Learning From A Past Refugee Crisis

November 30, 2015 | Law & Public Safety
Professor Ruth Mandel compares the Syrian refugees crisis to other examples of others trying to come to America.

By Michael Hill

Ruth Mandel is a founder of Eagleton’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Seventy-six years ago she was an eight-month-old baby aboard the St. Louis – a German cruise liner filled with Jews bound for Cuba. They were part of Hitler’s plan to expel Jews from Germany and Europe. The anti-Jewish sentiment was well established and evident at a hotel on May 12, 1939.

“This notice and very proper high German said, ‘To our esteemed Jewish guests please stay out of the dining rooms and the halls and the public places,'” she said.

Mandel — a former vice chair of the Holocaust Museum — only recalls what her family has told her of the St. Louis journey. History has taught her that a week before the ship set sail, Cuba’s president had invalidated all recently issued travel visas and landing certificates.

It meant when the St. Louis landed, its passengers could not go on land, not in Cuba, not the U.S. and not Canada. No one wanted the Jewish refugees, so the St. Louis had to sail back to Europe – more than 900 Jews fearing a return to persecution

“My parents when I asked them about that, ‘How is it that you got to go to England?’ They don’t know. They said something I’ve heard from Holocaust survivors over and over — it’s luck,” Mandel said.

Once in England, Mandel’s German-speaking mother encountered suspicion.

“They didn’t have dryers. They use to wash the laundry and hang up the sheets. She said when she hung the sheets the word went around that little community that she was signaling the German planes,” she said.

Mandel and her family eventually emigrated to America in the late 40s and settled in Brooklyn with her mother’s parents.

Professor Mandel compares the Syrian refugees crisis to other examples of others trying to come to America for refuge and being told there’s no welcome mat for them here.

“What I’m upset about is creating them as the other — the nameless, faceless, they’re all the same, the desperate people on the run. That they’re some kind of monstrous threat. Appealing to fear and then stoking hatred,” she said.

Mandel says there are many lessons to be learned through each refugee crisis. Roughly a third of the Jews aboard the St. Louis died in the Holocaust when Hitler’s forced emigration turned to the final solution.