Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the United Nations General Assembly to remember the victims killed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In commemoration of the day, and in light of recent events, one educator has turned to Twitter to take a look at the terrible story of the MS St. Louis, a refugee ship that saw a number of its passengers killed during the Holocaust after they were turned away from US and Canadian borders prior to World War II.
There are many history-related Twitter accounts out there. Some are less reputable than others, like @HistoryinPics, which is frequently debunked. But others, such as @RealTimeWWII and @realtimeww1, have done exhaustive work in recounting the minutia of major historical events. Other accounts, such as @TitanicVoyage, look at more discrete events: in this case, the Titanic’s first and only trip. These accounts are typically particularly effective at looking at large, complicated events through minute details.
The St. Louis Manifest account takes a similar approach, but with a twist: rather than recounting the journey, it’s naming each person from the MS St. Louis who was killed during the Holocaust, and describing their individual fates.
The St. Louis Manifest account was created by Russell Neiss, an educator and coder, and grandson of two refugees from Europe who survived the Holocaust. He told The Verge that the account came out of a conversation he had with a colleague Thursday night. “The United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial did all the heavy lifting” when it came to the passengers’ identities, he explained. Several years ago, the museum attempted to identify everyone on the ship. With that data, Neiss wrote up a simple Python script that scraped the information off the website and set up a Twitter bot automatically tweet it out. The entire project took him an hour or so to set up.
Every couple of minutes, the bot spits out a name and where that individual died, sometimes accompanied by a photograph. “It’s unbelievably unpalatable, let’s be honest about that,” he said. “It’s not that it’s easy to discuss the Holocaust.” He says the population of survivors is dwindling, and soon, anyone who experienced World War II’s crimes firsthand will be gone.
The story of the St. Louis is a tragic episode of US history. Launched in 1928, the German ship was designed for liner service and cruises in the Atlantic Ocean between Germany and the United States, Canada, and other ports. On May 13th, it departed from Hamburg, Germany with 937 Jewish refugees looking to escape the Nazi regime. After it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, immigration officials in Cuba, the United States, and Canada refused to allow a majority of the passengers entry, and the ship’s captain was forced to turn back to Europe.
The ship landed in Belgium with 907 passengers, who were accepted by Belgian, French, and UK officials. When the Second World War began in September, these refugees were in the crosshairs of Nazi Germany again, and 532 passengers were transported to various concentration camps, where 254 perished.
Neiss’ project comes right after reports that President Donald Trump would issue an executive order restricting refugee visas from several Middle Eastern countries, but Neiss explains that his primary goal is to raise awareness for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and he cautioned against drawing parallels between current and historical events. However, he noted that it’s “an opportunity where we say ‘never again’ or ‘we remember,’ and to consider what that means.”
Putting up individual names helps put events into perspective, turning casualty numbers into real human beings. Neiss pointed to the tactile nature of the Vietnam Memorial and pictures of Syrian refugees going viral on social media as examples of situations where human faces and names have been used to humanize the vague abstraction of terrible events. A single picture, he observed, “is a powerful thing.”
The project has gotten much larger than he expected, but he noted that there were other major organizations doing important work when it came to refugees. He hopes his simple bot can raise a bit of awareness for the larger issues.