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SLIDESHOW: Nationwide St. Louis Vigils

Jun 07, 2017

Blog Post

Rachel Nusbaum and Gabe Cahn, HIAS.org

Participants in the New York City St. Louis Vigil hold yahrzeit candles, in memory of those turned away nearly 80 years ago, June 6, 2017.

(Harold Levine)

Sonja Maier Geismar, who was a five year old passenger aboard the MS St. Louis, points to a photo of herself at the St. Louis Vigil in New York City, June 6, 2017.

(Bill Swersey/HIAS)

HIAS Director of Education Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer addresses the 250 participants at the St. Louis Vigil in New York City, June 6, 2017.

(Bill Swersey/HIAS)

Rabbis recite Mourner's Kaddish for the lives lost after being forced to return to Europe on the MS St. Louis at the vigil in New York City, June 6, 2017.

(Bill Swersey/HIAS)

Participants read accounts of MS St. Louis passengers and contemporary refugees as part of the St. Louis Vigil in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017.

(Courtesy © Lloyd Wolf / www.lloydwolf.com)

D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton addresses more than 150 people at the Washington, D.C. St. Louis Vigil, June 6, 2017.

(Courtesy © Lloyd Wolf / www.lloydwolf.com)

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL 23rd District) speaks at the St. Louis Vigil in Washington, D.C., June 6, 2017.

(Courtesy © Lloyd Wolf / www.lloydwolf.com)

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz (L) and Beth Schafer (center) sing for the approximately 60 participants at the St. Louis Vigil in Baltimore, Maryland, June 6, 2017.

(Rabbi Deborah Bravo)

Members of the Women's Rabbinic Network gather at the St. Louis Vigil in Baltimore, Maryland, June 6, 2017.

(Rabbi Deborah Bravo)

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams kicks off the St. Louis Vigil in Brooklyn, New York, June 6, 2017.

(Gabe Cahn/HIAS)

Nigerian asylum seeker and LGBT advocate Audu Kadiri speaks to the 70 participants at the St. Louis Vigil in Brooklyn, New York, June 6, 2017.

(Gabe Cahn/HIAS)

Participants read accounts of MS St. Louis passengers and contemporary refugees as part of the St. Louis Vigil in Nyack, New York, June 6, 2017.

(Eva Friedberg)

Approximately 80 people gather at the St. Louis Vigil in Nyack, New York, June 6, 2017.

(Eva Friedberg)

Nearly 80 people gather at the St. Louis Vigil in Princeton, New Jersey, June 6, 2017.

(Rebecca Kirzner/HIAS)

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker speaks at the St. Louis Vigil in Princeton, New Jersey, June 6, 2017.

(Wilma Solomon)

Participants gather at the St. Louis Vigil at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, June 6, 2017.

(Alan Halpern)

Lit and unlit yahrzeit candles, in memory of those turned away nearly 80 years ago and in recognition of today's refugees, at the St. Louis Vigil at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado, June 6, 2017.

(Alan Halpern)

Some of the approximately 35 participants join together in song at the St. Louis Vigil in Montclair, New Jersey, June 6, 2017.

(Martin Golan)

Bnai Keshet's Rabbi Elliott Tepperman (R) plays guitar at the St. Louis Vigil in Montclair, New Jersey, June 6, 2017.

(Martin Golan)

Participants gather at the St. Louis Vigil in Melville, New York, June 6, 2017.

(Pamela Block)

Delia Rogers helps lead the St. Louis Vigil in Greenville, South Carolina, June 6, 2017.

(Miles Rogers)

Dr. Gretchen Braun holds a sign at the St. Louis Vigil in Greenville, South Carolina, June 6, 2017.

(Miles Rogers)

Participants read aloud as part of the St. Louis Vigil in Brookline, Massachusetts, June 6, 2017.

(Jill A Winitzer)

People gather at the St. Louis Vigil in Brookline, Massachusetts, June 6, 2017.

(Jill A Winitzer)

Participants hold photos of MS St. Louis passengers at the vigil in St. Louis, Missouri, June 6, 2017.

(Glenn Reigelman/Glennmade Films)

Clarence Jackson, from the Ecumenical Leadership Council of St. Louis, speaks at the vigil in St. Louis, Missouri, June 6, 2017.

