US immigration and families: A tale from the Holocaust era

Why We Wrote This

Immigration policy usually speaks to a nation’s values. In her historical documentary “Nobody Wants Us,” filmmaker Laura Seltzer-Duny wants to “help create empathy for refugees – then and now.”

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These European refugees, denied entry to the United States in New York and Mexico at Vera Cruz, line the rail of the Portuguese steamer Quanza and talk to relatives on the pier when the ship stopped to refuel at Norfolk, Virginia, Sept. 11, 1940.

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It didn’t look promising in 1940 when 83 mostly Belgian Jewish refugees aboard the SS Quanza hoped to gain asylum in the United States. Isolationism was flaring, and opposition to admitting any refugees was dominant. But after a chain of events that included the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, the passengers were granted entry into the U.S.

The story of the SS Quanza is told in “Nobody Wants Us,” a documentary by filmmaker Laura Seltzer-Duny that had its New York premiere this month. The film lays out the details that underpin a conviction among Holocaust researchers that the Quanza was something of a miracle – and not only because this ship’s refugees were allowed into the U.S. while hundreds of thousands of other Jews were turned away. The documentary also underscores the tenacity of a few key individuals without whom the Quanza’s fortuitous outcome would not exist.

But for Ms. Seltzer-Duny, the real purpose of her project is to encourage viewers, especially young people, to relate history to events taking place now. “I very definitely set out,” she says, “to tell a story that would open people’s eyes to what’s going on today.”

Well into her retirement years, Annette Lachmann enjoys a happy and active life, teaching critical writing at a New York community college and spending time as a doting grandmother.

The flood of migrant and asylum-seeking families across the U.S.-Mexico border might seem to be worlds away from that of the comfortable Upper West Side octogenarian.

But news of families detained in fetid conditions and, above all, of infants and small children being separated from their parents took Ms. Lachmann back eight decades, and pierced her heart.

In the summer of 1940, a 3-year-old Annette was the youngest passenger on the SS Quanza, a ship whose passengers included 83 mostly Belgian Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly menacing Europe and hoping for asylum in the United States.

But the Quanza arrived in an America where isolationism was flaring and where opposition to admitting any refugees – least of all Jewish refugees who, it was thought, might be communists and terrorists – was dominant.

“The ship was hot and smelly, I remember that, but I was glued to my mother the whole time; at least I had that,” says Ms. Lachmann. “So I think of those children down at the border being separated from their parents, from anyone they know and trust, and I feel I have some idea of how traumatized they must be – even though,” she adds, “for them it must be 10 times worse.”

If Ms. Lachmann has her happy American life today, it is because the unwanted passengers of the Quanza were finally granted entry into the U.S. – but only after a chain of events that included the relentless intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Over a few critical days in September 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt would press her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on behalf of the ship’s refugees and in opposition to the powerful and fiercely anti-immigrant assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long.

The story of the SS Quanza is now being told in “Nobody Wants Us,” a documentary by the Washington, D.C., filmmaker Laura Seltzer-Duny.

Individuals who made a difference

The 35-minute film lays out the details that underpin a conviction among Holocaust researchers that the Quanza was something of a miracle – and not only because this one ship carrying 83 refugees was allowed into the U.S. while hundreds of thousands of other Jews were turned away. (A year earlier the U.S. turned away the MS St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees. Historians have determined that at least a quarter perished in Nazi Germany death camps.)

The film also underscores the tenacity of a few key individuals – from a Portuguese consul in France who issued thousands of visas to desperate Jews despite his government’s orders, to a married couple, both Virginia lawyers, who used maritime law to stall the ship’s return to Europe – without whom the Quanza’s fortuitous outcome would not exist.

Chrystie Sherman/ChrystieSherman.com
Three-year-old Annette Lachmann, the youngest passenger on the SS Quanza, peers through a porthole at her father at dock in Virginia in 1940.

The film also includes comments from Ms. Lachmann and features a heartbreaking photo of the tiny 3-year-old reaching through one of the Quanza’s portholes to her father, who was already in the U.S. but was not allowed to board the ship to see his family.

