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Barely a week after assuming office, President Donald Trump set off a worldwide firestorm when he decided to temporarily ban entry to migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from all over the world. In response, many people are looking to the past, to see what history can teach us. But this process can fraught with psychological peril. On today’s Hidden Brain, we revisit a specific incident from World War II – the American decision to refuse entry to Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis – and explore how it speaks to the current mood in the United States.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM (HOST): This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Barely a week after assuming office, President Donald Trump set off a worldwide firestorm when he decided to temporarily ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from all over the world from entering the United States.

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DONALD TRUMP: I'm establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.

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VEDANTAM: Trump's executive order was greeted with support in some quarters.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Trump came in here, not just as the commander in chief for the military. He's a CEO, and he's trying to run - he's trying to protect everybody in the country and he's trying to keep everybody - all Americans regardless of religion - safe from the potential terrorists to come. And I mean, these - some people from some of these parts of the world believe it or not want to kill us.

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VEDANTAM: And with dismay and outrage in others. Spontaneous protests erupted at airports and public squares across the nation.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You've got an obligation and a duty to do what? Resist, resist, resist, resist.

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VEDANTAM: One technique we often use to understand current events is to look to the past to see what history can teach us. But this is a process that is fraught with psychological peril. We're often inclined to draw lessons from history that suit our preconceived notions of how to think about the present. Historians say there are important lessons that we can draw from the past, but there are also dangers to overly neat analogies.

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One analogy that many people have reached for in recent days is the story of the SS St. Louis. It's a notable story drawn from the Holocaust that is revealing in how we respond to the pleas of people fleeing distant shores for the United States. Many people might be familiar with the story of the St. Louis. On today's Hidden Brain, we're going to revisit that story and explore how it speaks to the current mood and anxieties of the United States.

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VEDANTAM: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of religion at Emory University. She's a historian who studied the Holocaust and how the United States and other countries dealt with the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s.

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When a photograph recently circled the globe showing a 3-year-old child lying face down on a beach in Turkey, the boy and his family had drowned as they tried to escape the conflict in Syria. Deborah Lipstadt wrote (reading) seeing the child's lifeless body washed up on a beach, who among us does not wonder is history repeating itself?

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Deborah Lipstadt, welcome to Hidden Brain.

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DEBORAH LIPSTADT (EMORY UNIVERSITY): Thank you very much.

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VEDANTAM: In May 1939, Deborah, a German passenger ship left Hamburg with about 900 passengers. The ship - the SS St. Louis - made a stop in France, picked up a few more passengers. Most of the passengers were hoping to get to the United States. Tell me who these passengers were. Who were they? And why were they on that ship?

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LIPSTADT: Most of them were German nationals, German Jews who had faced terrible persecution. So it was people from all over Germany who were desperate, desperate, desperate, desperate to get out of Germany.

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VEDANTAM: Do we know anything about the stories of individual passengers aboard the ship?

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LIPSTADT: Well, I think there were all sorts. There was one who was, I think, Gisela Feldman. She was 15 years old. Her mother had been married - was married to a Polish Jew who had been in Germany for many years. He had been ejected from Germany in October '38. The mother was desperate to get out with Gisela and her sister, and though the father begged the mother to please wait 'til he came back from Poland, she said I must take my daughters to safety. And that was one family that was on the boat.

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And then there was a 6-year-old Sol Messinger who was traveling with his father and his mother. And he also - these were all people - different classes, different economic status, different educational background - but all people who saw this as a lifeline to getting out of Germany.

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VEDANTAM: So you have the ship of 900 Jewish passengers. It's important to mention, of course, that the SS St. Louis was a German ship. It was under Nazi command. How were the passengers treated aboard the ship?

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LIPSTADT: This is a remarkable part of the story. The captain - Captain Schroder - who is really one of the heroes of the story, instructed his crew that these people were to be treated with the utmost respect as they would treat passengers on any other ship or any other passengers onboard a ship such as this. They were not to be in any way abused or mistreated. So you had ardent Nazis serving Jews and serving them, you know, the same meals that anybody in that class of service would have received. And what you hear - and what's very often so poignant when you read the descriptions, even amongst the children, was the way the anxiety and the tension began to be stripped away as they were treated for the first time in seven years, six years as normal human beings.

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Slowly, but surely they relaxed. They talked about the fact that the captain allowed them to have Friday night services in the cinema or one of the gathering places onboard ship and even allowed them to put a tablecloth over the bust of Adolf Hitler, so they wouldn't be praying with the bust of Adolf Hitler looking on on them. And the children described swimming in the swimming pool, something that Jewish children hadn't been able to do for years.

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VEDANTAM: The plan was for the ship to sail to Cuba. Once in Havana, the passengers are expected to wait until they could gain admission to the United States. But the Cubans didn't want them. The mood on the St. Louis changed immediately from jubilant to deeply dejected. The ship headed for Miami.

