When we turned our back on asylum-seekers before — the voyage of the damned

I knew nothing then about immigration laws. I just knew right from wrong. Turning those Jewish people away was wrong.

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The St. Louis, seen here on Sept. 28, 1938, left Germany with 937 Jewish refugees aboard, but its entry to Cuba and Florida was denied.

The St. Louis, seen here on Sept. 28, 1938, left Germany with 937 Jewish refugees aboard, but its entry to Cuba and Florida was denied.


When I was a boy, my father told me about the voyage of the damned. It was a true story.

Back in the days of Adolf Hitler, but shortly before the World War, as the dictator was picking up the pace of his attacks against the Jews, Hitler decided to let about 1,000 of them leave by ship and travel to America.

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The point, my father said, was to prove to the world that his mistreatment of Jews was justified because everybody in the world hated them. No one, Hitler believed, would take them in.

And so, the ship, called the St. Louis, set sail containing mostly German-born Jews, but some from other European countries.

A deal had been worked out to allow the immigrants to land in Cuba and from there, in theory, most would make their way to the United States.

There was worldwide attention on the voyage because the humanitarian crisis in Germany was already well known. Hitler, seeking an enormous propaganda victory, was pleased to see all the publicity.

When the St. Louis landed in Cuba, the Jews were not allowed off the ship. When the ship turned north toward the shores of the United States…

“We took them in,” I remember saying, before my father could complete his story. “We saved them.”

“No,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “We turned them away.”

This could not be. My father had taught me that this country was the greatest in history. We took in people from all over the world and gave them a home. We always did the right thing.

The U.S. wouldn’t let the ship land. Coast guard vessels greeted the St. Louis off shore and made it turn away. The people on board saw the lights of Miami, one survivor would remember decades later, but that’s as close as they would ever get.

Rumor had it that the ship was full of German spies. Bad people, if you know what I mean. Criminal types. Jews.

The ship steamed back toward Europe with no particular destination in mind.

No one knew what would happen. Some of the people on board, realizing there was no hope, committed suicide.

England, France, Holland and Belgium agreed to each take some of the refugees. But many of those on that boat ended up dead in concentration camps by the end of the war.

I knew nothing back then about immigration laws, or the legal basis for seeking asylum. I just knew right from wrong. It seemed pretty damn clear to me. Turning those Jewish people away was wrong.

Maybe that story is the reason I hate watching us turn our backs on the people seeking help at our border. Maybe it’s my childlike sense of right and wrong. I still don’t give a damn about immigration laws or the technical definition of asylum when people are suffering and fleeing a place where they are beaten, murdered and treated like scum.

I know a lot of this is about racial hatred and politics. It’s easy to turn your back on people in trouble. It’s easy to dehumanize people who are different than you.

I often think of the Germans, Poles and others who hid Jews in their homes to protect them from the Nazis during World War II. They risked everything, including the lives of their own families. I always hoped I might have such courage.

That’s why I will use this space to shout, “We protect the defenseless in this country. We can help those who have no place else to live.” Even if it turns out not to be true. Even if we aren’t as good as I had hoped.

We have to try to be that country our fathers wanted us to be. For those who have died, I beg you not to remain silent.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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