But for Ms. Seltzer-Duny, the real purpose of her project is to encourage viewers, especially young people, to relate history to events taking place in their country today.

“This has so many important messages for everyone across our country,” she says, tapping the DVD copy of “Nobody Wants Us” that she holds in her lap. “But my passion is getting this film into schools to help create empathy for refugees – then and now. I very definitely set out,” she adds with a smile, “to tell a story that would open people’s eyes to what’s going on today.”

This week the Trump administration moved to abolish a decades-old court agreement that put a cap on how long the government can hold migrant families and children entering the country illegally. The new regulation would allow for indefinite detention of families and children and scrap minimum standards that the old ruling set for detention conditions.

A former TV producer, Ms. Seltzer-Duny says she has seen too many of the “worthy” stories she has told and issues she has taken up in documentary films over the last 20 years get too little play. For the Quanza’s story, she turned to New Day Films, a filmmaker-run distribution company that places films in libraries, universities, and junior high and high schools, and assists filmmakers in developing educational materials to accompany their films.

Screenings of the film

So far, “Nobody Wants Us” has mostly been shown in Jewish cultural centers – the film’s New York premiere this month was held at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. (The event was also a fundraiser to help underwrite the cost of placing the film in schools.) But it is slated to be shown in November at the University of Richmond law school, where the theme of the evening will be the legal issues confronting the Quanza – and immigration today.

Also in November, the film will be featured in Orange, Connecticut, at an evening focused on “heroism” – with plans for Sen. Richard Blumenthal to present congressional citations to family members of some of the Quanza heroes.

“The story of the Quanza involved a lot of people and different heroes,” says Stephen Morewitz, a California State University behavioral scientist and forensic sociologist whose grandparents, J.L. and Sallie Rome Morewitz, were the Virginia couple who used maritime law to slow the Quanza’s ordered departure.

“They were definitely heroes to the refugees of the Quanza, and through their efforts they demonstrated the important lesson that individuals can make a difference,” Dr. Morewitz says.

But he adds that their “victory” was no doubt “bittersweet” for both his grandparents and Mrs. Roosevelt, since after the Quanza “the door slammed shut.” Indeed, immigration and refugee admissions into the U.S. essentially fell to zero until 1944. (The film notes that FDR, facing reelection in an isolationist country in 1940, was anxious not to be seen as either pro-immigrant or pro-Jewish.)

Another hero of the Quanza saga was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France. In the years leading up to World War II, he disobeyed his government’s orders by issuing 30,000 visas to persecuted Europeans, 10,000 of whom were Jews.

Making “ourselves uncomfortable”

One lesson these tales of heroism teach is that “sometimes we need to make ourselves uncomfortable,” says Ms. Seltzer-Duny. “God knows Sousa Mendes made himself uncomfortable – he saved more than 30,000 people, but he died a pauper.” The New York screening of the documentary was sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation and the Sousa Mendes Foundation.

Ms. Seltzer-Duny is working on a longer version of “Nobody Wants Us” that will air on PBS and be entered in film festivals next year – the 80th anniversary of the Quanza story. But she says her chief goal is to place her film and accompanying educational materials in junior high and high schools – especially those with little or no mention of the Holocaust in their curriculum.

Earlier this year she screened “Nobody Wants Us” for history and government teachers in Newport News, Virginia – her hometown and the port city where the Quanza drama unfolded – with a number expressing interest in incorporating the film into their classes.

“I think the road to encouraging young people’s empathy with refugees today passes through understanding history and how we acted towards refugees in the past,” the filmmaker says. At the end of the documentary, as the credits roll, she includes cameos of teenagers from a Jewish community center and a Muslim school talking about immigrants and refugees.

Ms. Lachmann agrees that the story of the Quanza, as well as how it illuminates the conditions that immigrants and refugees face in the U.S. today, needs to reach young people. But her explanation as to why is more succinct.

“We have to learn and try to be better, because history repeats itself,” she says. “It does, but we have to fight it.”

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