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The passengers did not have U.S. travel documents, but this was their only hope. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum interviewed survivors. In 1989, one woman, Gerda Blachmann Wilchfort, described the mood after leaving Cuba. Gerda and her parents were passengers on the St. Louis. She was just a teenager.

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GERDA BLACHMANN WILCHFORT: Well, as you can imagine that was a terrible mood. Everybody was very depressed. A few people committed - tried to commit suicide, I think. But, you know, humans are always hopeful. You know, we always cling to the hope something that's going to happen. They're not going to let us rot on the ocean. I mean, something had to happen to us.

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VEDANTAM: So Deborah set the stage for us. The United States is not yet at war with Germany. World War II has not yet officially broken out. American public sentiment against Hitler is quite strong at this point, and the United States is admitting Jewish refugees. But - and I'm wondering what kind of conversations were happening in Washington in people's homes? Did ordinary Americans care, as Gerda says, if passengers on the St. Louis actually rotted on the ocean?

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LIPSTADT: The truth of the matter is that America at this point was still strongly isolationist, America-first, the movements with which Charles Lindbergh was very much - very closely associated - Lindbergh, of course, being famous for having flown over the Atlantic. But there was a strong, not only isolationist sentiment in America, but there was also a strong anti-immigrant sentiment.

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I think one study showed that 83 percent of Americans were opposed to relaxing immigration restrictions and even more than being anti-immigrant was also anti-refugee because being an immigrant was bad enough, but it meant you could go back to someplace.

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If you were a refugee, generally it meant you weren't going back. And coupled with that, America - there was a strong anti-Semitic sentiment in America. You know, sometimes we think the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Well, that wasn't the case here. What was really happening was that people felt you don't want them. We don't want them either.

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VEDANTAM: The historian David Wyman talks about how U.S. officials kept out foreigners by erecting what he calls paper walls, bureaucratic barriers to entry. But, of course, Deborah, these walls are coming in the context of the Great Depression which had ended only a few years earlier. Many Americans were worried about their livelihoods about immigrants taking their jobs.

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In fact, I believe there were people who said, yes, we want to be compassionate to children who are refugees. But in a few years, those refugee children are going to be adults, and they're going to be competing with us for jobs.

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LIPSTADT: That's exactly right. Look, there were a number of things that helped set the scene in America. First of all, there was the Great Depression, so that you looked at every refugee, every person entering this country as a job competitor. On top of that, you had a terrible xenophobia in America, a fear of the foreigner, a fear of the refugee, a fear of someone who was different. And these were Jewish refugees.

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And there was - on top of that xenophobia was tremendous anti-Semitism. This was a period in the United States of terrific racism - Ku Klux Klan - but coupled with that, there was also a great deal of anti-Semitism. And finally, the third factor which I think is very important is isolationism, the fear that these people coming here were going to drag us into a war.

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And America's first international beyond the American continent involvement had been what was then called the Great War, what we today call World War I. And Americans had felt we got involved, look what's going on in Europe in the 15, 20 years since we were involved. Nothing has really changed. You have Stalin, you have Hitler, you have Mussolini. You know, full me once, get me involved once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We're not going to do this again. So when you put together those elements of the Great Depression, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and isolationism, the refugees from Germany had tremendous hurdles to overcome.

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VEDANTAM: So you have the ship with 900 people off the U.S. coast. The teenager, Gerda Wilchfort, described what happened next.

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WILCHFORT: We just saw the Coast Guard boats surround us in Miami to make sure that we wouldn't even come close to shore, so that was out. We saw the lights of Miami, we saw the lights of America and that was it.

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VEDANTAM: When we come back, we look at what's happening today and how it does and doesn't echo the past. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. After leaving Havana and sitting off the coast of Miami for several days, the St. Louis was eventually turned back to Europe. Passengers were scattered among several European countries. Several hundred were eventually killed by the Nazis. Gerda and her mother escaped to Switzerland, but her father was not so lucky.

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I'm speaking today with Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University. There were some who believe that the consequences of rejecting the St. Louis were felt not just by the passengers onboard the ship. It's worth pointing out that the Nazis actually wanted Jews deported from Germany in the late 1930s. But once you had experiences like the St. Louis, German officials reconsidered the possibility of deporting large numbers of Jews from Germany and German-occupied Europe. So, Deborah, did the voyage of the St. Louis play a role in the German decision to implement what came to be called The Final Solution?

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LIPSTADT: It's hard to trace a direct line from the decision to reject the ship to the Final Solution. I don't know that we can do that, but we certainly can say that this was a propaganda coup for the Germans because they were able to say everyone is mad at us for not wanting the Jews. No one else seems to want them either.

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VEDANTAM: So sometime ago, Deborah, you wrote about the current refugee crisis and asked is history repeating itself. Is it?

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LIPSTADT: You know, I asked that - I wrote that a while back, and I'm reluctant. Since then, there have been so many glib comparisons to history, so many glib comparisons. This is just like Hitler. This is just like Mussolini. This is just like Germany in '33, '38 whatever. I don't know if history is repeating itself. I deal with the past when it's already happened, you know?

