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Shabbat HaGadol 5780 Dvar Torah from Rabbi Saul I. Grife

The Story of 3 Ships

What would become of the Zandaam and the Rotterdam?

The Zaandam is a cruise ship that has been trying to dock at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for some time now. But, because there have been confirmed cases of travelers with corona and 4 passenger deaths are known, the state has been reluctant to allow the ship to dock and allow its passengers to disembark for fear that they might be unleashing a torrent of corona in South Florida. The ship Rotterdam has also been facing the same grim situation. Just recently, in what is being termed a "humanitarian gesture", after a lengthy delay at sea, both ships will be allowed to dock and release its passengers.   Between the two ships, 250 guests and crew have reported flu-like symptoms since March 22.

Representatives of the cruise line plus state officials, even POTUS, have weighed in on the situation.

"These travelers could have been any one of us or our families, unexpectedly caught in the middle of this unprecedented closure of global borders that happened in a matter of days and without warning, "Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, said in a statement. "The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our shared humanity, and we must do everything we can to ensure we continue to act in ways consistent with our common human dignity."

Most of the ships' passengers are expected to disembark by late Friday night. 14 people were marked to immediately be brought to hospitals. Carnival Cruises paid for ambulances to transport them to Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

26 other passengers showing symptoms will remain on the ships in isolation until they recover and are well enough to travel. More than 1,100 crew members will also stay on the ship including 49 who are ill. The other 1,211 guests were deemed fit to travel after they answered a questionnaire and had their temperatures taken. They were all asked to self-quarantine at home for 2 weeks.

Passengers who live close by will be driven home in cars chartered by the cruise line. Others will take charter flights to such varied destinations as Toronto, San Francisco and Paris.

"It's all going to be done in ways that are not going to expose the people of Florida to any of the illnesses that may be on there. Obviously, you've got to be safe when you're doing this stuff", Florida governor Ron DeSantis said.

The governor had previously said that he didn't want people from the ships "dumped into South Florida". But Thursday he described the plan as "the humanitarian thing to do".

Several other ports, including one in Chile, would not let the Zaandam offload passengers, even very sick ones, as it made its way to Fort Lauderdale.

Victoria Anderson has been advocating for her parents, Andrea and Rob Anderson of Maineville, Ohio, to be brought home safely from the Zaandam and to make others aware of their plight. She said, "People the world over from every religion have been praying for them".

So, it would seem that the passengers of these 2 ships will all eventually make their way home to stay healthy or to recover from COVID-19.

The Coral Princess cruise ship is scheduled to arrive in Florida on Saturday bringing the same situation with it as it awaits its fate. Between the 1,020 passengers and 878 crew members, there are 12 confirmed cases of individuals having contracted the dreaded corona virus.


The plights of the Zaandam and the Rotterdam reminded me of the story of another ship that once sought sanctuary for its passengers in Southern Florida over 80 years ago - the St. Louis.

What would become of the St. Louis?

MS St. Louis was a transatlantic luxury liner owned by the Hamburg-American Line. On May 13, 1939, it departed Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba, a popular stopover for refugees seeking to immigrate to the United States. On board were 937 passengers and 231 crew members. The captain was Gustav Schroder. Most of the travelers were Jews leaving Germany amid growing concerns over their safety. Some six months earlier the Nazis had attacked Jewish communities, synagogues and properties in the event now known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass which occurred on November 9-10, 1938. The passengers had obtained landing certificates to enter Cuba where most of them would then wait to enter the United States.

But when the ship reached Cuba there were many obstacles to disembarking. Cubans were afraid the passengers would stay and compete for jobs. Rumors were spread that the Jews were communists and criminals. On May 8 a large anti-Semitic rally was held in Havana.

The St. Louis arrived in Cuba on May 27, 1939. The Cuban government let in only 28 of the 937 passengers. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee attempted to negotiate with the Cuban authorities. Eventually, the St. Louis was ordered to sail away from Cuba with its travelers on June 2.

After several days, Schroder sailed for Miami. The United States, the beacon of hope for the displaced and the immigrant, however refused to admit the refugees, saying that the annual quota had been reached. The US Coast Guard shadowed the vessel, but later claimed was doing so out of concern for the passengers. The Canadian government also refused to admit the refugees. The Nazi regime used the story to support its anti-Semitic policies.

On June 6, 1939, negotiations died. With supplies dwindling, the St. Louis started back to Europe. It reached Antwerp on June 17th. England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium agreed to take the refugees. By June 20th, all the passengers had disembarked. That September World War II officially started. It was later determined that of the 907 passengers who had returned to Europe, 255 were killed during the war, the vast majority of them dying in concentration camps.

The incident was notably chronicled in the book The Voyage of the Damned (1974).

In 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized that the Canadian government refused entry to the ship's passengers.

My friends, I am so happy to see that despite the dangers of corona, the Zandaam and the Rotterdam will both be allowed to dock in Florida and send all their passengers on their appropriate ways. But for the grace of God we could be passengers on those ships, or our families or friends. One can only imagine the fears of the passengers as they awaited uncertain fates, wondering when, where and if they would be allowed to disembark in the days to come. What if it was us?

I am happy to see the humanitarian progress that has been made in stark comparison to the fate of the St. Louis back in 1939. When Cuba, the United States and Canada refused entry to its passengers, it sealed the fate of death for hundreds of people who otherwise probably would have survived the war and made new lives for themselves. Instead, many of the 255 who died in the war are part of the 6 million Jews we remember who perished in the Holocaust. The annual Holocaust Remembrance Day is this coming April 21st.

3 ships. 2 stories. 80 years apart. The current saga will end just about "happily ever after" with most of the players eventually making it home. The tale from 1939 ended with the deaths of hundreds, contributing to the number of 6 million. The event leaves a shameful note on US history. This epic is but one of a number of stories of how the United States could have done more for European refugees, especially Jews during WWII.

Wouldn't it have been amazing if the aforementioned Mr. Ashford from the cruise line could have stated then about the St. Louis what he said today, that the "Holocaust is one of the most urgent tests of our shared humanity so we must do everything we can to ensure we continue to act in ways consistent with our common human dignity!!" May we learn a lesson from that horrible circumstance!

 May we do all we can to support the plight of safe and healthy refugees seeking asylum in our time throughout the world. During Pesach next week we will recount how this was our story - how we were slaves, mistreated and uncared for. It is incumbent upon us as Jews and humans to do a better job at caring for each other than ancient Egypt and Germany from 1933-45 did towards the Israelites and the Jews and other beleaguered souls respectively! 

Remember - it was us!! It was our ancestors who were embittered in Egypt and our brethren who were annihilated in Nazi Europe!! May we look to better assist others in need as is thankfully happening now to the passengers of the Zandaam and the Rotterdam, as we would have hoped that others would have done for us in ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany... as we would have hoped the United States, which opened its doors to so many of our ancestors and us, would have also done for those who sailed aboard the St. Louis.

On this Shabbat HaGadol 5780, may we remember the stories and the humanitarian lessons of these 3 ships. May we pray for the souls of those who have died of COVID-19 and for the health and well-being of those who are battling the disease today. May we take care of ourselves and others. COVID-19 has rocked the world but we can do this!! We can find the strength individually and collectively to fight this until it stops threatening us one day in the future!! May we celebrate this Shabbat HaGadol, this great Sabbath before Pesach and may we find joy in our Pesach Sedarim, with those in the room, with those on line and with those souls who live in heaven and in our hearts. I wish everyone a joyful, healthy and optimistic Pesach and spring season!

Shabbat HaGadol Shalom to us all!

Sun, April 5 2020 11 Nisan 5780