Let us live “Never Again”

The story of the SS St. Louis has been much sensationalized since its occurrence in1939. While the truth is that the Jewish refugees on board were not immediately sent back to Germany, it is still a horrible tale of an uncertain future for all on board. The Cuban government denied the SS St. Louis, a steamship filled with Jewish refugees from Germany asylum in Cuba. The ship’s passengers then attempted to disembark in the United States and the federal government denied entry again. The Joint Distribution Committee and the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees then persuaded Belgium to take the passengers even though the passengers had not gone through the process of obtaining a visa for Belgium. [1] While the Hollywood version of this story is much more dramatic, the truth highlights the challenges the Jewish refugees faced in the years leading up to, and during, World War II. In modern times the world is facing similar refugee issues to those Jews faced during the World War II era. Individuals and organizations, however, are taking action to assist today’s refugees.

The SS St. Louis

The world has rightfully declared that the atrocities committed during the Holocaust will never be tolerated again. But today, due to the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts, the number of refugees has exceeded 60 million people, the first time it has gotten this high in the post-World War II era. While these figures are staggering, individuals and groups, such as the United Nations and local refugee centers are trying to help the refugees. In addition, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has created a model that facilitators can use for engaging visitors in dialogue on the current refugee crisis. The model has four phases. Phase I helps build community and break down barriers between people by allowing participants to share information about themselves. Phase II encourages participants to recognize how their experiences are alike and different and why. Phase III creates a framework for participants to engage in inquiry and exploration about the topic in an effort to learn with and from one another. Finally, Phase IV helps the group to reflect on the dialogue and what they learned. [2] Through each phase the participants can discuss their own thoughts on the refugee crisis and how to help.

While the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is using its resources to create a tool for others to begin a dialogue about the crisis, Linda Sarsour is an activist in her local community putting that dialogue into action.  Linda Sarsour is an Arab American who lives in Brooklyn and is the Director of the Arab American Association of New York. The organization assists with challenges Arab Americans may face. For example, it helps Arabs who have relocated to the Brooklyn area register their children for school. It also provides assistance to women who have experienced domestic violence. [3] In addition, Sarsour is an activist who works with young people to get them involved in Arab American community issues. Sarsour and her organization train these students to identify issues in their schools or communities and provide guidance on how to address them. The students have even created an online newspaper called The Amplifier to create outreach and tell their stories of being children or grandchildren of migrants.


Linda Sarsour in Brooklyn

The current refugee crisis is real and relevant and fear should not stop people from beginning a dialogue or reaching out into his or her community. While the fear surrounding national security when it comes to admitting refugees is real, it should not be forgotten that these are people who have made the harrowing decision to leave their homes because they were unsafe. They are people who deserve to feel safe and have the opportunity to live in a world without fear.  The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and Linda Sarsour are doing their part to help this crisis, but there is still more to be done.


Photo Credits:

Students in the Haag.  http://www.studeerindenhaag.nl/assets/data/content/2015/09/oneyoungworld.jpg

Cloud Front. http://d2dr8938rg169c.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/LindaSarsour.png.

Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/images/stlouis.jpg


[1] Richard Breigman and Allen J. Lichtman. FDR and the Jews (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), 138.

[2] “Front Page Dialogue: The Refugee Crisis.” International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. http://www.sitesofconscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Refugees-FINAL.pdf.

[3] “Arab American Stories- Linda Sarsour Interview.” YouTube. Accessed February 10, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEMR1gLUU!o


15 thoughts on “Let us live “Never Again”

  1. Your incorporation of the story of the SS St. Louis to the conversation about refugees and the hardships they faced in the past brings a powerful connection to the present and the situations that refugees are experiencing while fleeing their home countriestoday. Not only can museums use the tools given by Sites of Conscience to spark conversation and debate, maybe they can be inspired by the work of activists like Linda Sarsour and find ways to create change for the refugee populations in their communities.

  2. I wonder what a museum’s role is in making refugees feel safe and welcome? I know that the Minnesota Historical Society has been collecting recent immigrant’s oral histories, but I wonder if there is more that they can do. Museums, as I understand them, are meant to be community spaces so I would hope that they could also find a way to engage with issues around refugees and immigrants, rather than just showing the history of immigration as it relates to the early 20th century.

    1. Anna, I too wondered how museums can take part in making sure that refugees are safe and welcomed. I think that dialogue is important, but the collecting of oral histories would be a powerful tool to not only engage with refugees, but help ease the fear that so many people have right now. Museums need to get out into their communities and ask refugee and community groups and activists what they think will help and then implement those things into the museum, whether that be through exhibitions, events, or lectures.

    2. This is an interesting question. I think more museums need to push themselves to encourage conversations between visitors about immigration and other relevant topics. While I applaud the Minnesota Historical Society for collecting oral histories and believe they are valuable resources, I wonder what the museum is planning on doing with them to create a larger impact. Collecting stories is important, but so is sharing stories. I’d love to see museums host moderated public forums or panels that discuss refugees and immigration.

