Tragedy from the past must inform the present

In this April 10, 2015 file photo visitors stand in front of the gate of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald with the inscription 'Jedem das Seine' (To each his own) at the eve of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi concentration camp. The Buchenwald Memorial has rescinded its invitation to a prominent member of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party to participate in its Holocaust Remembrance Day services, following his comments suggesting ending the country's tradition of acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Last Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated those who died in the mass genocide committed by the Nazi regime. This day not only served to honor those who died in the genocide, but it also called upon observers to analyze different social and political problems at that time.

One Twitter project honored the day through focusing on the MS St. Louis, a ship that fled from Germany in 1939, carrying about 900 Jewish refugees. It planned to stop in Cuba and then gain entry to the United States, but it was unable to complete its journey because of strict United States immigration quotas. 624 passengers returned to continental Europe and about half of them were murdered in the Holocaust. In a time of great hostility to refugees, this project utilizes social media in an effective and beneficial manner, both to honor victims and to educate people about the past.

This project, called the St. Louis Manifest, was created by software developer Russel Neiss and Rabbi Charlie Schwartz and can be found on Twitter at @STL_Manifest. As with other collaborations between the two, it aims to use technology to raise awareness for Jewish history, culture and issues. The St. Louis Manifest shares pictures and stories of refugees on the St. Louis who were turned away by the United States and consequently died in the Holocaust. These names and faces are so important to include with the tragic statistics taught in schools and recited in speeches. This project helps display that the murdered people were not just numbers, but people who loved and were loved, and they wanted safety from those who persecuted them based on their religion. Though the project began less than a week ago on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it has gained over 70,000 followers.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was also significant for reasons other than being a day of commemoration. Last Friday, President Trump signed an executive order that suspended United States refugee admission for 120 days, indefinitely suspended the Syrian refugee program and banned entry to the United States from seven Muslim majority countries. These kinds of religious prejudices and refusals to accept refugees reflect various problems also experienced by Jewish people when fleeing the Nazis. This blatant ignorance of the past goes directly against the day of remembrance on which this executive order was made.

The creators of the St. Louis Manifest project recognize the relevance of this history to current events. Their twitter description includes both “#WeRemember” and “#RefugeesWelcome.” Creator Russel Neiss also told journalist Candice Norwood from the Atlantic that the story of the St. Louis was a time when the United States did not “live up to its ideals,” and he stated that we must consider whether or not our country is currently living up to our ideals.

The St. Louis Manifest gives faces to statistics we hear from the Holocaust. Through browsing the Twitter account, we can learn people’s names and see the faces of those whom the United States turned away in 1939 and died as a result. This project makes the numbers, the six million Jews, the 250,000 people with disabilities and the millions of non-Jewish Soviet and Polish civilians, much more personal. Once we hear specifics, the numbers become people and the true devastation feels much closer.

It is important to remember that the refugees currently seeking aid from the United States are also more than just numbers from tragedies occurring around the world. They are people with faces and stories, running from home for protection. It is important to observe days of commemoration such as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but it is meaningless if we mourn the events of the past without allowing them to guide our future actions. Refugees are once again seeking help from the United States, and on the day we are supposed to consider the past, President Trump ignored it and silenced them.


Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.