The spirit of the St. Louis

There’s always somebody. Somebody not good enough for us no matter their circumstances. Somebody we can always tell, “Go back where you came from.”  Some of the campaign rhetoric this year reminds us of the story of a ship named for our second-largest city.

Let’s go back to Germany, 1938, where the Nazi government’s increasing persecution of Jews caused many to try to flee. Representatives of several western nations met at Evian, France in July, 1938, to discuss the worsening situation. Major nations such as the United States, France, and Britain refused to loosen their immigration laws to allow more refugees from Germany, even as Germany was tightening its laws against Jews wanting to flee. German policies against Jews broke into violence with the Kristallnacht on November 9-10 and in ensuing months, thousands of Jews were arrested.

Nine-hundred-thirty-seven Jewish passengers were aboard the S. S. St. Louis when it left Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, hoping to find safety in Cuba or the United States.  But Cuba allowed fewer than thirty to disembark.

The St. Louis headed north, hoping to dock in the United States.  But this country had enacted a restrictive immigration law in 1924.  The state department worried that the Jews would be security risks or be dependent on government handouts if they were allowed in.  Passengers could not get tourist visas because they had no home address.  And there were a lot of other German immigrants waiting for entry.

After more than a month the St. Louis headed back to Europe, although not to Germany.  Britain agreed to take 288 of the passengers.  The remaining 620 went to Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, countries still at peace.

It was while the St. Louis was still at sea, its passengers still hoping to find asylum or at least safety in the United States that Heywood Broun, one of the great newspaper columnists of the time, wrote “There is a Ship” for the New York World-Telegram. It was published June 9, 1939.


There is a ship. It is called the St. Louis.  If suddenly the vessel flashed an SOS to indicate that the crew and the 900 passengers were in danger every other steamer within call would be hurrying to the rescue. That is the rule of the sea.

And no vessel which got the flash would pause to inquire the economic, political, religious or national position of those in distress.  It would want no more than the position of the ship.

And the captain on the bridge, according to the prevailing tradition, would ask the engineer to put on all speed so that the work of rescue could be completed as expeditiously as possible.  And this would be true of the skipper of a totalitarian merchantman, one from a democratic nation or a ship flying under the flag of a monarchy, liberal or otherwise.

But there is a ship.  It carries 900 passengers—men, women and small children.  This is a group of God-fearing people guilty of no crime whatsoever.  And they are in peril.

They are in peril which threatens not only their lives but their very souls and spiritual freedom.  It would be better for them by far if the St. Louis has ripped its plates in a collision with some other craft, or if an impersonal iceberg had slashed the hull below the water line.

Then there would be not the slightest hesitation in a movement of all the allied fleets to save these members of the human race in deep and immediate distress.

But this is not an iceberg or a plate which has been ripped away.  The passengers—men, women and children—are Jewish. It is not an accident of nature but an inhuman equation which has put them in deadly peril.  It is quite true that when the St. Louis gets back to Hamburg these 900, with possibly a few exceptions, will not die immediately.  They will starve slowly, since they have already spent their all.  Or they will linger in concentration camps—I refer to the men and women.  God knows what will happen to the children.

And so the whole world stuffs its ears and pays no attention to any wireless.

There is a ship. And almost two thousand years have elapsed since the message of universal brotherhood was brought to earth.

What have we done with that message?  After so many years we have not yet put into practice those principles to which we pay lip service.  Nine hundred are to suffer a crucifixion while the world passes by on the other side.

At any luncheon, banquet or public meeting the orator of the occasion can draw cheers if he raises his right hand in the air and pledges himself, his heart and soul to the declaration that he is for peace and amity and that all men are brothers.  He means it, generally, and so do the diners who pound the table until the coffee cups and the cream dishes rattle into a symphony of good feeling and international sympathy.

But there is a ship. If one were to look upon it with cold logic it would be better for every one of the 900 if the vessel suddenly buckled and went down in forty fathoms.  That would be more merciful.

Against the palpable threat of death we can muster brotherhood.  But against the even more plain sentence of life in death we pretend to be helpless.

Our answer is, “We must look after ourselves.  What can we do about it?  Life is greater than death.”  We agree.  Here is our test.  What price civilization?  There is a ship.  Who will take up an oar to save 900 men, women and children?


Heywood Broun died at 51 years of age on December 18, 1939. About the time he wrote this column, he had forsaken his professed agnosticism after extensive discussions with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and had become a member of the Catholic faith.

Germany invaded the safe countries of Western Europe on May 10, 1940. The Netherlands surrendered five days later. Belgium gave up May 28.  And France fell June 22.   The Holocaust Museum in Washington estimates 254 former passengers on the St. Louis died during the holocaust, most of them at Sobibor and Auschwitz.  Fewer than one-hundred eventually made it to the United States.

The St. Louis was a German naval accommodation ship until it was damaged by the bombing of Kiel in August, 1944.  She was fixed and was a hotel ship in Hamburg for a while before being scrapped in 1952.

But the ghost of the spirit of the ship still hangs over us.

Jews in 1939.  Mexicans and Syrians in 2016.

There’s always somebody.

Let me know what you think......