The St. Louis

On May 13, 1939, the ocean liner, St. Louis, sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. The Third Reich allowed more than 900 Jews aboard. We are counting now. When souls become quotas, numbers matter. The number was 937, most of them were German Jews. They carried what they thought were valid permits that guaranteed them temporary stay in the United States until proper visas could be granted.

The quotas…
The quotas!
The United States quotas were full.
The souls aboard the St. Louis had no clue.

The German-Austrian immigration quota for the United States allowed only 27,370 souls annually. The wait list for entry stretched for years, pages filled with longing names numbered. When souls become numbers filling quotas, what has humanity left to do but count? So we counted them. Number one got in. Number 27,371 did not. She received a free train ride out of Germany to a place called Auschwitz that reeked of smoke and shit and death, where she was given a new number. She died in a gas chamber and was burned to ash. We are counting now. She took her place among six million dead.

That was Europe, the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The St. Louis safely reached Cuba, where 29 Jews were allowed to disembark. Cuba had immigration quotas too. We are counting now. 29 souls found a refuge. The ship was ordered out of the harbor in Havana. To be sure that number 30 didn’t sneak in, Cuban police boats followed the St. Louis. Several passengers attempted to commit suicide.

For three days, the St. Louis drifted off the coast of Miami, close enough to see that city’s sparkling lights. Pleas went out via cables from the ship. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never responded. The White House never responded. The State Department finally sent a telegram to the ship explaining plainly that the United States had immigration quotas in place and that the souls on board would have to apply for the proper visas and take their turn on the waiting list.

The quotas…
The quotas!
The United States quotas were full.
The souls aboard the St. Louis now understood.

How did we explain to men, women and children that they were nothing more than numbers in a quota-filling game? What words of comfort did we give? Were we present when many of them were torn from their families and piled like cattle into cargo holds after their bitter return to Europe? Did we travel with them sharing their terror as they were sent to concentration camps? Did we hold their trembling hands as their flesh rotted away from starvation? Did we hear their screams? Did we see them die? They each were given a number. We are counting now. They took their place among six million dead.

We laud a statue that reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Were these not tempest-tossed? The lamp went dark, blown out by xenophobic winds.

We have recycled those winds today in the forms of quotas, restrictions, deportations, bans and walls. We fear.

Souls become numbers, leaving humanity with nothing left to do but count.


Words and Photography ©2017 Tanya Cliff ~ to contact me

Entry posted in short stories. Bookmark the permalink.

40 thoughts on “Quotas

  1. Tanya, this was a sad part of America history. We are frittering away our global higher ground and it is something that took a long time to build. It should not be lost on anyone, that some of Trump’s key leaders are out assuaging our allies to not worry about their boss’ comments, tweets and policies. What is also tragic, DT is echoing Putin’s long time strategy of belittling democracy saying we are all the same in governance. DT is doing Putin’s heavy lifting. Check out John Oliver’s show from this past Sunday as he has a great piece on this. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Tanya, you are so right about pushing back. We must shine spotlights on bad behavior and represent good examples. If we walk the talk, people may pay attention when we speak. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well written piece Tanya. Unfortunately it has similarities with the UK fixing their “quota” of unaccompanied child refugees entering the country to 350. Probably one-tenth of the need. Heartless. Heart-rending.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As to your first account of the boat load of Jews, yes, the US govt should have waived the quotas and taken them in. Canada was no better, I’ve read. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. No one knew for sure in 1939 just what cruelty Hitler had planned.

    As to the current application, it sounds so morally correct to open the doors and let everyone in — but it just isn’t that simple. There’s so much of this anti-Trump, pro-immigration sentiment lately and I’m all for compassion, too. However, what will the US do if they open the doors and then end up with the largest unemployed labour force in the world?

    Immigrants need jobs and the US is outsourcing so much production, mainly to Asia. Where are the jobs going to come from to support all these new immigrants? Truth be told, they’ll be more willing to work, they’ll take whatever’s available, then the US-born locals will be up in arms because they can’t find jobs.

    History does repeat itself — but people forget so soon. Back in the 1920s here in Canada immigrants were welcomed with open arms. Manufacturing was going full tilt and more labourers were needed. A lot of Eastern Europeans took advantage of this open door. In the eastern US cities things were lively as well. Henry Ford was mass-producing automobiles and a number of Canadians got jobs down there.

    Then came the Stock Market Crash, and Dirty Thirties. Jobs dried up. Unemployed Canadians came home from cities like Chicago. And here in Canada those immigrants welcomed with open arms a decade earlier found themselves the brunt of resentment because “They’re taking our jobs!” Many were denied relief simply on the basis of a foreign accent. Thousands were quietly rounded up and put on the next boat back to Europe.

    Sorry to be the wet blanket here, but history teaches us that public opinion is extremely fickle. While there are many sympathetic people right now, if times got really tough again and jobs got scarce, reality would kick in and that sympathy may well evaporate. Then you might be hearing, “Send them back where they belong!”

    Seems to me the welcome mat needs to be decked with a bit of common sense. How much can the economy bear?


    1. It comes down to greed. Immigrants buy products and increase consumption, not just take jobs. Many of those immigrants work jobs that citizens in this country don’t want. Henry Ford was a racist. He wrote a long pamphlet entitled “The International Jew, The World’s Foremost Problem” and placed 2 million copies of it in schools all over America. Hilter was a fan. It is the kind of uninformed propaganda that is becoming rampant again today.
      I would also remind you of the Indigenous populations in American and Canada who have lost everything to European greed.
      I could care less about “public opinion”. America has enough resources to take care of many of the world’s poor. We are a country with a small population globally speaking, that dominates global GDP. We have enough to go around, including jobs for immigrants and refugees.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your words are so very touching and so very true. We’ve left the flame on that statue to burn inconsistently over the decades – burning brightly at times as a beacon of hope for the world only to be nearly extinguished during our dark times. It is but a flicker of what it once was. Good people will always embrace those words on that statue – they represent who I am as an American and they are the reason I was born in this country. My mom’s parents are immigrants from Slovakia and my dad’s grandparents came from Ireland and Germany. I’m sure they would have died during Europe’s many famines, wars and atrocities had they not been allowed in. Quotas? Lady Liberty’s words say no. Our actions say yes. Sad

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stunning. We have lived and continue to live in interesting times. There are so many reparations to make. Though not specific to the American – Jewish relations you wrote about so eloquently, your article reminded me of American-Race relations in general; and as you noted, we need the scope of history to put things into a wiser context. Thanks.(https://moreenigma.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/why-american-race-relations-affects-me-as-a-german-canadian/).

    Liked by 1 person

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