Back Then

Image: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of AP/Wide World

On Aug. 8, 1940, 317 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, mostly families, chartered a desperate voyage aboard a Portuguese cargo ship named the SS Quanza. Their goal: Make it to New York or Veracruz, Mexico. Before setting out, the men, women, and children attempted to obtain the visas, whether real or forged, required to enter as refugees.

By this point in World War II, Germany had invaded much of Europe, sending British and French soldiers across the English Channel and flooding the continent’s extremities with refugees. This chartered voyage was these refugees’ last-ditch effort to avoid persecution by the Third Reich, but their journey was not a comfortable one. They crossed the stormy Atlantic in stifling, windowless bunks below decks during hurricane season.

“All we ate was sardines, sardines, sardines,” Elza Weinman, who was 14 at the time, told The New York Times. “And then everyone got seasick.”

Safe harbor
A model of the SS Quanza (left); and Jacob Morewitz, L'16 (Morewitz photo courtesy of Virginia Historical Society)

Eleven days later, the ship arrived in New York, where 196 passengers, including some U.S. citizens, went ashore. The rest were turned away. Their reception in Mexico wasn’t much warmer. Eighty-six of the remaining 121 refugees were denied entry and faced repatriation to Nazi-controlled territory and, likely, deportation to concentration camps. (That was the fate of many passengers aboard the SS St. Louis after its passengers were denied entry to the U.S. and Cuba in 1939.)

The Quanza was on its way back to Europe when it stopped in Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 11 to reload its coal supply. As the ship was docked, a young admiralty lawyer named Jacob Morewitz, a 1916 Richmond Law graduate who had founded a practice with his wife, Sallie Rome Morewitz, filed a $100,000 suit on behalf of four passengers in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. Morewitz claimed breach of contract on behalf of passengers not delivered to Veracruz. These proceedings delayed the Quanza’s departure and probably saved the refugees’ lives.

The rest of the Quanza’s story unfolded points north of Virginia, reports historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time. While at Hyde Park, N.Y., Eleanor Roosevelt, honorary head of the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, learned of the passengers’ predicament and worked hard to persuade her husband to intervene. After a few days of harried activity, a State Department official reported on the qualifications of the refugees, and President Roosevelt issued an executive order allowing their entry into the U.S.

 “It was around midnight when my mother, my aunt, my sister, and I got off the ship,” Malvina Schamroth told Frank Overton Brown Jr., R’60, GB’74 and L’76, who wrote about the incident in 2008. “My first impulse was to kiss the ground, but I didn’t do it. I’m not sure why I didn’t kiss the ground, but when I think about it, I still get goosebumps. I still feel that feeling today.”