The fate of over 900 passengers was sealed when the MS St. Louis steamed from Europe toward Cuba with refugees escaping Hitler just before World War II.
The passengers included Henry Gallant and his parents, who sold their business and personal possessions to purchase tickets for their journey, only for the ship to be turned away by Cuba, then the United States, and forced to return to Europe.
The story of Henry Gallant, the St. Louis and what happened after the voyage is told in “No Reply: A Jewish Child Aboard the MS St. Louis and the Ordeal That Followed.” Author Pamela Sampson and Gallant will discuss the book at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Nov. 13.
Sampson spoke to the AJT about what inspired her to write “No Reply” and what readers can take away from the story.
AJT: What led you to uncover Henry Gallant’s story?
Sampson: I was attending a Bearing Witness program at the Breman Museum, and Henry Gallant was one of the speakers. I listened to his lecture and was so struck by the story, Henry himself, his eloquence and how he was able to convey his story. Although I had already heard about the St. Louis, as we all hear about the saga growing up, listening to his story unveiled many new details, the intricacies of what happened and how he managed to survive. After Henry completed his talk, I approached him and asked, “Have you ever written your memoirs?” and thought if he had, I would love to read the book. However, in the back of my mind I was also thinking if he hasn’t, I would love to do it for him as his story is just so interesting.
AJT: Why compose a book on the Holocaust?
Sampson: When I was in school and a teenager, my teacher said we were going to watch a movie on the Holocaust, and although I knew about the subject, I was shocked by what I saw. It affected me deeply. I was about 16 at the time, and I have never stopped thinking about the Holocaust and what it did to our people and what it meant for others. I think the story is just as important for non-Jews as it is for Jews. I’ve always had an intense interest in the Holocaust but never thought about writing something until very recently. I thought, “It’s getting very late in the game, and Holocaust survivors are dying. However, if I want to make a contribution with the skills that I have, I need to do it now.”
AJT: What attracted you to the story?
Sampson: To be honest with you, I was really looking forward to writing a Holocaust survivor’s memoir, and Henry was the first I had met among a number who had yet to compose his. I was searching for someone to help, but many of the survivors have already written their memoirs, as self-publishing has become so accessible. Or they’re so old that the few survivors I had met were in a physical state which did not allow them to accurately convey the complete story.
AJT: How long did it take you to compose the book?
Sampson: Henry and I met once a week, and I would go to his house, where he would bring out documents and start to talk. It was fascinating. Our interviews went on for about a year and a half, and the truth is the writing was the hardest part because even though Henry had his wits about him and was very clear at his late age, there was a lot he didn’t know because he and his mother didn’t talk about it much. So a lot of the story died with his mother, and the difficult part was filling in the blanks to create a book that flowed from beginning to end.
AJT: What was something new you learned?
Sampson: I learned that America’s response to the Holocaust is probably best described as too little, too late. However, after conducting further research, I also discovered what the political forces were at the time. The United States was very reluctant to enter the war, and Congress did not support entry. Similarly, President Roosevelt was unsure whether to intervene because he did not want to appear he was going out of his way to help Jews, as that in and of itself would not do much for his idea behind entering the war. There was anti-Semitism and a lot of anti-immigration, and I think what I learned from writing this book is that the deck was stacked against the Jews. I also learned that, unfortunately, the French have quite a mixed record when it comes to the Second World War, which I think they have only recently come to acknowledge.
AJT: What is the title’s significance?
Sampson: The title was one of the hardest things I had to come up with, but I wanted one that would speak to at least one of the major themes of the book, which is when someone is asking you for help to not reply, especially when the person asking is so helpless. The help that the U.S. government could have given to the passengers on the MS St. Louis was so minuscule, allowing 900 people to come in, and something I find worth examining and re-examining in future generations.
AJT: What would you like readers to take away from the story?
Sampson: When a foreigner asks us for help, let’s listen. We can’t let everyone in and fit them all in the United States, but we must think about the cost of rejecting them because there is a cost to the U.S. for shutting its doors. We want to set an example for humanity and other democracies. I hope that readers learn about this episode and decide what we want to be as a country. Do we want to offer no reply or continue to make the Statue of Liberty relevant?