Fred Zeidman, Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, publicly honored JDC on Yom Hashoah two weeks ago at the Days of Remembrance ceremony in our country’s Capitol Rotunda. In the presence of President Barack Obama, Zeidman praised JDC’s role in the 1939 story of the SS St. Louis. Irv and I feel enormous pride, as should we all, in this very meaningful recognition of JDC’s part in this series of historic events.
In an effort to flee Nazi Germany, 907 refugees sailed from Hamburg on May 15, 1939 on the SS St. Louis and reached Havana, Cuba on May 27, 1939. Arrangements for the voyage were organized independently by the Hamburg-American Line, without the involvement of any Jewish organizations. After the Cuban government refused to honor the refugees’ accredited landing documents, however, JDC became involved in negotiations with the Cuban government. These discussions unfortunately failed, as did efforts by JDC to find a haven for the desperate refugees elsewhere in the Americas. After 12 days of waiting, the St. Louis sadly sailed back to Hamburg with all of its passengers.
While the St. Louis was on the high seas, JDC, in close cooperation with other groups, negotiated with the governments of Holland, Belgium, England, and France to accept the refugees until homes in other countries could be found. JDC posted a cash guarantee of $500,000 ($500 per refugee) in order to make the arrangement feasible and to cover upkeep costs wherever necessary. The telegram from the appreciative passengers to Morris C. Troper, JDC’s Chairman, Executive Council 1938-1942 is in JDC’s archives and can be viewed here.
In England, JDC continued to support the last of the St. Louis refugees until 1948, but in France, Belgium, and Holland, the Nazi occupation reduced the channels of outside aid and ultimately brought those routes to a standstill. After the occupation of France, some St. Louis refugees escaped to Switzerland. But there were others who returned to Europe on that fateful ship who ultimately met a tragic end in concentration camps.
Fred Zeidman’s edited remarks are as follows:
Members of Congress, administration officials, ambassadors, liberators of the camps, righteous among the nations, friends of the Museum, and most especially, survivors of the Holocaust.
We are honored by your presence and grateful for your commitment to the cause of remembrance.
And Mr. President, it is our profound privilege to have you among us. As someone who has demonstrated a lifetime commitment to social justice, your presence is especially meaningful, and we welcome you today.
We often say that remembrance is not about the past. It is also about our world today. And in these days of remembrance, we recall that the responsibility for bringing the lessons of memory to bear in our world resides with each of us.
What each of us does, this year’s theme declares, makes a difference. . . .
. . . .and what is within our power is also our responsibility. What we do matters.
Therein lies a story—a story of heroism of the truest sort.
It began on an infamous ship called the St. Louis, whose Jewish passengers fled Nazi Germany 70 years ago in May 1939, seeking safety in the United States by way of Cuba. Most of you know the shameful result: first Cuba, then our country, turned them away.
The story might have ended there…because people concluded they could not make a difference…that the forces involved were too powerful, the number of individuals too vast, the dangers too distant.
But two individuals, Lawrence Berenson and Morris Troper, who worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, felt otherwise. They knew that returning these passengers to Hitler’s Germany would doom them. So they aggressively negotiated with Cuba, then the US, and when all that proved futile, arranged for the passengers to be accepted in what were then four safe European countries.
The following year, the continent was consumed by war, but the JDC clung to the belief that they could still make a difference for the passengers on the St. Louis.
They tracked them one by one as they spread across Europe. They allocated what were then enormous funds. They placed some children in safe homes. They helped some parents escape. Of course, they did not save them all. But they saved some. By the scale of the Holocaust, one might say they saved “few.” But the ethic these individuals lived by is the same ethic we celebrate today. What you do matters.
In that lesson there is an inspiration—and a warning.
The inspiration is the knowledge, the certainty, that what we do makes a difference.
The warning is this: the Holocaust was not merely a massive event on a massive scale. Six million Jews, each one an individual human being, were murdered by other individual human beings. Some individual human beings tried to help them. Most did not.
And when we—individual human beings—look away and surrender to futility, we are like the bystanders of this dark period, and become complicit in the crime. Inaction is as consequential as action.
Therefore, today, we recall individuals like Lawrence Berenson and Morris Troper whose actions mattered. And we honor others who rescued as well. And we pay tribute to those who helped defeat Nazi tyranny as we welcomed the flags of the liberating divisions of the United States army.
JDC Board member Susie Stern attended this commemoration and shared Mr. Zeidman’s remarks with us. As we learn over and over again, Board members are often filled with enormous pride at what our organization accomplishes and, equally important, they are also our finest advocates. JDC’s archives hold a letter from Bernard Horwich, a past JDC lay leader from Chicago, written on June 24, 1939, to James N. Rosenberg, JDC’s Board Chairman, and Joseph C. Hyman, JDC’s Executive Vice Chairman, in which he expressed very moving appreciation for what we were able to do for the passengers of the St. Louis. That remarkable letter can be seen here. And he concludes with a paragraph to which many of you can relate: “. . . . I shall make your wonderful work known by mail and otherwise to as many of my friends and acquaintances as possible.”
It is important that we keep telling the JDC story, as so many of you do, not only for the sake of pride in our past—but for what the legacy of those past achievements can provide for the future of Jewish people and others worldwide.