On the night of 4 June 1939, the German steamship St. Louis, a well-appointed ocean liner of the Hamburg-America Line, lay at anchor just four miles off the coast of Florida. The lights of Miami twinkled, clearly visible across the water, and the ship's passengers just might have been able to hear the faintest strains of jazz and swing music drifting out from the famous nightclubs of Miami Beach, carried along by the warm evening breeze. For the passengers of the St. Louis—nearly 1000 European Jews seeking refuge in America from Nazi persecution in their home countries—Miami must have beckoned as the impossibly idyllic fulfillment of an unlikely dream, a tropical port of entry to a land of freedom.
But four miles offshore was as close as the passengers of the St. Louis would ever get to American soil. Blocked from entry by a narrowly restrictive American immigration policy and rejected as well by both Cuba and Canada, the St. Louis eventually had no choice but to turn around and sail back to Europe. Having come so heartbreakingly close to freedom, at least 250 of the ship's 937 Jewish passengers would go on to be killed in the Holocaust.
The tragic, poignant story of the St. Louis stands out in the history of America's response (or non-response) to the Holocaust as an unusually dramatic moment of decision. As the ship drifted off the coast of Florida, its passengers and crew fired off desperate telegrams to the State Department, to the president, even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, begging for someone—anyone—to intervene by granting them a special exemption to enter the country despite lacking the correct paperwork. (The intended destination of the St. Louis had been not the United States but rather Cuba, and all the ship's passengers had bought expensive visas to enter that country legally before they left Germany; however, while the ship was at sea, the Cuban government ruled that those visas were not valid and refused to allow the passengers to unload in Havana. The St. Louis, running low on supplies after two weeks at sea and another week quarantined in Havana harbor, then turned toward Florida as a last resort.) But President Roosevelt never responded to the desperate cables sent to him from aboard ship, and government officials at the port of Miami refused to budge from their strict regulations against the entry of immigrants lacking proper documentation. Bureaucratic inertia prevailed over human compassion, and the eventual consequence was the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.
There are several explanations for America's seeming indifference to the plight of Germany's Jews at the time of the St. Louis tragedy. Anti-Semitism, sadly, had long been a factor in American culture, as had a broader xenophobic hostility toward foreigners in general. At the same time, the prolonged economic crisis of the Great Depression had caused many Americans to focus narrowly on their own problems, ignoring those of other people abroad. Finally—to offer a more charitable explanation of American indifference—there was the fact that the Holocaust had not yet become fully recognizable as the Holocaust; the Nazis' hatred of Jews was certainly undeniable, but it wasn't yet clear, by the late 1930s, that it would lead to genocide.
Adolf Hitler's own fanatical anti-Semitism dated back to at least 1919 and official government persecution against Jews had begun almost immediately after he gained power in Germany in 1933. But that persecution had, at first, taken the form of civil-rights violations and various forms of social marginalization rather than outright violence. The situation grew steadily worse throughout the 1930s, culminating in November 1938 in the first widespread acts of coordinated violence against Jews—the Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") pogrom, in which Nazi storm troopers and ordinary German citizens smashed and burned Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany. At least 91 Jews were killed, thousands were arrested by Hitler's special police, and many more—like the passengers of the St. Louis—resolved to try to escape from Germany before things got even worse.
Today, historians usually cite Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust, the moment when the systematic but largely nonviolent anti-Semitic persecution of the Nazis' first years in power began to evolve into the outright genocide of the Jewish people. But to people at the time, it was somewhat less obvious that Kristallnacht had marked the passage of this horrible turning point. When the St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg harbor in May 1939, the Nazis' hadn't yet enacted a policy of mass murder. There were not yet any death camps, any mass graves, any railroad cars packed with starving Jewish prisoners. It would not be until the outbreak of war in September 1939 that German soldiers would begin killing large numbers of Jewish civilians. It would not be until late 1941 that the first Nazi extermination camps would open in Poland. And it would not be until August 1942 that the U.S. State Department would receive an intelligence report unambiguously identifying Germany's policy as genocide. By that time, Europe had been at war for three years and Hitler's armies controlled most of the continent. There would have been no easy way, by that time, for Americans to come to the aid of Hitler's victims—even if they had made the rescue of Europe's Jews a top priority, which they never did.
The time when Americans might have made a real difference was earlier—before World War II began in earnest, before it became impossible for refugees to travel across the Atlantic, before Hitler built up his nightmarish machinery of genocide. The time when Americans might have made a real difference was in the late 1930s, when the passengers of the St. Louis—and thousands of other prospective Jewish emigrants from Europe—desperately needed to find a safe haven, another country willing to take them in.
America was not willing to be that country.
