On June 16, 1925, construction began on the SS St. Louis—a ship that would become best known for a voyage it took in 1939.
By Michael S. Glickman, Museum President & CEO
A smiling woman and man wearing formal dinner dress; a child curling her fingers around a snack; relatives enjoying time above deck, perching on a railing and posing with their arms interlocked. It is spring 1939 in Susanne Jacoby’s “St. Louis photo album.” More than 900 Jewish refugees are onboard the SS St. Louis, traveling the Hamburg-Amerika line to Cuba to escape Nazi Germany. Susanne’s candid photos capture her family’s joy. Looking at their faces, it is easy to dwell on what they do not know: Trouble is brewing in Cuba. Even before the St. Louis left Germany, the political landscape had started to shift, and visa arrangements dissipate as the ship crosses the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Havana, the vast majority of the Jewish refugees voyaging on the St. Louis are denied entry. One passenger attempts suicide; all face the agony of coming so close to salvation before being turned away in a wave of anti-Semitism and anti-immigration policy.
In desperation, the ship turns to the United States, whose Statue of Liberty bears the title “Mother of Exiles.” Close enough to Florida to see lights onshore, the exiles on the St. Louis are again denied. The United States sends them back to certain persecution and, for some, statelessness and death. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other organizations advocate for refugees to be admitted to Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. But when the Third Reich devastates Western Europe, more than a quarter of the people who had been passengers on this St. Louis voyage fall victim: 254 die in the Holocaust.
The United States failed to respond to a humanitarian crisis due to a toxic mix of prejudice, anti-immigration policies, and a refusal to heed cries for help. We risk making the same mistake today. Each historical moment is unique, but our nation’s character is once again being tested, and this time we must not fail. When people knock on this country’s “golden door,” we must answer with courage and understanding, not fear and apathy. We must not join in victimizing human beings who have already faced unimaginable perils abroad. History will be our judge. Will our America fulfill its promise to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
The Jewish people have faced threats of exile, desolation, and extermination many times in our history. We will not stand silent when others face the same. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park City, we educate visitors about the Holocaust and encourage them to carry its painful lessons into their civic and communal lives. We are a public, American institution that shares a geographical and cultural landscape with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The Museum is New York’s contribution to the global responsibility to never forget. As a place of memory, it enables Holocaust survivors to speak through recorded testimony and encourages visitors to find the universal within the particular.
The Museum’s educational mission imparts not only knowledge but also responsibility. We are not merely students of history; we are history-makers.
Susanne Jacoby survived, as did her photo album, though the ship illustrated on its cover was not permitted to bring her to safety in the United States. The photos in her album are more than mere reminders of a shameful failure. These snapshots allow us to view Susanne and her family for who they were: human beings with complex lives who deserved to be treated with dignity. Their humanity was their first and most important credential. We must never forget each other’s humanity. We must let each other in.