I’ve been working on a chapter that involves Margot Black’s flight from fascist Europe in the summer of 1940, following the German invasion of France that spring. In the novel, Margot is aided by American journalist Varian Fry and his network of diplomats and do-gooders who worked, often extra-legally, to help leading Jewish and/or radical artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals — think: Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Thomas Mann, and others — escape the Nazis.
Digging deeper into this story, the issue of Margot’s travel papers came up, and I realized I knew very little about the nitty gritty details of this — though I knew from Casablanca (Warner Bros., 1942) that nobody could get anywhere without the proper “letters of transit.” But what did that actually mean?
The View from Hollywood:
Here’s a quick overview of “travel papers” and what Casablanca screenwriter Howard Koch got right — and very wrong: https://ischool.uw.edu/podcasts/dtctw/casablanca-letters-transit
Oh, and those fake travel papers from the film (pictured above)? Auctioned off for $118,000 and change in the ’80s: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22196/lot/84/
The View from History:
For the real deal, I turned to the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum website. It’s become a go-to research site for me, and it did not disappoint this time: “What did Refugees Need to Obtain a US Visa in the 1930s?” walked me through the seven required steps, from registering for the waiting list and gathering documents to collecting transit visas and interviewing with the consulate. As you might imagine, the process was fraught with difficulties, delays, and roadblocks, from exorbitant fees to expired stamps that could send you back to the end of the line. And, of course, immigration quotas, so that even if you did everything right, you could still be denied safe passage — as many were.
And sometimes, even if you were lucky enough to get a spot on a westbound ship rather than an eastbound train, you might still get royally screwed. The two youngsters pictured here were among the 900 Jewish refugees who sailed from Germany on the SS St. Louis on May 13, 1939. Little more than a month later, after being turned away from both Florida and Cuba, they were forced to return to Germany.
‘Topics of the Times: Refugee Ship,” New York Times, June 8, 1939
“No plague ship ever received a sorrier welcome. Yet those aboard had sailed with high hopes. About fifty of them, according to our Berlin dispatch, had consular visas. The others all had landing permits for which they had paid; they were unaware that these permits had been declared void in a decree dated May 5. Only a score of the hundreds were admitted. At Havana the St. Louis’s decks became a stage for human misery. Relatives and friends clamored to get aboard but were held back. Weeping refugees clamoring to get ashore were halted at guarded gangways. For days the St. Louis lingered within the shadow of Morrow Castle but there was no relaxation of the new regulations. Every appeal was rejected. One man reached land. He was pulled from the water with slashed wrists and rushed to a hospital. A second suicide attempt led the captain to warn that a wave of self-destruction might follow. The forlorn refugees themselves organized a patrol committee. Yet out of Havana Harbor the St. Louis had to go, trailing pitiful cries of ‘Auf Wiedersehen.’ Off our shores she was attended by a helpful Coast Guard vessel alert to pick up any passengers who plunged overboard and thrust them back to the St. Louis again. The refugees could even see the shimmering towers of Miami rising from the sea, but for them they were only the battlements of another forbidden city.”
Whether fueled by isolationist policies or overt anti-Semitism, the refusal of dozens of countries, including the United States, to raise restrictive immigration quotas exacerbated this all-too-evident humanitarian crisis and paved the way for the Holocaust.
Revisiting the plight of the SS St. Louis the other day, I felt my blood pressure rising. I don’t know about you but to me, 2020 doesn’t feel all that different from 1938…. In the U.S., we’ve spent the last three years arguing and protesting about border walls and travel bans, in the midst of global displacements caused by war and violence, assaults on safety and human rights, economic crisis, climate crisis — and now, last week, Texas became the first state to refuse to accept refugees under a new opt-in requirement for resettlement. WTF.
This is not my area of expertise but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a policy wonk to understand that we are living in the midst of, and all too often closing our eyes to, a global humanitarian crisis.
What is to be done?
This impassioned piece by Jennifer Wright draws some terrific parallels between 1938 and today — and includes a call to action that resonated for me: “I can’t tell you what actions you should take, because I don’t know what talents you have at your disposal. Do you have legal skills to help people who may be threatened by these new changes? Use them. Can you write about what’s going on? Write about it. Do you have a church or place or worship to help organize refuge for the persecuted? Do so. Do you have time to call your senators and congressmen? Call. Keep calling. Make them hear you.”
As both a historian and now a novelist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about good Germans and good Americans and the choices we face in dark, disempowering times. And here’s my nitty-gritty takeaway:
It doesn’t matter so much what we do. But it does matter that we do something.
Sources and Resources
More on Varian Fry:
From the Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/varian-fry
Interview with Julie Orringer on her novel, The Flight Portfolio: https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/news/radcliffe-magazine/finding-truth-in-fiction-story-varian-fry
SS St. Louis photo + document credit:
Robert Abzug, America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History, 83-85.