This Friday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day—the day when, 72 years ago, Allied forces liberated the Nazi's Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
For some, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is occasion to mourn those lost in Europe—Jews, Roma, members of the LGBTQ community, and beyond. But for Russel Neiss, the day was an opportunity both commemorate the past, as well as take those lessons and apply them to the present.
Neiss, an educator and computer programmer living in Missouri, is part of the team behind @Stl_Manifest, a Twitter bot which is spending the day sharing the stories and photographs—one every five minutes—of the passengers aboard the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, most of whom were refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
In 1939, the ocean liner St. Louis set sail from Germany to Cuba, where most of its 1,000 passengers hoped to disembark en-route to their final destination of the United States. At Havana, however, the bulk of those fleeing Germany were denied entry, and the ship was ordered out of Cuban waters. Cables from passengers to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for refuge in the United States were left unanswered, and the St. Louis eventually returned to Europe. There, hundreds of its former passengers were killed by the Nazis in the ensuing Holocaust.
Neiss explained to me over the phone that the creation of @Stl_Manifest was largely a spur of the moment decision between himself and his collaborator, Rabbi Charlie Schwartz. Using data on the 255 St. Louis passengers known to have been killed in the Holocaust collected by the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial, Neiss and Schwartz created a simple computer program which collected the names and stories of the St. Louis' passengers, fitted them in a script, and began tweeting Friday morning.
As tragic as the story of the St. Louis may be, however, its lessons take on an added air of urgency now, just days after Donald Trump announced sweeping plans that would dramatically tighten America's borders, and temporarily turn away refugees from all over the world—a connection that, while never Neiss' core aim for his project, wasn't far from his mind
"First and foremost this project is to commemorate the victims of the Nazi genocide," Neiss told me. "Not just the six million Jews but the 10 million folks total. First and foremost that's what this project is for."
"Look," he continued. "It's impossible not to make the connection to the current political environment. But I'm not the one who leaked a draft executive order about blocking refugees the day before International Holocaust Day. So, I'd say that much. Clearly I'd be lying if I said it wasn't on my mind, but this bot is primarily in commemoration of those deaths."
Whether the United States will someday soon be faced with as acute and immediate dilemma as it once did with the St. Louis remains to be seen. Trump's actions, though, indicate that the response may be the same.