FDR and the Voyage of the Damned: A New Eyewitness

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

Seventy years ago this week, the passengers aboard the German Jewish refugee ship ‘St. Louis’ disembarked back in Europe, ending an ill-fated flight from Hitler which they mistakenly believed would bring them to safety in Cuba or the United States. Now a document has emerged that sheds new light on the refusal of the Roosevelt administration to open America’s doors to the St. Louis.

The St. Louis set sail from Nazi Germany on May 13, 1939, with 937 passengers, and reached Havana two weeks later. Cuba’s leaders, sensitive to domestic antisemitism and anti-immigration sentiment, refused to recognize the refugees’ Cuban entry visas. The “saddest ship afloat” (as the New York Times called it) sailed north and hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping that the president who was known as a humanitarian and a champion of ‘the little guy’ would take pity on them.

For three days, the refugees gazed longingly at the lights of Miami. The passengers sent a telegram to the White House, pleading for mercy and emphasizing that “more than 400 [of the refugees] are women and children.” The reply came in the form of a Coast Guard cutter, dispatched to the scene to make sure the St. Louis did not approach America’s shore.

FDR’s silence with regard to the St. Louis has long intrigued historians. On the one hand, Roosevelt is well known for his tendency to refrain from committing his private thoughts to writing. On the other hand, it is remarkable that an episode which made the front page of America’s major newspapers for nearly a week, and which raised important questions about U.S. policies, did not elicit any comment from the pr esident. A newly-discovered document now offers a rare insider’s account of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the St. Louis.

The document was unearthed by Dr. Bat-Ami Zucker, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel, who has written extensively on America’s response to the Holocaust. Dr. Zucker’s latest book is “Cecilia Razovsky and the American Jewish Women’s Rescue Operations in the Second World War II” (published by Vallentine Mitchell). Razovsky, a refugee advocate and senior official of the National Council of Jewish Women, went to Havana in May 1939 and took part in high-level discussions with Cuban and U.S. officials in an attempt to resolve the St. Louis crisis. In Razovsky’s papers, Dr. Zucker discovered an unpublished memoir about the St. Louis episode, which Razovsky wrote after the war.

Razovsky described how, when the Cuban authorities refused to yield, she met with diplomats from “other South American countries” in the hope they would take at least some of the St. Louis refugees, but to no avail. Then she added: “We again at that time tried to get permission from Secretary of State Hull to take them but our State Dept. was unsympathetic and Franklin Delano was apathetic, although Eleanor did everything in her power to change their attitude.”

Razovsky’s assessment of Hull’s lack of sympathy, FDR’s apathy, and the First Lady’s unsuccessful intervention, seems to have been based on her direct contacts with official Washington. During the 1930s and 1940s, Razovsky met repeatedly with senior U.S. officials, including cabinet members, to lobby for the rescue of Jewish refugees. She was one of the best-positioned eyewitnesses to the response of the Roosevelt administration to t he plight of20the Jews.

FDR could have issued an executive order placing the St. Louis refugees in a temporary detention center until it was safe for them to return to Germany. Or could he have put meaningful pressure on the British to let the passengers go to Mandatory Palestine. Or he could have leaned on America’s Latin American allies to take in the refugees. Instead, he was, as Razovsky put it, “apathetic” –he turned away, in effect forcing the St. Louis to return to Europe. The same apathy would characterize Roosevelt’s response to the Nazi mass murder of the Jews in the years to follow.

Cecilia Razovsky’s brief but revealing memoir, emerging at long last from the archives where it lay unseen for decades, reminds us all of the painful truth about FDR and the tragedy that unfolded seventy years ago this week.

June 2009