Hundreds Hold Vigils Across U.S. for MS St. Louis Passengers Killed in the Holocaust

Vigils held to emphasize the importance of aiding refugees and to not repeat Washington’s mistake when it rejected the ship’s passengers 78 years ago

In this June 17, 1939 file photo, German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba and the United States.

WASHINGTON - Hundreds of people participated in a number of vigils across the United States on Tuesday commemorating the voyage of the German ship MS St. Louis, which was turned away by the U.S. in 1939, leading to the death of many of its Jewish passengers during the Holocaust. 

The vigils were organized by HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish-American group that has been working to help refugees since the late 19th century. The message behind the vigils, one of which took place on Washington's Capitol Hill, was to emphasize the importance of aiding refugees and to not repeat Washington’s mistake when it rejected the ship’s passengers 78 years ago. 

The president of HIAS, Mark Hetfield, told Haaretz that he believes the story of the German ship, which carried more than 900 Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany and was rejected by Cuba and the U.S., is relevant to the current global discussion on immigration. "If you look at the reasons why the St. Louis was turned down, many of them sound like what people who are against taking in refugees are saying today," he said. 

At the time, fear-mongering politicians warned that the Jews aboard the ship could be communists or that Nazi spies could have been installed among them. Eventually, the ship returned to Europe and more than 250 of its passengers died in the Holocaust. "When we discuss the current refugee crisis, we need to keep this story in our minds," Hetfield said. "We should ask ourselves what our arguments would have sounded like if we were discussing the Jews aboard the St. Louis." 

A number of Democratic members of Congress showed up at the vigil on Capitol Hill to express their support for allowing refugees who undergo security vetting to enter the United States, and to oppose the Trump administration's steps to hurt the refugee program and limit immigration based on religion. Referring to America’s rejection of the St. Louis, Rep. Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois, said that "we must carry the lessons of this dark moment in our history forward, committing to never again allow the U.S. to turn its back on refugees." 

The organizers chose to hold the vigil on June 6th because that was the day on which the St. Louis was turned away 78 years ago and began making its way back to Europe. "It should be noted that all of this took place months after Kristallnacht," Mark Hetfield said. "No one could argue that they didn't know what these people were escaping from." Similar vigils were held in New York City, and in more than 20 communities across the country.