NEW YORK — Not even the crackle of a cough drop being unwrapped could be heard Sunday as a petite Holocaust survivor shared her story after the New York City premiere of “Nobody Wants Us.”
Her voice steady, Annette Schamroth Lachmann told the rapt audience how she was just four years old when a photographer captured the moment she, her sister and mother peered through a porthole of the SS Quanza. Annette’s father was standing on the pier below, having arrived in New York City from Antwerp, Belgium the year before to find housing.
“I remember him reaching a hand up to ours. My sister wondered why we weren’t allowed off,” Lachmann said as part of a panel discussion “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Jewish Refugees She Saved: The Story of the SS Quanza,” at the Center for Jewish History.
As Lachmann looked out into the crowd it was easy to see the scared little girl she was 79 years ago, a virtual prisoner aboard the Quanza after the US denied entry to its passengers, scores of whom were Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
Lachmann described how she was lowered from the deck on a chair attached to a pulley so her father could hand her a doll.
“I was so scared I was going to fall into the water,” she said, adding she also worried the doll would fall in the water. She was safely raised, but the doll didn’t last long. Another child aboard the ship got hold of it and threw it overboard.
The documentary film “Nobody Wants Us,” produced and directed by Laura Seltzer-Duny, tells the story of the 317 people aboard the Quanza in 1940. Aside from Lachmann, other participants in the post-premiere panel discussion were Michael Dobbs of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and author of “The Unwanted”; Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of “Eleanor Roosevelt,” a three-volume biography; Kathleen Rand, the daughter of Quanza passenger Wolf Rand; and Seltzer-Duny. The Sousa Mendes Foundation and the American Sephardi Federation hosted the sold-out event.
The story of the SS Quanza began on August 9, 1940, when it sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, carrying more than 300 passengers, most of whom were Jewish. And save for the 66 American citizens on board, each one possessed a visa issued by the Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
Ten days and one hurricane after the Quanza set sail, it arrived in New York City. The crew lowered the gangway and 196 passengers disembarked. However, as per orders from the US State Department, the remaining 121 people weren’t allowed off.
And so the ship sailed on to Veracruz, Mexico. When it arrived on August 30, only 35 people were allowed off. Authorities forced the remaining 86, mostly Belgian Jews, to stay on board. The passengers were then told they’d be sailing back to Europe.
On its return voyage the ship stopped for fuel in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was here the Quanza’s luck changed.
One passenger, Wolf Rand, had contacted a business associate in New York City. The associate suggested Rand contact Jewish maritime lawyers Jacob and Sally Morewitz, who happened to be based in Virginia. They sued the shipping company for breach of contract, knowing it would buy them precious time.
American Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Stephen Wise of the World Jewish Congress and Cecilia Razovsky of the National Council of Jewish Women, rushed to press for the refugees’ case. It was brought to the attention of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who got on board the cause and appealed to her husband.
She insisted to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the men, women and children aboard the Quanza were “future patriotic Americans,” and not, as the State Department labeled them, “undesirables.” Nor were they potential Nazi spies or Communist sympathizers.
“When the SS St. Louis was sent back, [Eleanor Roosevelt] vowed it will never happen again. So when the Quanza docks she makes sure to let it be known [the passengers] can ‘be my guests.’ She knew their lives were at stake,” said Wiesen Cook.
Finally, on September 11, 1940, the refugees were allowed entry. The young Lachmann disembarked along with her mother and sister, and the trio made their way back to New York to join her father. However, the president’s order by no means signaled a shift in US policy toward Jewish refugees.
The president’s intervention so outraged assistant secretary of state Breckinridge Long that he intensified efforts to halt immigration. He sent a message to the president that said, “Undesirables are coming into this country. We have to close immigration.” The president agreed, and by mid-1941 virtually no wartime refugees were allowed into the US.
“Because the refugees [aboard the Quanza were] accepted, it made it harder for other refugees to be accepted afterwards,” said Stephen Morewitz, the Morewitzes’ grandson and author of “Discovering the Hidden Steamship Quanza Holocaust Story in 1989,” in remarks before the film’s screening.
Knowing the US barred most refugees afterwards was a heavy burden for some Quanza passengers. Until his death at age 97, Wolf Rand remained haunted by his experience, said his daughter, Kathleen Rand.
“He had tremendous survivor guilt his whole life. I tried to get stories out of him but he didn’t want to talk about any of it, he was a very quiet man,” Rand said.
Still, the story of the Quanza is a timely reminder that individuals can make a difference, said Jason Guberman, executive of the American Sephardi Federation.
“We shouldn’t only look at history’s bloodstained face and focus only on those who wouldn’t help; rather, we need to look on those who were courageous and successful, like Eleanor Roosevelt,” he said.
For Dr. Olivia Mattis, president of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, it’s vital the story of the Quanza be told, as there are parallels between immigration and refugee policy then and now.
The documentary shows how the Quanza incident occurred when “America First” slogans dominated, the pro-fascist and anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin enjoyed a strong following, and the US State Department maintained a firm quota system regarding the number of refugees allowed entry into the country. At the time there were no fewer than 60 anti-immigration and anti-refugee bills before Congress, Wiesen-Cook said.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has moved to prevent most Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the US, effectively reversing decades of US policy. Additionally, the administration is considering admitting zero refugees in 2020, according to recent news reports. Because of this the film couldn’t be timelier, Mattis said.
“In so many ways the story is horrifyingly relevant today,” Mattis said.
Indeed the film closes with young people talking about today’s refugee crisis. The audience erupted in applause each time someone on screen mentioned that the government should do whatever possible to help refugees.
“We’ve got to be out there and stand up. When we see refugees out there we have to stand up and do something. That’s the real lesson,” Seltzer-Duny said.