As the saying goes, "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s a lesson Russel Neiss has taken to heart and used to create a haunting reminder of an American policy decision that led to the death of hundreds of Jews nearly 80 years ago.
Neiss is the creator behind the Twitter account for the St. Louis Manifest (@Stl_Manifest), a series of first-person narratives of the 908 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis, an asylum-seeking German ship turned away at the Cuban, U.S., and Canadian borders in 1939.
After the SS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, it is estimated that more than a quarter of the passengers aboard the “Voyage of the Damned” later died in the Holocaust.
Neiss cites his family history during World War II as inspiration for the project. “My grandfather was the only one of his family who made it out of Europe alive,” Neiss told The Daily Beast. “He was one of around 630 orphans picked up by the British and gained his citizenship by fighting in Korea.”
Neiss’ project, launched January 27, 2017, was timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But it also comes on the eve of a policy decision that may underline the Trump administration’s immigration strategy for the next four or more years.
January 27, 2017 is also the day President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order banning the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. According to a leaked draft of the proposal, it would conveniently exclude countries where the Trump Organization does business, such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
A draft of the executive order, which asserted that the ban would be to “protect Americans” and “ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward our country and its founding principles… [or] admit those who engage in acts of bigotry and hatred,” was recognized by many as a xenophobic and reactionary document, but is also one of the policies that Trump campaigned on heavily over the past year and a half.
Neiss says that while the project is tethered “first and foremost” to Holocaust Remembrance Day, he can see why, “given the political moment,” people are finding more meaning in it.
“We didn’t plan for this executive order on immigration to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day and we’re not saying the U.S. is like Nazi Germany. But when people say ‘never again, we remember,’ these things should be more than empty platitudes,” Neiss told The Daily Beast.
Neiss, who had experimented with Twitter bots previously “for fun,” says the idea behind the project only became fully formed about five hours or so before the account launched.
“This has been an idea I’d had floating around for a while, centering around the ritual of reading names for remembering the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides,” Neiss told the Daily Beast. “A friend and I were spitballing ideas and asked, ‘What would it look like if on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and with the current political climate talking about refugees, we could create something that, in a tasteful way, recognized the six million Jews and 10 million total victims of the Holocaust.’”
Using a database compiled by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Neiss programed a bot to tweet the stories of the victims of the SS St. Louis every five minutes. He calculated that with one tweet for each of the 255 victims known to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, there would be 21 hours of tweets.
And then he stepped away.
Neiss told the Beast that when he checked back Friday morning, he was excited to see the page had 77 followers. When he looked at his phone two hours later, there were thousands more. As of press time, 9,417 people were following the account.
“We didn’t anticipate this following, but I think there’s an obvious reason that this speaks to people. We like to think of ourselves as the good guys, that we would have saved everyone we could. And yet, here was an opportunity to save hundreds of people. It’s a story that for me, as an American, really kicks me in the shins.”
A direct result of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant fervor of the era, the Voyage of the Damned calls to mind the hopeless passages of today’s refugees, seeking asylum and finding persecution at every turn, especially for Neiss, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
“When we talk about refugees, we’re not talking about nebulous group of Syrians, were talking about real people,” Neiss said. “This is a nation that is built on people on coming from elsewhere, not just people who have been here forever.”