Die Ungewollten, in English The Unwanted, is the title of a drama documentary that was shown last fall on the German TV channel ARD. This documentary depicts the odyssey of the German passenger ship St. Louis over the Atlantic in the summer of 1939.
In May of that year St. Louis left the port of Hamburg aiming for Cuba. On board were 937 Jewish refugees, mainly Germans. They had tourist visas to Cuba, in many cases also valid papers from the US immigration authorities, and were full of confidence. But when the ship arrived to Havana, it turned out that the visa regulations had been recently changed. The ship’s captain, Gustav Schröder, only managed to negotiate a deal with the Cuban authorities allowing 22 of his Jewish passengers to disembark. He then decided to steer for the United States. However, despite him personally pleading to President Roosevelt, the answer was no. The same negative answer was given in Canada.
Panic broke out among the passengers of the ship. Several of them considered suicide, one of them died, and there was also an attempt at mutiny.
After a month’s voyage at sea, the ship was finally allowed to dock in Antwerp. The passengers were distributed between Belgium, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. 254 of them were murdered by the Nazis in the following years. Only those received by Britain escaped the Holocaust.
The film Die Ungewollten portrays how it is to be “unwanted”, to be seen as something alien and threatening, a dangerous contagion from which the rest of humanity must protect itself.
One year earlier, in the summer of 1938, representatives of 32 of the world’s states had gathered for a conference in Évian-les-Bains, in southeastern France, to discuss how to rescue about 700,000 German and Austrian Jews and political refugees in need of protection. The conference became a moral failure. No one stood up. One of the Swedish representatives, Gösta Engzell, senior executive at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, argued that the “Jewish issue” must be resolved outside Europe.
An observer from the British Palestine Mandate, a woman named Golda Meir, later described her experiences of this conference:
To sit there, in this wonderful hall, and listen to the representatives of 32 states, one after the other, standing up and explaining how much they would have liked to receive a larger number of refugees and how terribly sorry they were not being able to do this, was a shocking experience. /…/ I wanted to get up and scream at them: Don’t you know that these damned numbers are human beings, people who must spend the rest of their lives in concentration camps, or wandering around the world like lepers, if you don’t let them in?” (Quote from German Wikipedia, translated to Swedish by author and to English by editor.)
Today we see how the refugees at the Turkey-Greece border are treated by the EU as “unwanted”. The European Union is doing everything to truly appear as Fort Europe. Closed borders. The right of asylum tossed in the trash. No life-saving interventions on the Mediterranean.
The political debates of today are not about the individuals who now desperately knock on our door. Everything is about what we consider us able to “manage”; we who so far have had the privilege to live in peace and in social stability.
We did see it coming. After the great wave of refugees in 2015 the Swedish migration policy was considerably restricted. The earlier statement by the Prime Minister was no longer valid, the statement in which he had declared that his Europe builds no walls but receives people fleeing from war, together and in solidarity. Now the debate was focused on us and our demand for “breathing-space”, not on the refugees in need of protection. All of a sudden, the right of asylum was considered ignorable.
“Sweden is full”, Jimmie Åkesson recently declared to desperate refugees at the EU border. And it seems that this is not only the policy of the nationalist-populist party Sweden Democrats, but also of the EU, and thus also of Sweden. Sweden is full, the EU is full. And on the other side of the moat we see the “unwanted”, those who, according to Hannah Arendt, are deprived even of the “right to rights”.
Is this really the world we want?
This article was first published in Swedish in Upsala Nya Tidning, March 12, 2020 and translated and republished with permission from the author.