On the day that President Donald Trump signed an executive action limiting immigration and refugees from war-torn nations, one man is trying to humanize the people whose lives are lost or saved by those decisions.
Russel Neiss created the @Stl_Manifest twitter account to recount the fate of passengers on the St. Louis, a ship that fled Nazi Germany in 1939 with more than 900 Jews seeking refuge in Cuba and, then, Miami. The ship was turned away, returned to Europe and more than 250 of its passengers died at German hands.
“When we say we remember and when we say ‘never again,’ it’s important to actually remember and mean ‘never again,’ ” Neiss said. “We talk about refugees in the abstract. But these are real people whose lives hang in the balance. When we say no refugees allowed, there are real lives here — women, children, men.”
Neiss, a 33-year-old Jewish educator in St. Louis, created a Twitter bot on Thursday night after a discussion with a rabbi friend, to go live on Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Neiss said all of the data comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The automated program tweets a story every five minutes.
Two of Neiss’ grandparents fled the Holocaust in Europe, eventually gaining citizenship in the United States.
“It’s through the generosity of this country that I’m here today,” he said.
Neiss said he picked the St. Louis and its passengers because of its connection to America.
“We’re the good guys. We’re the ones who are supposed to be protecting people. This story has a lot of resonance to Americans,” Neiss said. “It’s important to learn from the past. A lot of the stories of victims of the Holocaust, Americans couldn’t do anything about. Here’s literally an example where hundreds of people could have been helped.”
“As an American, this is one of those stories, to me, that kicks you in the shin a little bit. This is after Kristallnacht, this is after the Nazis have already targeted Jews,” Neiss said. “Many of the passengers already had visas waiting to be approved. The U.S. government decided they weren’t going to let the refugees in.”
The United States has annual quotas on immigrants. In 1939, the quota for German-Austrian immigration was 27,370, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. A bipartisan bill that would have admitted an additional 20,000 Jewish children from Germany stalled in the Congress earlier that year.
The United States was still dealing with the effects of the Great Depression, and a Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Cuba allowed 29 passengers — 22 Jews with valid U.S. visas, six others with valid entry documents and a passenger who had tried commit suicide — but the rest remained on board and headed for Miami.
The St. Louis stopped close enough to Florida to see the city’s lights, according to the museum, and it sent a cable to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never responded. Instead, the passengers on the Saint Louis were told, by a State Department telegram, that they must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
The passengers returned to Europe, where they were taken in by several different nations. Of the 532 passengers trapped in Western European countries overrun by German forces, 254 died, many in concentration camps.
Neiss’ automated Twitter program highlights those who died – and reminds followers that they were denied entrance to the United States.
“My name is Leopold Klein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at Auschwitz,” reads one entry.
Another: “My name is Lilly Frankfurter. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at Sobibor.”
In 2005, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.
“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror,” President Donald Trump said in a statement Friday. “... In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”
Trump’s message did not include a direct mention of Jews or anti-Semitism.
Trump campaigned on stopping Syrian refugees from entering the United States and setting up “extreme vetting” for immigrants from other war-torn Muslim nations, including Iraq, Libya and Yemen. One week into his term, he appears set to implement those changes and cut the number of total refugees admitted to the United States annually from 100,000 to 50,000.
“It’s impossible to ignore the contemporary parallels to refugees being brought in or not brought in,” Neiss said.
Neiss said the images of children in photos of Saint Louis passengers impact him the most. But, he pointed out, we know their story, we see their faces.
“In some ways, the St. Louis folks were lucky. By and large they were German Jews of means. They were able to see the writing on the wall and get out. I think about the folks who weren’t able to do that. The millions and millions who basically couldn’t get out and were able to do so,” he said. “This is a story that resonated in the ‘30s and resonates today.”