She was an infant when she and her parents fled Nazi Germany in 1939. They were among the passengers, mostly Jewish refugees, on the ill-fated journey of the ocean liner MS St. Louis that became known as the Voyage of the Damned.
The refugees tried to disembark in Cuba, but were denied permission. Canada and the United States also refused to let them in.
Ruth B. Mandel and her parents were among the fortunate few who made it to England. More than 600 of the 937 passengers of the St. Louis were taken in by European countries overrun by the Nazis — eventually perishing in the death camps
On this day in 1999, Mandel described that “journey to nowhere” at a Days of Remembrance ceremony at the US Capitol in Washington DC. She talked about having recently seen, for the first time, at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, her mother’s signature on a document from the St. Louis.
It was, she said, a chilling reminder: “What you see here can happen. And it did happen.”
After the war, Mandel and her parents moved to the US. She earned her PhD in English literature and went on to become director of the influential Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, and she ran the influential Center for American Women and Politics.
In 1983, she authored In the Running: The New Woman Candidate, the first book to focus on the growing trend of women rising to leadership positions in politics.
And after years of silence on the subject, she began speaking in public about her family’s wartime experience.
“For most of my life, I could not have stood at a podium and spoken about the St. Louis,” she said at the Days of Remembrance Ceremony. “It was a subject for the privacy of our family, not material for exposure to public view.”
But she came to believe in the value of memory — and the need to pass it on.
I do not know for sure that we learn from the past. I have my doubts that recalling evil can make people good.
But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try.
“Now I do speak in public,” she said. “I do not know for sure that we learn from the past. I have my doubts that recalling evil can make people good. But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try.”
Here’s Mandel and her parents on the deck of the St. Louis, courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
(Photo Credit: Deborah Walsh)
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