There are are many sad tales in American history, times where we look back with current eyes on past events and wonder, "How could they have done such a thing?" Think of the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott case, Jim Crow laws, the Japanese detention camps of WWII. These are only the tip of the iceberg in the cast of characters entitled, "Really, Really Bad Decisions of Which We Should Be Ashamed."
There is another shameful case, though much less known, of which current events have reminded me. In May of 1939 a ship, the St. Louis, set sail from Germany full of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Kristallnacht had occurred 7 months earlier and the handwriting was on the wall: it was not safe to be Jewish and live in Germany. But gaining access to other countries was not easy for Jewish immigrants. From complications inflicted by the Great Depression to straight out antisemitism, procuring an entrance visa to anywhere outside of Germany was a difficult feat.
The passengers sailing on the St. Louis had obtained papers for Cuba, but somewhere between when they received them and when the ship was off the Cuban coast, the Cuban government decided to deny them entrance. And this is the moment in the story where America's shame begins.
The American press had covered the fate of the St. Louis with great intensity. They wrote sympathetically of the plight of the passengers, putting the decision of Cuba in a bad light. But that is where the sympathy ended. In words.
For while they condemned the Cuban decision, they did not demand for the US to open her arms and let the passengers in.
There was not a great out cry in the American press to admit the Jewish refugees to the US. Maybe Cuba was wrong to deny them access, but that was not our problem, was it? The St. Louis sailed up the Atlantic coast of the US, within site of city lights. And in spite of petitions from American Jewish groups, in spite of knowledge that these passengers faced certain doom at home, in spite of the need for action that basic morality screamed out for, the ship was denied entrance and sent back to Europe.
After all, the US government mused, were there not other potential immigrants on waiting lists ? Would it be right to let these 910 souls in before the others? So the ship sailed back to hatred, destruction, and everything the passengers had tried to flee.
So what has reminded me of this dark page of history?
The Romeike family fled Germany in 2008 to find shelter in the US so they could have the right to homeschool their children. The government schools of Germany were teaching their children exactly opposite of what they believed and both public and private schools are REQUIRED in Germany to teach the same thing. Seeing no other option, the Romeikes began homeschooling their children. But their own government imposed severe fines and threatened the removal of their children.
So they came here. To freedom. Or so they thought.
The current administration, though on one hand pushing for naturalization of large numbers of people who have entered the US illegally, has on the other hand actively pursued the deportation of this one family with a determination that is mind boggling.
Why is the government so determined to send a family back when they know the children will be taken away? Why are they on such a quest to deport them, bringing their case back to court even after they had been granted asylum? Are they afraid of the mass immigration of homeschoolers from around the world? Really? If the Romeikes had illegally entered the US across the Mexican border would they have had a better chance of staying here?
I do not want to trivialize the fate of the 910 passengers of the St. Louis. The inaction of the US in saving those souls is incomprehensible. The inaction of the US government in saving millions of Jews, when they they knew what was happening, is indefensible and much too long of a subject to cover here.
But the unwillingness of our government to grant asylum to this one family of 8, in spite of the knowledge of their fate when they return, has remind me of the St. Louis.
There is a reason people flee to the US. Freedom. Opportunity. Hope.
A young Jewish woman, Emma Lazarus, wrote these memorable words:
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Let us not stand by silent as a family faces it's demise. Let us not be silent at the crossroads of this decision, a decision to grant freedom to a family with no other option.
May we never be silent again.