On June 3, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a Western Union telegram at the White House. It was from Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures.
In the communique, the Hollywood movie mogul appealed to the leader of the free world to intervene on behalf of a shipload of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, which had been denied entry into Havana, Cuba.
That ship, the S.S. St. Louis, turned north to the United States. As Laemmle sent his telegram, it was two miles off the coast of Miami – so close the passengers could see the palm trees.
“In your heart, I know that you need no urgent reminder of the dire predicament of some eight hundred wandering Jews denied a landing in Havana,” Laemmle wrote to the president. “Merely as a human being I know you would do your utmost to help these suffering people, even though it may not be within your province or official power.”
Laemmle, a documentary of whom was just screened at this year’s Louisville Jewish Film Festival, wrote that the St. Louis’ predicament required “the voice of some supreme human power for good.” He appealed to Roosevelt, calling his voice “the only one that has that necessary convincing power in a case like this, and I beseech you to use it in this great human extremity.”
Although the passengers of the St. Louis had visas and the U.S quota for immigrants from Germany had not been reached, the United States refused entry to the St. Louis’ desperate human cargo. So did Canada.
The ship returned to Europe, where 231 passengers were eventually murdered at Auschwitz. Global anti-Semitism was out of control.
Today, anti-Semitism is on the rise again around the world, even in this country. (We are not exceptional.) Synagogues are under attack. Orthodox Jews, dressed according to their religious tenets, are beaten up on city streets.
And JCCs are again getting bomb threats.
But we’re not alone in our vulnerability. Muslims are targeted, as is the LGBTQ community, Hispanics. Even journalists, scientists and career government employees face disturbing attacks in a new twist to an old story.
This is not a comparison of the Holocaust with today, but hatred is out of control.
What to do?
Jews say we all stood at Sinai – in the spiritual sense – to receive the Torah. Just as spiritually, we should all see ourselves as passengers on the St. Louis.
Laemmle’s telegram represented one voice – not enough to change the president’s mind. But what if he were one of thousands? Maybe then, he would have succeeded.
That’s the message Laemmle’s telegram delivers today: There’s strength in numbers, enough to turn back hatred for another generation. People at risk must make common cause. It doesn’t matter which group has suffered more attacks (it’s not a contest); all must bring their voices together in the press, social media, rallies, communication with congressmen.
Tackling those problems is complicated. Pervasive hatred is a disease no surgery can cut out. Like many diseases, we can only manage its symptoms.
Even symptom suppression can feel like too great a task if Americans succumb to fatigue and despair, as some have.
But don’t succumb. Reach out to friends, clergy, anyone. Talk it out. Then take action. The stakes are worth it.
Let’s make sure there is never again an incident such as the St. Louis, because next time there may not be someone with the courage of Laemmle to send a telegram to the powers that be. Laemmle didn’t succeed; what if we don’t even try?
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)