The United States had a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees from overseas. Prominent among them was a sizeable community of eastern European Jews who had arrived in large numbers between 1880 and 1920, most of them fleeing from anti-Semitic persecution and violent pogroms in imperial Russia. America had thus served as a vital escape route for endangered Jews as recently as one generation before Hitler began threatening the very survival of European Jewry during World War II.
But that earlier, turn-of-the-century Jewish migration had been only one small part of a much larger influx of immigrants who came from all over southern and eastern Europe. Millions upon millions of Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovaks, Czechs, and Hungarians, among others, joined those Jewish immigrants in pouring into the United States in unprecedented numbers. This enormous wave of so-called "new immigration" utterly transformed America's ethnic makeup, profoundly affected the emerging industrial economy, and generated a major backlash from native-born citizens made anxious by the social changes being wrought by the newcomers. The result of this anti-immigrant backlash was the enactment, by 1924, of an extremely restrictive new national immigration policy that imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from these countries each year. By design, the new immigration policy made it difficult or impossible for southern and eastern Europeans to obtain visas legally to enter the United States. And the coming of the Great Depression in 1929 made Americans even less inclined to allow in more foreigners who might compete with them for scarce jobs.
Thus European Jews who suddenly found themselves seeking foreign refuge from Adolf Hitler in the 1930s confronted a harsh American immigration policy designed, just a decade earlier, for the express purpose of keeping them (and the other "new immigrants") out. The waiting list for scarce visas under the quota system soon stretched out to include thousands of names, creating a backlog many years long; thousands upon thousands of would-be Jewish emigrants would still be waiting in vain for their quota number to be called when they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camps. (Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, was one of them, having tried but failed to obtain a visa to take his family to America a year before going into hiding in an Amsterdam attic in 1942.) Thousands of European Jews—including many prominent scientists, most notably Albert Einstein—did beat the odds by escaping into the United States between 1933 and 1941. But many thousands more who might have been rescued were stymied by an uncompromising immigration policy that made no exceptions for refugees or victims of genocide. (Even after the horrors of the Holocaust became fully known in 1945, the United States Congress continued to block meaningful changes to immigration policy that might have facilitated the entry of "displaced persons"—Holocaust survivors—until 1948.)
While the Jews of Europe waited in vain for meaningful changes to American immigration policy, Adolf Hitler began organizing the most horrific crimes against humanity in the known history of the world. By the time war broke out in 1939, Hitler had already stripped Germany's Jews of their civil rights and excluded them from most realms of German society. In 1933, the Nazis purged Jews from the civil service and restricted their participation in the nation's universities and professions. Two years later, Hitler's Nuremberg Laws institutionalized anti-Semitism in German law by making Jews ineligible for citizenship, taking away their right to vote, and making it illegal for them to marry or even have sexual relationships with non-Jewish Germans. By 1937, the Nazi government had imposed an "Aryanization" program that confiscated many Jewish-owned businesses, and established a Jim Crow-style system of legally sanctioned social segregation in which Jews were confined to their ghettoes and banned from even entering so-called "Aryan zones" of many German cities and towns. The German government devised new ways to humiliate and dehumanize Jews in their everyday lives, for example by forcing them to wear yellow Stars of David prominently on their clothing when they went out in public so that everyone would know they were Jewish and thus ought to be shunned or mistreated. Through this steady erosion of Jewish civil rights and constant demonization of the Jewish people in vicious Nazi propaganda, Hitler laid the foundations for the next, infinitely worse, stage of his anti-Semitic master plan; by using the power of the state to define the Jewish community as a despised, alien, and inferior presence in German society, Hitler set the stage for the genocidal violence of the Holocaust.
That genocidal violence began in earnest with the outbreak of war on the Eastern Front in 1939. A large majority of the Jewish population of Europe lived east of Germany, mainly in Poland and the Soviet Union. As German forces surged eastward into Poland (1939-40) and then onward into the Soviet Union (1941-43), they found themselves in control of territories that were home to millions of Jews. It did not take long for the atrocities to begin.
At first, violence against Jewish civilians unfolded without much central organization, with sporadic massacres by German troops. By mid-1941, the Nazis began to take a much more systematic approach by deploying the Einsatzgruppen ("task groups" of special police, perhaps more accurately translated in this context as "mobile killing units") to follow the regular German army as it advanced into Russia in order to organize the mass murder of Jews there. The Einsatzgruppen would typically move into a town or village that had fallen under German control, round up all Jews living there, march them out to a nearby ravine or ditch that could serve as a mass grave, and shoot them all dead. Four separate Einsatzgruppen battalions fanned out across the Eastern Front, carrying out dozens of massacres in 1941 and 1942. In perhaps the most notorious incident, it took two days for the Nazis to murder some 33,000 people—virtually the entire Jewish population of Kiev, Ukraine—in the Babi Yar ravine, where group after group of victims were forced to lie down, naked, in a mass grave atop of the bodies of their already-murdered neighbors before being themselves machine-gunned to death.
