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Kohl Column: Day of Remembrance

Op-Ed

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4/21/09

By Senator Herb Kohl

The United States was founded as a safe haven for many escaping religious and cultural persecution. Throughout the past two centuries, millions have immigrated into our country bringing with them dreams to start a new life.

Such aspirations were held by the passengers of the M.S. St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum. For many refugees, the dreams of a fresh start were dashed by immigration laws that prevented their entry to the United States. The M.S. St. Louis was turned away from a port in Southern Florida in the tense months leading up to World War II.

During the week of April 21st, I will introduce a Senate Resolution recognizing June 6, 2009 as the 70th anniversary when passengers of the M.S. St. Louis were denied safe harbor in the United States. April 21st is Holocaust Remembrance Day and I hope this resolution brings the story of these displaced passengers to light.

On June 6, 1939, the M.S. St. Louis began its return trip to Europe after a disheartening voyage to find refuge from escalating anti-Semitic violence in Nazi Germany. Only 28 of the St. Louis' passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana, Cuba, with more than 900 remaining. Citizens of the United States were sympathetic to the plight of these refugees, but strict adherence to immigration laws denied them asylum.

As a result of the shameful decision not to allow them sanctuary in the U.S., over 250 of the St. Louis' passengers died during the Holocaust, while many others suffered in Nazi concentration camps. We should reflect on the unfulfilled potential of the lives which were lost in the Nazi genocide, and provide recognition to the survivors by commemorating the 70th anniversary of the ship's return to Europe. We must also remember that America could have, and should have, done more to help these desperate people.

Many of these survivors have immigrated to the United States in the years since the Holocaust, and have made their imprint on our country. These former refugees deserve our recognition seventy years after turning them away and sending them back to face the menace of Nazi Germany.

Remembrance Day is about more than just acknowledging the Holocaust, it is also about learning lessons. My hope is that this resolution will raise awareness about the tragic events surrounding the M.S. St. Louis, and the fateful decision to send the refugees back to Europe. Future generations need to know this story so that it is never repeated.


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