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It’s official: We have forgotten

The first time I heard about the Holocaust was in the sixth grade. Our teacher took us on a field trip to the local Holocaust Museum. It wasn’t much of a museum as it was a display of documents, pictures and artifacts from the Holocaust era at a local Jewish organization. Nevertheless, the whole story of what happened has never left me. As I continued through school, I always strived to learn more and more about what happened.

When I was getting my master’s degree, a protest broke out at the World Bank headquarters in DC. I was at a nearby coffee shop and found myself in the middle of the pack as they were marching to the bank. One of the protesters threw a rock at a glass storefront, but the glass did not break. Others in the group quickly grabbed him and held him from grabbing the rock and trying again. The police quickly went after him and arrested him.

A few days later, a Holocaust survivor gave a talk at the campus and said that he witnessed the same even that I did. He said it gave him chills to see a mob of people throwing rocks at storefronts. Of course, he was referring to Kristallnacht, an event in 1938 where Jews in Germany where attacked on a massive scale. The survivor then chastised the group for comparing the Bush Administration to Hitler. “This is nothing like back then, and it is up to you to keep it that way,” he said.

The way that the political discourse is going lately, I find myself longing for the days of the Bush Administration. (Well, maybe not that bad.) Heck, I’ll take Mutual Assured Destruction over the craziness going on today. And, after listening to what certain candidates for the presidency have been saying and doing, I’ve become convinced that we as a society have collectively forgotten about the Holocaust.

By 1939, strong anti-Semitic sentiment was everywhere in Europe, and no where was it more present than in Germany. Several laws at the time were making the lives of Jews (and other “undesirables”) impossible. The writing was on the wall, and many Jews decided to get up and leave. Over 900 Jews climbed into the St. Louis and traveled to Cuba. Once there, however, something happened that did not allow them to disembark. See if it rings any bells:

“The voyage of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees. Indeed, the passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government.”

Remember, this was during the Great Depression, an economic collapse that was not limited to the United States:

“More than money, corruption, and internal power struggles were at work in Cuba. Like the United States and the Americas in general, Cuba struggled with the Great Depression. Many Cubans resented the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews), whom the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs. Hostility toward immigrants fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia. Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations, claiming that incoming Jews were Communists.”

Imagine that, saying that refugees belonged to dangerous groups and should not be allowed safe passage.

The story of the St. Louis continues:

“Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” US diplomats in Havana intervened once more with the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis, but without success.”

Eerie how familiar it is, isn’t it? The story continues:

“Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.”

The St. Louis journey had it heading back to Europe:

“Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France.”

Like back then, today’s European governments are more open to Syrian refugees than we are, which is saying a lot. Refugees from Syria are arriving there by the thousands every week, while they take 18 to 36 months to be allowed into the United States. Although, with 1930’s thinking back in power in Washington, it might take them even longer.

But this whole situation with Syrian refugees is not the only thing that reminds me of what I learned about the Holocaust. One presidential candidate wants Muslims to register and have special ID cards. Another one wants to close down anything that has to do with Muslims, from mosques to other places where “they” may gather. And another would set up a government agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values.”

More than the George W. Bush administration, these days remind me of what I learned about the Holocaust. We have refugees from systematic annihilation being refused into our country because they “might” or “could” be dangerous. We have far-right politicians calling for the registration and identification of people based on their religion or ethnicity. And we have other politicians using fear and panic to their advantage, splitting us instead of uniting us.

Clearly, we have forgotten what we swore never to forget. We might as well give up.


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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

5 replies

    1. The biggest issue I have with this is that those who should be standing up to the xenophobic hoards are not doing so. We’re kind of just shaking out head and seeing them do these ridiculous things without much in the way of action to oppose them.


      1. This morning our newspaper reprinted the Voyage of the Damned. It was eye opening.

        Also, this weekend I finished reading The Great Mortality, which about the Plague during the 1300s. There is a whole chapter devoted to how conspiracies grew that “The Jews” were causing the disease and deaths by poisoning wells, which led the slaughter of entire towns. Then I heard Eve Siebert explain the origin of Blood Libel on the Skepticality podcast. The paranoia and fear has long long roots.

        (Saturday was a beautiful sunshiney day, so I did my errands by bus and walking. I finished reading The Great Mortality in a library in front of a full wall window of glass, which was just lovely (then returned it and picked up my old of Oliver Sacks’s last autobiography). We went out to dinner and the waitress asked us how we spent the lovely day, and I told her about reading by the large window, and she asked what I read. I lowered by geeky head and said a book about the black plague, which interested her because she was majoring public health at the university up the street, and it would be a book that interested her!)


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