By the end of 1941, the rampaging death squads are estimated to have murdered more than a million eastern European Jews. Yet Hitler and his lieutenants felt that the Einsatzgruppen's methods—requiring an individual gunshot to kill each victim—were too inefficient to achieve the total genocide of the Jewish people. In January 1942, the top leadership of the Nazi Party met at a villa outside Berlin, in a peaceful suburb called Wannsee, to coordinate a more systematic approach to the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," as they euphemistically described their plans for genocide. Those plans called for Jews in occupied areas to be concentrated into ghettos near rail lines, then transported to new concentration camps to be constructed in Poland. The healthiest Jewish prisoners would be permitted to live for as long as they could serve the Nazis as slave laborers; anyone too old or young or sick or frail to do hard labor would be killed immediately. To speed the killing of large numbers of people, the Nazis built special gas chambers disguised as group showers; prisoners would be ordered to strip down for a wash, then they would be ushered into the large shower rooms where they would be killed en masse by cyanide gas or carbon monoxide, enduring terrible suffering in their last moments of life.
A large majority of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust would die in these death camps—nearly a million at Auschwitz (the largest of the killing centers) alone. The camps were chilling in their efficiency, reducing mass murder to an orderly process of bureaucratic and mechanical ease. These were factories of death, the most terrible manifestations of Hitler's evil. The immeasurable brutality, violence, and dehumanization built into those nightmarish places were difficult to comprehend or describe—even for survivors. Elie Wiesel, who lived through internment at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and later wrote the moving Holocaust memoir Night, spoke of the difficulty of even communicating what had happened there: "It was not easy. At first, because of the language; language failed us. We would have to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic. And then too, the people around us refused to listen; and even those who listened refused to believe; and even those who believed could not comprehend. Of course they could not. Nobody could. The experience of the camps defies comprehension."
During World War II, the United States government was slow to take notice of the growing humanitarian catastrophe of the Holocaust, and slower still to take action. In August 1942, the U.S. State Department received—and then suppressed—a cable accurately describing Nazi plans for genocide. State did not share the intelligence with any other government agency or with the public. After efforts to reform immigration policy to be more welcoming to refugees failed in 1943, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau—the only Jew in FDR's cabinet, and the most prominent advocate of a more interventionist policy against the Holocaust—finally got the president's attention by submitting to his attention a white paper entitled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews." A week later, on 22 January 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board to facilitate aid to Jewish refugees; still, the new board had few real powers and lacked the capability to do much to aid the endangered Jewish populations of Nazi-occupied Europe while the war still raged.
At about the same time, American leaders learned that the Nazis were using poison gas to kill large numbers of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Still they took no action. Some American Jewish leaders urged the government to bomb the camp in order to destroy the machinery of murder there, but American officials refused to do so, insisting that only military and industrial targets would be targeted in air raids. (They may also have opposed bombing the concentration camp on the grounds that doing so would have surely killed the Jewish prisoners already there; without question there was a thorny moral and ethical problem in the idea of killing current victims of Auschwitz in order to save potential future victims of Auschwitz.) In any case, Americans made no special effort to destroy or liberate the camps as a priority in their broader war effort; the Nazis were able to continue their genocidal acts right up until virtually the moment of their defeat and surrender.
In the end, the Allies ended the Holocaust only by winning the war. The Soviet Red Army, pushing westward toward the German border, liberated Auschwitz in January 1945; American soldiers outside Munich rescued the survivors of Dachau—the very first concentration camp Hitler opened (in 1933) and one of the last to be liberated—in April 1945. It was only with the liberation of the concentration camps at the very end of World War II that most Americans really confronted the awful reality of the Holocaust. American soldiers saw with their own eyes the gruesome toll of Hitler's genocidal madness—the mass graves of the victims and the emaciated bodies of the starving survivors. Finally, American newspapers began reporting in detail on the atrocities.
Shocked and horrified, the American people—and the international community—vowed that never again would the world sit by as evil regimes carried out genocide. But for the Jews of Europe, "never again" was too little, too late. The hard truth is that none of the Allies, including the United States, had taken real meaningful action to rescue the Jewish people during the 1930s (when widespread anti-Semitic violence hadn't yet begun but might reasonably have been foreseen) or even during most of the war (when the magnitude of the Holocaust became undeniable). "Never again" couldn't change the fact that six million innocent people—between two-thirds and three-quarters of the entire prewar Jewish population of Europe—lay dead.