Echoes of history
Two ships, two struggles to do the right thing.
A poignant episode unfolded in southern Florida as the pandemic blossomed. A Holland America cruise ship, the Zaandam, was at sea in early March when more than 100 passengers and crew members became ill with COVID-19. Four elderly passengers, including an American, died. The Zaandam was en route from Buenos Aires to Chile, where a new voyage was to originate and carry passengers to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Among the 1,243 passengers were 138 Americans, including 24 Floridians.
After the virus struck, no port in South America would allow the ship to dock, including harbors in Chile and Argentina. The ship sought sanctuary in South Florida, but Panama initially denied passage through the canal before relenting. Florida and the U.S. were, for a time, unwelcoming as well, leaving the ship’s passengers floating uncertainly in a political stew as community and state leaders debated whether to allow the ship to dock at Port Everglades.
The mayors of Broward County and the city of Fort Lauderdale — whose governments and economies have benefited handsomely from the cruise industry — seemed more concerned with positioning themselves as defenders of their realms than in the passengers’ plight. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis suggested sending the ship to a Navy base somewhere far from his city.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose handling of the virus generally has reflected a more insightful understanding of it than many governors and almost all journalists, didn’t exactly take the high road in his pronouncements. The governor suggested that our state’s humanitarian capacity should be limited to the Floridians on the cruise ships — the state couldn’t afford to have foreign passengers “dumped” onto our shores, he said.
After all the posturing, a plan emerged, the governor and the mayors reversed course, the ship docked, the passengers who were seriously ill went to the hospital and the rest into quarantine or to chartered planes and back to their home countries.
Ironically, the Zaandam drama played out almost exactly 61 years after another ship struggled to find sanctuary in Florida. The 900-plus passengers on the SS St. Louis in 1939 weren’t ill, but were considered undesirable for a different reason. They were Jews, fleeing Germany, at a time when immigration — and anti-Semitism — were issues as contentious as they are now.
In the wake of Kristallnacht — the Nazi Party-organized riot in 1938 that targeted synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and individuals — many Jews saw the handwriting on the wall and sought to leave Germany. The 900 who boarded the St. Louis were headed for Cuba. Some had relatives there; others hoped to shelter until they could get off waiting lists for visas and emigrate to the U.S., which in 1924 had passed a law that imposed strict immigration quotas.
When the ship arrived in Havana, however, the government refused to allow the passengers to disembark — due to political intrigue between Cuba’s president and its immigration minister over bribes paid to secure landing permits. Nazi agents in the country, meanwhile, stirred up anti-Semitic protests, and a Nazi secret police agent on board the St. Louis as a steward harassed the passengers and looked for ways to make trouble.
Ultimately, negotiations failed, and the ship was forced to leave Cuba. As negotiations continued over where it might find safe harbor, it anchored for a time off Miami Beach but wasn’t allowed to dock, despite intensive lobbying from local and national Jewish groups and appeals to President Franklin Roosevelt. The story was front-page news all over the country. Canada likewise refused entrance to the refugees.
FDR never formally denied entry to the St. Louis’ passengers, leaving the decision up to Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull enforced the provisions of the strict 1924 immigration act to the letter — even rejecting a suggestion by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. that the passengers be allowed to stay as tourists in the Virgin Islands, a U.S. possession. Robert Krakow, an attorney, historian and filmmaker who lives in Boca Raton, has produced a documentary and plays alleging that both Roosevelt and Hull were afraid of appearing too sympathetic to Jewish groups, which they felt might hurt their chances of winning the presidential nomination in 1940 (stlouislegacyproject.org).
Ultimately, the St. Louis sailed back toward Hamburg. The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, was sympathetic to the passengers’ plight. He insisted that the crew treat the refugees with respect and, on the return trip, considered beaching the ship in England so the passengers wouldn’t have to return to Germany. Ultimately, negotiations between the U.S. government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and European governments produced an agreement that saw the ship land in Antwerp, Belgium. England, France and Belgium each agreed to accept a certain number of passengers as refugees.
Within a few months, World War II began. Before it ended, more than 200 of the St. Louis’ 900 Jewish passengers had fallen into the hands of the Germans and were murdered. Remarkably, a number of passengers ultimately decided to emigrate to the U.S. One, John Shilling (nee Jan Shillinger), who was 3 when his family fled Czechoslovakia and boarded the St. Louis, lives today in Lake Worth.
In 2012, the U.S. State Department held a ceremony, attended by several survivors of the St. Louis, formally apologizing for its actions. In Canada in 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a formal apology in the House of Commons.
America is an extraordinary country. But uncertain times — political upheavals, economic depressions, pandemics — seem to put a lot of stress on our humanitarian instincts. The better angels of our nature usually prevail, but it does seem that, particularly in uncertain times, whether in 1939 or 2020, those angels have to struggle against less noble impulses.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's July issue.
Select from the following options: