of 1939, when the St. Louis arrived. (Ironically, that was the only year in President Roosevelt’s 12 years in office that he permitted the full quota to be used.) But that did not mean there was nothing the president could do. Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. proposed allowing the St. Louis refugees to stay temporarily as tourists in the Virgin Islands, a US territory where the quotas did not apply. In fact, the previous November, in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom, the governor and legislative assembly of the islands publicly offered to open their doors to Jews fleeing Hitler.
But the State Department objected on a technicality – it argued that the St. Louis passengers did not have valid return addresses, something required of tourists. President Roosevelt personally blocked suggestions to let refugees stay in the Virgin Islands, on the grounds that Nazi spies disguised as refugees might infiltrate the mainland US – even though no such spies were ever discovered among the Jewish refugees that entered the country.
As the St. Louis approached the coast of Florida, it was trailed by a US Coast Guard cutter. The role of the Coast Guard was widely reported at the time, including on the front page of The Washington Post and in a New York Times editorial. Yet historian Richard Breitman claimed last year that “There is no truth to the notion... that American officials ordered the Coast Guard to prevent any passengers from reaching American shores.”
St. Louis survivor Renate (Ronnie) Breslow, speaking at the national conference of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies earlier this month, recalled how, as a child, she was standing on the ship’s deck as the Coast Guard cutter drew near.
“I waved to the captain,” she said. “I was naive – I thought they were coming to help us.”
Does Prof. Breitman believe Mrs. Breslaw and the many other eyewitnesses were all hallucinating? Rosen, for his part, admits the Coast Guard was there, but claims “Morgenthau secretly sent the Coast Guard to follow the St. Louis to keep track of its whereabouts.”
Not so, according to the transcript of Morgenthau’s conversation with Coast Guard Commander Earl G.
Rose (found at the Roosevelt President Library in Hyde Park, New York).
It begins with Morgenthau saying, “I’ve seen in the papers that out of Fort Lauderdale you’ve been trailing the German ship, the St. Louis.” Rose replies: “Yes, sir.”
In other words, Morgenthau knew that the Coast Guard was already “trailing the ship” by the time he called, a fact that the commander confirmed.
As the St. Louis made its way back across the Atlantic, England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands each agreed to accept a portion of the refugees. Thus when the passengers disembarked in Europe, “they were all safe,” Rosen claimed in his Jerusalem Post op-ed. But when researchers from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interviewed all the surviving passengers (for a 2006 study), they found again and again that the supposedly “safe” passengers immediately began looking for ways to get out of Europe.
Passenger Manfred Fink, for example, who was sent to the Netherlands, repeatedly tried to get permits for himself, his wife, and their child to become construction workers in Chile. A passenger named Bela, who was sent to France, quickly left France for Hungary because, as he later explained, “After all, people knew the Nazis could invade France at any time.”
Eighty-seven of the passengers managed to escape Europe before the Nazis overran France, Belgium and Holland the following spring. Of those who could not get out, nearly half were murdered.
What motivates these attempts to revise the history of the St. Louis? Diehard FDR supporters such as Rosen and Breitman are understandably uncomfortable over scholars’ recent findings concerning President Roosevelt and the Jews. It must have been discouraging for them to learn that FDR privately claimed Jewish control of Poland’s economy was the cause of Polish anti-Semitism; helped bring about a quota on Jewish students admitted to Harvard; believed that German resentment of Jews was “understandable” in view of the presence of many Jews in German professions; and advocated “spreading the Jews thin all over the world” so they would not dominate any country.
But instead of acknowledging FDR’s troubling views, the say-it-ain’t-so crowd is trying to rescue Roosevelt’s public image by taking aim at the St. Louis. It won’t work. No amount of revisionism can change the fact that the voyage of the St. Louis remains, as former President Bill Clinton has called it, “one of the darkest chapters” in America’s history.
The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 15 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.