Wyman Conference in NYC Sees Lessons From 1939 “Voyage of the Damned”


The Jewish Voice

Ten years from now, will anybody remember the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis and its 937 Jewish passengers? Has the world learned any lessons from its abandonment of those Jewish refugees?

These were among the questions discussed at the recent 11th national conference of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, on the theme of “75 Years Since the ‘Voyage of the Damned’: Are We Doomed to Repeat It?” The event took place at the Fordham University School of Law, in Manhattan.

The St. Louis sailed for Cuba in May 1939, as the passengers held Cuban landing certificates. But the Havana government decided at the last minute to refuse them admission, so the ship journeyed to the coast of Florida, where it waited for three days, hoping to be granted refuge. Coast Guard patrol boats shadowed the ship to make sure it did not try to land.

Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff, in his keynote address, said that a handful of historians have tried to defend President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s image by claiming that the Coast Guard was not sent to follow the St. Louis. Dr. Medoff said it was important to expose these revisionist efforts and publicize the passengers’ eyewitness testimony about the Coast Guard’s action, “because the time will come, all too soon, when there are no more eyewitnesses here to share their recollections.”

Several of those passengers were on hand at the conference to share their recollections.

Ronnie Breslow, of Philadelphia; Sonja Geismar of the Bronx, and Harry Fuld were children at the time of the voyage but have clear memories of that fateful trip. They were joined on the panel by Martin Goldsmith, a host for National Public Radio and Sirius Radio, whose new book, Alex’s Wake, describes his efforts to determine the fate of his grandfather and uncle, who were on the St. Louis. Both men were murdered by the Nazis.

The question of what lessons can be learned from the St. Louis tragedy was much-discussed throughout the day-long conference. Rwanda genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete said, “Clearly, the lessons of the St. Louis were not learned by the world, because the United States and the rest of the international community abandoned the victims in Rwanda in 1994 just as they abandoned the Jews fifty-five years earlier.”

Many in the audience were particularly moved by the remarks of attorney Stephen M. Flatow, whose daughter, Alisa, was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He argued that since Palestinian violence against Israelis is aimed specifically at Jews and the Jewish state, it should be regarded as “attempted genocide.”

The Obama administration’s policies concerning genocide came in for some tough questions. Columbia University visiting scholar Dr. Ahmed Adam, a survivor of Darfur, said that the administration has shown “no interest” in arresting Sudanese president Omar Bashir, the mastermind of the Darfur genocide, even though Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Dr. Hagop Deranian, the son of Armenian genocide survivors, spoke about his recent book, which focuses on a group of Armenian orphan girls who wove a huge rug and sent it to the White House in 1925 in gratitude for U.S. relief efforts. The Obama administration has refused to allow the rug to be seen in public. Dr. Deranian said the administration’s position is based on fear of offending Turkey, which carried out the genocide of the Armenians, but denies it.

As part of the conference, the Wyman Institute unveiled two new initiatives designed to raise public awareness of the St. Louis. One is a 10-minute semi-animated film created in collaboration with Disney’s educational division, called “Voyage of the Doomed.” The film is intended to be used in high schools.

The other is a traveling exhibit called “Envisioning the ‘Voyage of the Damned’: The Voyage of the St. Louis in Art, Film, and Theater.” The Institute plans to bring the exhibit to synagogues and other venues around the country in the coming year.