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Editorial: Refugees seeking safety from war is a familiar story

The story of the MS St. Louis, an ill-fated passenger ship that left Hamburg, Germany, in May 1939 en route to Cuba, is well known by Holocaust scholars. Among its 937 passengers were German Jews fleeing Nazi violence and persecution.

Movie aficionados might remember the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned,” which was based on the story of the St. Louis and its doomed passengers. The ship arrived in Cuba, but the passengers were not allowed to disembark. 

The ship then moved up the East Coast; no port would allow the ship to dock, no city would take these refugees. America and Canada turned their back on the passengers.

Today, we see another movement of refugees looking for safety. Across the North Fork, groups are finding ways to help the refugees — a very good development. 

On March 13, the Orient Association held a prayer vigil and fundraiser at the Orient Congregational Church. “We are here to help as much as we can,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Donna Schaper.

The group of perhaps 40 people raised $2,450 to send to St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead, which has become a sort of base of operations for getting help to the refugees. Nearly every day, people bring clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and medical supplies to the church basement for shipment to refugee centers in Poland.

We received an email this week from Lynda Corrado, a Southold resident who volunteers at the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation, who said CAST is receiving donations intended for the Ukrainian refugees. As others have found, it is expensive and cumbersome to ship supplies such as medicines and food to eastern Europe. She said there is a better way to get help where it is needed.

She said she learned from a friend who has worked for the Red Cross that “one of the very best ways to help is a financial donation to a charity that is working on the ground in Ukraine. Financial resources help them provide the exact goods that are needed for each relief area and can mobilize them quickly to bring relief.”

After the St. Louis was turned away by American and Canadian ports, the ship returned to Europe. Many of its passengers sought safety in France and other countries. History tells us that 255 of them died during the war — the vast majority of them rounded up and sent to death camps. 

Two of those sent to Auschwitz were Leon Joel and his wife — great-uncle and great-aunt of singer Billy Joel. Both were killed. Their young son, who was with them aboard the St. Louis, was hidden in France and survived.

Billy Joel, inspired by that family history, has donated $250,000 through his foundation to directly help refugees fleeing Ukraine and Russian war crimes with everything from winter clothes to medical supplies.

The next development in this horrific Ukrainian tragedy will be refugees coming or trying to come to America. In Great Britain alone, more than 90,000 people have already signed up to host Ukrainian refugees in their homes.

This brings up the story of the St. Louis and its refugee passengers being turned away from our shores.

As fate had it, Karl and Meta Joel and their son Helmut — Billy Joel’s father — had left Hamburg on another ship. Its passengers were allowed to disembark in Havana. While Karl was in Havana, and after the St. Louis was not allowed to dock, he rented a boat and went out into the harbor so he could shout up to the deck of the St. Louis and talk to his brother and his brother’s family.

He would have watched from the shoreline when the St. Louis departed to ply the East Coast looking for safe harbor it never found. For the refugees aboard the St. Louis, this was a voyage of the damned.

We can only hope Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homeland will not be damned to suffer from a repetition of history.