      1. I agree Christine. Collecting refugees’ oral histories, documenting their experiences, and making connections with refugee communities is important, but further steps need to be taken to make a larger impact. At the Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University, they partnered with the refugee center in Aurora, Illinois, the Karen refugee community in Aurora, and the Southeast Asian Studies Center at NIU to research for and execute an exhibition on the Karen refugee experience in Northern Illinois. However, these institutions/groups also formed a committee that will research and discover new partnerships that they can form with other cultural groups, businesses, and government entities to increase visibility and promote advocacy for the Karen refugee community. I think museum could possibly take a more proactive stance on advocacy and activism for refugee communities by creating partnerships with outside organizations.

      2. I love the idea of hosting moderated forums to discuss these issues. Of course museums have an obligation to collect and preserve stories, but what good does preservation do if people can’t use the stories and learn from them? Museums have to walk a fine line when it comes to advocacy, but we can still use our resources to open up community discussion and to bring groups together to learn from one another.

  3. It is so sad to see history repeating itself. The ability of a museum to act as a forum of discussion could be a key role in having museums take a more engaging role. In the community. Additionally, museums could also “disguise” certain issues of the present, such as HIV/AIDS and the Syrian Refugee Crisis, with exhibits on similar historic events such as Tuberculosis and the Holocaust. In doing so, the museum can help guide their audiences to a better understanding of contemporary issues,to show how history does (pardon the cliche) repeat itself, and to help individuals how to possibly take action on some of these issues.

  4. I, like Anna, was also wondering about a museum’s role within this particular discussion. As we have read, today’s populations are growing and changing at a dizzying pace. Being aware and engaging in these issues can bring our institutions closer to communities we hope to serve. I think that training museum professionals to navigate and connect with these issues can have a tremendous effect to facilitate discussion, present meaningful exhibitions, and create impactful programming.

  5. I feel it important that, with the current refugee crisis that faces us, we better understand our own history with refugee groups and how our country has often not so open and welcoming. Certainly, museums can and should have a role in exploring this history and helping determine how and what shaped particular responses to these issues. Given the present realities in the rest of the world, and given the shameful rhetoric, pandering, and race- and culture-baiting are political affairs has descended into, it is a discussion that cannot come a moment too soon.

  6. It’s depressing how many of the bad facets of our past keep coming back to us. With the recent crisis, there have been too many calls for reestablishing quotas, exclusion, even internment. It’s times like these museums need to open up dialogue, and guide the conversation. People need reminders of tragedies like the S.S. Saint Louis, to remind them that hateful rhetoric and policies have a human cost.

  7. History truly does repeat itself. The refugees have changed from Jewish people to Syrians, the antisemitism has been superseded by Islamophobia… although this rather unfortunate progression is not surprising, what is refreshing and new is the exposure that community organizers like Linda Sarsour now have. Her work for her community and towards a more accepting society are visible to the world, something that wasn’t as easy to achieve in the World War II era. What might have happened if Jewish community organizers had the same ability to reach out and the same resources for expression that Ms. Sarsour has today?

  8. I loved the article about Linda Sarsour. I’ve heard of efforts to educate people outside the Muslim community about the many sides of the religion (such as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ ‘Muslim Journeys’ grant). This was a great example of the other side of advocacy work–operating from within the community to empower the youth. It would be wonderful to see museums support that work.

  9. The connection between the past with the SS St Louis and the present with the discussion refugee is a great history connection while also providing historical evidence on how long this has been a issue in the United States. I feel many people today only feel that immigration is a recent issue when in reality it is as old as time. People that have become apart of the community are wary of those trying to join. There are so many parallels from the how the past handled this issue and how it is being handled now. It is the duty of the museum to show these strings and educate about the issues so these incidents never happen again.

  10. You guys really hit the nail on the head with what I’m thinking. Firstly, it is horrible to see history repeating itself over and over again, despite the fact that we have learned that harsh immigration tactics have proven to be inhumane and not plausible. I also was truly inspired by what Linda Sarsour has been doing for her community. Empowerment is really important and the fact that she is empowering young adults to be leaders in their own ways is absolutely inspiring. I agree that there is much more that needs to be done, and I’m interested to see if additions of oral histories in museums or other community spaces would be enough to get the conversation started. From experience, I know that once you get to know a person and hear their struggle from their native country and their experience in America, it is very hard to forget that they are human, just like everyone else.

  11. As everyone else has stated, history does repeat, and I don’t think enough of the general public sees it when considering contemporary issues like the refugee crisis today. What better place to present these parallels with history than in a museum or historical institution? Isn’t it our duty to at least address the issue and keep the public informed? To take it outside of the walls of an exhibit and into the community through partnering with activist organizations? Especially in today’s digital age, getting the word out there is so much easier with venues like social media and we just have to be prepared to take this step by utilizing resources through organizations like the Sites of Conscience and partnerships with activist organizations like the Arab American Association of New York.

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