(Glenn Reigelman/Glennmade Films)

Participants gather at Congregation Beth Shalom for the St. Louis Vigil in Woodlands, Texas, June 6, 2017.

(Aram Derewetsky)

Congregation Beth Shalom's Rabbi Matthew Berger helps lead the St. Louis Vigil in Woodlands, Texas, June 6, 2017.

(Aram Derewetsky)

Assemblymember David Chiu speaks in front of San Francisco City Hall as part of the St. Louis Vigil in San Francisco, California, June 6, 2017.

(Office of Assemblymember David Chiu)

California State Senator Mark Leno speaks at St. Louis Vigil in San Francisco, California, June 6, 2017.

(Max Cherney)

June 6, 1939. The day the St. Louis ship was forced to turn back to Europe after the United States denied entry to hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

Of the 937 Jewish refugees on board, 254 would be killed in concentration camps.

Those lives could have been saved, if only the U.S. had opened its doors to those refugees. On the 78th anniversary of that tragic day, vigils were held across the country to say: never again.

From Alexandria, Virginia to Woodlands, Texas, to San Francisco, California, communities gathered to light yahrzeit candles, in memory of those turned away nearly 80 years ago and to urge our country to chart a better course for today’s refugees.

“Now is such a critical time for the Jewish community to be advocating for the United States to support and welcome refugees,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement at HIAS.

“The anniversary of the St. Louis being turned away from our shores is an important reminder of what’s at stake in this debate. The more than 20 vigils held across the country are just one reflection of the growing movement for refugees in the American Jewish community,” Rosenn said.

During the ritual moment in each of the vigils, participants lit yahrzeit candles in memory of the St. Louis passengers who ultimately perished in the Holocaust, and left other yahrzeit candles unlit, as a symbol of hope for the refugees searching for safety today. The message—that this country can and should do more to avoid turning away vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers—was a sentiment shared by those who turned out to the vigils across the country.   

“The pressing issue of my generation will be how we treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” said Rabbi Steven Abraham, who organized the vigil in Omaha, Nebraska. “Do we open our hearts and our hands to those in need, or clench our fist?”  

Elected officials joined several of the events. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Bradley Schneider spoke at a Washington, D.C. vigil held in Upper Senate park, just steps from the Capitol. Over on the West Coast, State Senator Mark Leno and Assemblymember David Chiu spoke at a vigil held in San Francisco. And in New York City, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams kicked off the vigil held in front of Borough Hall.

A few vigils even heard from a survivor of the St. Louis, or from the child or grandchild of a St. Louis passenger.

“My mother, Gertrud Scheuer, was 24 years old in 1939, when she boarded a ship called the St. Louis in the hope that it would deliver her to freedom,” Pam Mendels told the crowd at a vigil in Manhattan. “Close to half of the 181 St. Louis passengers who disembarked with her in Rotterdam would perish in the Holocaust.”

“Because I am standing here today, it's clear that my mother was not among them. And the story of her survival is what gives the saga of the St. Louis its deepest meaning for me. For five long years in the Netherlands, men and women of profound humanity risked their lives to save my mother. The heroes included a Catholic couple, Willem and Zus DeBruijn. They sheltered my mother for more than a year, taking her in not only as a housekeeper but also as a part of their family,” Mendels said.

To help amplify the commemoration, the viral Twitter account St. Louis Manifest, created on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, made a surprise reappearance. The account, created by St. Louis-based Jewish educator Russel Neiss, shares photos, names and short narratives for MS St. Louis passengers.

“As communities across the country gather to remember the fate of the St. Louis, we in St. Louis feel the call of those refugees who lost their lives because our hearts and borders were closed,” said Rabbi Susan Talve, of Missouri’s Central Reform Congregation. “We will not let their deaths be in vain as we stand ready to welcome today’s refugees with open arms and say: never again!”

Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez read a statement honoring the 937 refugees aboard the St. Louis into the congressional record in honor of the anniversary. “At a time when acts of fear and intolerance have dictated policies to yet again shut America’s doors to those fleeing harm, we must remain committed to ensuring that America is and will continue to be a place of hope and second chances,” Velázquez said.

“As we reflect on this tragic occasion, let us recommit to ensuring that no one who is in desperate need is turned away from our country’s shores,” Velázquez urged.