The Spine

The Boat Is Full


Do you recall "The Boat is Full," the 1981 German film about a virtually unexamined aspect of the Holocaust? The boat that is full in the title is Switzerland. It is a searing movie about self-righteous indifference to Jews whom the Swiss might have saved but turned back instead. This throughout-the-war episode was a moral debacle.

Do you recall the indifference of the great powers and especially of the United States (under FDR, no less) to Jewish refugees trying to get visas to America and being turned down at virtually every consulate where they appeared? Even the great George Kennan, writing in his autobiography, couldn't contain his contempt as a young diplomat for the urgency of the Jews who appeared before seeking the document that was the difference between life and death.

One excuse was that Nazi agents would be seeded among the genuine victims of the regime. But it was just an excuse. I knew the extraordinary art historian John Rewald who was himself a Jewish refugee from Germany. Somehow, he did get into the United States before the war. He tried to continue his research, and showed up at the library of the Frick Museum. He was asked for identification papers, and he handed them a document that said he was a German national. "German nationals are not allowed to work at the Frick," said the librarian. Saying that he was a Jewish refugee and not considered a German national by the Germans, he appealed to Henry Frick's daughter, Helen Clay Frick. Rewald was convinced that his last card turned out to be his worst card. Do you know what the SS St. Louis was? It was refugee boat with 900 escapees from Nazi German who were plying the waters from which neither Cuba nor the U.S. would let them disembark. This ugly saga was made into a movie called "The Voyage of the Damned." A terrible tale. These incidents only hint at the grotesquerie of American responses to the ultimate emergency for these people. And this, too, was a morale debacle.

Now, Israel prides itself for having taken in some 200 boat people from Vietnam, and it is rightfully proud. After all, Japan took in only one person. But Israel also now has within the country 200 people who have escaped from Darfur (via inhospitable Egypt), a place of death for the Darfuris like Germany was a place of death for Jews, and they've been put in prison. As a prelude to being deported. Israeli authorities had tried to do this invisibly, which would be a violation of Israeli laws. Maybe they'll be able to and maybe they won't. It is at least a sign that they are embarrassed by what they are trying to do. It makes this even uglier, a true grotesquerie. The Israeli response to the ultimate emergency of these human beings from the Sudan is, then, also a moral debacle. How can they look themselves in the mirror? Or is the boat just full?

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