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But I do think that there are some very ominous signs on the horizon and ominous sentiments certainly in the United States, but not only in the United States which take us very far away from the ideals on which our country was founded.

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VEDANTAM: I want to think about the uses of history and the present, and I want to be careful about two potential pitfalls. And one is over-interpreting history and the other is under-interpreting history. So let's just do the first one first. You know, there are people who would use history as a cudgel to score political points and especially when that history is about Hitler and the Holocaust, it's very difficult to draw analogies without sounding like you're leveling very, very serious accusations.

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I was speaking yesterday with Sarah Ogilvie of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is the co-author of the book "Refuge Denied" about the voyage of the St. Louis. And she reminded me it was important to keep nuances in mind - ISIS and the Syrian civil war are not identical to Hitler and the Third Reich. Many of the refugees fleeing today are fleeing from third countries that made it out of war zones. Some are seeking economic opportunity and not just physical safety. So there is a risk in sort of over-interpreting history and saying what happened with the St. Louis is exactly what's happening today.

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LIPSTADT: The refugee crisis we're seeing today is not the same as the Holocaust. What happened in Aleppo was horrific. Civilians were purposely targeted, schools were targeted, hospitals were targeted, markets were targeted, but it wasn't a holocaust. Having said that - and I want to make this explicitly clear - I'm not saying that therefore we should not respond. I think it's our obligation in each generation we face crises. They don't have to be akin to a holocaust for us to respond. Don't - no one should say, oh, it's not a Holocaust. Wake me when it's a holocaust because if you wake someone then, it's too late to do anything.

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VEDANTAM: You know, and that brings us to the idea of under-interpreting history. After the Holocaust, we said, you know, never forget, but if never forget means that we will only pay attention when the lives of Jews are at risk or we have someone like Hitler in charge of a major country, then that essentially means that there really is no likely application for history to the present time. And it seems like that's not really learning very much from the lessons of history.

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LIPSTADT: It's a very delicate balance. I don't study history and teach history only because I'm interested in arcane facts of what happened in the past. I obviously believe that history has something to teach us, but I'm also modest in judgment of drawing simple parallels because then you tend to get glib, and then you tend to flatten out differences.

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At the same time, I think it's wrong to ignore certain tendencies, to ignore certain behaviors, to ignore leaders who see themselves in a certain way or act in a certain way whether in our country, whether in Europe. You see it in many different places. That - and their behavior is reminiscent of leaders in the past who went on to do very terrible things both to their own people and to other countries, inhabitants of other countries, so it's a balance.

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And speaking about today's situation and comparing it to the 1930s, let me start with the 1930s. I grew up, you know, amongst many refugees from Hitler. I lived - I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I never saw in my lifetime more loyal citizens to the United States, people whose devotion to the United States of America was overwhelming. I remember some of those people during the late '60s and the Vietnam, you know, uprising. And when my generation which thought it knew everything was telling our parents what was wrong with this country - their pain.

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And it wasn't the blind loyalty, but it was a love and a devotion that sometimes the person who was born into that country may not have to the same extent. So, you know, they love this country. They love the United States with a passion because the United States had rescued them. And I think that sometimes reaching out to people and showing them the best of who we are, not in a stupid fashion and not in a thoughtless fashion in a careful, vetted fashion will do more to win loyalties than throwing up barriers to everyone.

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VEDANTAM: Many of the passengers on the St. Louis were saved because individuals and non-governmental organizations stepped forward to do the right thing. Many people, of course, looked to governments to provide the lead, but it seems to me that one of the potential historical lessons of the St. Louis is that if you care about refugees, you could step up to act, even if you feel your government is not doing so.

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LIPSTADT: I agree 100 percent. You know, I read many stories these past few days of people - or in past weeks - people going to airports with clothing and with toys for arriving children.

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And on some level, I thought while this is a great gift for the people arriving because most of them are arriving with nothing, it's also a tremendous gift to the people who are doing it. They feel so good about what they're doing. It's hands-on good deeds. It's hands-on justice. It's hands-on opening your arms to the stranger. We shouldn't open our arms to strangers blindly. We should be careful, but we shouldn't say just because they're strangers they're a threat, just because they're strangers they're a danger to us.

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VEDANTAM: Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of religion at Emory University. Deborah, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

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LIPSTADT: Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about these crucial topics. I really appreciate it.

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VEDANTAM: This episode of Hidden Brain was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman and Rhaina Cohen. Our staff includes Chloe Connellly and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Special thanks this week to Russell Newlove at the BBC. Our unsung hero today is NPR's science editor Anne Gudenkauf. Anne played a central role in developing Hidden Brain on the radio and has been a powerful force in shaping all of public radio's science journalism. Anne hates to be in the spotlight, so along with saying thank you, I'm going to say I'm sorry.

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For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you like the show, please tell a friend and tell us whom you've tapped on social media. We're always looking for new people to find our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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