Twitter account retells story of Jewish refugees turned away at US borders

Passengers board the SS St. Louis.

Story highlights

  • Many passengers aboard the ship St. Louis were Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis
  • Twitter account posts names, photos of Holocaust victims aboard vessel in 1939

(CNN)It only took Russel Neiss about an hour and a half to create the automated Twitter account that brought to life Friday a decades-old tragedy -- more than 250 tragedies, really -- on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It began at 2:15 a.m. ET with this from the @Stl_Manifest account. "My name is Herbet Ascher. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at Auschwitz."
    Every five minutes, the name of a passenger aboard the St. Louis who died in the Holocaust is posted. By Neiss' math, it takes 21 hours to post every name.
    According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, to Havana, Cuba. Many aboard were German Jews seeking asylum from Hitler's Third Reich.
    Upon arrival, most Jewish refugees were refused permission to disembark by Cuban authorities. Shortly after, the Cuban president at the time, Federico Laredo Bru, ordered the ship out of the port of Havana and Cuban waters.
    The ocean liner then floated off Miami, so close that passengers could see the city's lights. Some of those passengers pleaded in telegrams to the White House and State Department for asylum. The United States did not allow them to disembark, and the ship was forced to return to Europe.
    Efforts by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found 254 passengers from the St. Louis died in the Holocaust. The Twitter bot, automatically moving from name to name, from life to life, uses the museum's information, and photos, as a sobering reminder of those passengers' fate.
    "Today's the National Holocaust Remembrance Day," Neiss said Friday. "My primary motivation, quite frankly, was to honor the memory of these folk."
    Although Neiss says the aim of the Twitter account is not political, comparisons are being drawn by others to an executive order President Donald Trump signed Friday limiting refugees from certain countries.
    The repeated language from tweet to tweet does lend itself to use by those who oppose the executive order: "The US turned me away at the border."
    "I think it's impossible to ignore the current political reality," said Neiss. "But I'm not the one that planned on signing the executive order today."
    The museum, despite repeated efforts, could not be reached Friday for comment.
    Neiss, a Jewish educator living in St. Louis, hopes the Twitter bot provides education.
    "There's been a very effective campaign, #WeRemember," said Neiss. "I think when you say those things it's important to mean those things. It's very important to make sure those words are not empty platitudes."