A Twitter Tribute to Holocaust Victims

A new social-media project commemorates refugees turned away by the United States in 1939.

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Software developer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz have collaborated on a number of projects that use technology to bring awareness to Jewish issues, history, and culture.

But last night they dreamt up the St. Louis Manifest, a Twitter project sharing the story of some 900 Jews who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 on the MS St. Louis, which planned to stop in Cuba and then continue on in an attempt to gain entry into the United States. Unable to enter due to strict immigration quotas, the passengers were forced to return to Europe, where a number of countries accepted them as refugees; 254 of them were killed in the Holocaust. This story, Neiss and Schwartz believe, serves as a fitting tribute to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, and a reminder of a time in American history when the country closed its doors to refugees.

Using records from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Neiss and Schwartz have tweeted pictures and information about the passengers on that voyage. Their account has quickly gained more than 9,000 followers. To learn more about this initiative, I spoke with co-creator Russel Neiss. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and style.

Candice Norwood: Can you tell me about the background of this story and the MS St. Louis’s voyage?

Russel Neiss: The MS St. Louis was a ship [holding] primarily Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. So this is after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when some folks saw the writing on the wall and thought: “I have to get out of here to be safe.” These were folks who booked tickets; they had applied for visas to the United States, and the ship was going to go from Germany via Cuba to the United States thereafter. The Cuban government held their documents on the way from Germany to Cuba, which basically stranded everyone on the ship. Even though these people had applied for visas, the United States would not grant them entry. The ship afterward went from port to port in Europe [dropping off the passengers].

Approximately half of these refugees [among the 620 who were returned to continental Europe] ended up being murdered by the Nazi death machine over the course of the war.

Norwood: Did Hitler know about this group and target them specifically?

Neiss: No, this is actually at a time, in 1939, when the Nazis weren’t engaged in the mass killings of Jews. This voyage was actually used as a massive propaganda tool by Hitler and the Nazis to say: “Look, nobody wants these Jews; these people are really undesirable.”

Norwood: So what was the motivation for this project?

Neiss: On the one hand, it is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is important to remember the victims of the Holocaust—not just the six million Jews that were murdered, but the 10 million victims of Nazism and Hitlerism in general. The other thing I think makes this story particularly timely is the talk we’ve seen this week of a Trump executive order banning refugees. People always say that if you forget history then you will be doomed to repeat it. This is one of those moments where history gives us an opportunity to think about where we are now.  When folks say “never again” or “we remember,” it is important for us to actually do so. The MS St. Louis is an interesting story in particular because we literally had hundreds of refugees waiting outside the Port of Miami to get in, and they were turned away and sent to their deaths, because of politics and all sorts of other issues.

There were legitimate concerns about immigration in the 1930s and 1940s, but people forget sometimes that those legitimate concerns often have real life or death implications for people.

Norwood: I see currently that you are tweeting out information about the passengers on this ship. Are there plans to expand the project beyond Twitter?

Neiss: Not at this moment since this was really dreamed up last night, but if people are really interested in this issue then there are other things they can do. First of all, if they haven’t visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, then they should do so. If they haven’t donated to an organization that supports refugees, then they should donate to those organizations. If people think this is important, then they should keep speaking out, not just on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but on every day of the year.

Norwood: How close do you feel the similarities really are between what happened with the MS St. Louis voyage and what’s happening with refugees today?

Neiss: I’m not saying they are the same, but I’m a member of the Jewish faith, and my grandfather was a refugee from Poland. He was an orphan who was taken in by the British government and who gained his citizenship in the U.S. by fighting against Korea. My grandmother was a refugee. She fled Austria to Shanghai before she came to America. Shanghai was the only port open during World War II for Jews trying to get out. For me, on the one hand, this is a personal issue because this country welcomed my family in their greatest time of need. This is a country that’s built by immigrants. This is a country that is made stronger because of immigrants and refugees. This story is an opportunity to remember when the American government, I think, did not live up to its ideals. And if we’re not living up to our ideals today, then that’s something to think about. That’s the one connection I would make.