The MS Saint Louis

My mother tells me that after Franklin D. Roosevelt turned back the boats of refugees from the shores of the United States, my great-grandfather never forgave him.

I think a lot about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because it seems so often to be a book written just for me: about comic books, about Jewishness, about queerness, about New York, about the love for each of these things, which is an ache which leaves the main characters – which leaves me – somehow dissatisfied; as if to belong to a people, to belong to a place, to belong to a history, to belong to a story, is somehow not enough.

The book’s protagonist, Joe Kavalier, draws comic books. It’s 1940; comic books are hardly off the ground, superheroes in their earliest days. Joe Kavalier draws a superhero called the Escapist. With the money from the Escapist, he tries to raise money for his little brother to flee Nazi-occupied Prague, to come to America. He wanders the streets of New York; he gets in fights with German-speakers behind movie theaters. On the cover of a comic book, the Escapist punches Adolf Hitler in the face.

Joe Kavalier is based on a real person, of course, Jack Kirby who was born Jacob Kurtzberg, and the Escapist cover on the famous 1941 Captain America cover in which Captain America punches Hitler so hard he knocks out one of Hitler’s teeth. America wasn’t entering the war. It seemed like America would never enter the war. FDR had turned back the St. Louis from the shores of the United States.

Last week I wrote about the commandment to love the stranger. Then, I wrote about it as it applies to Jewish converts. The wording, however, says nothing about conversion. It says, God loves the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant; therefore you must love the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant. For you, too, were refugees in Egypt.

This is why so many synagogues have programs where attendees can sponsor Syrian refugees, of course.

Joe Kavalier’s brother’s boat sinks. I have a sign on my wall that reads PUNCH MORE NAZIS.

I dream about it, sometimes – not about the punching, not really, but about being able to put myself between the vulnerable and these evils of the world who seek to destroy them. Who doesn’t want to be a superhero? Who doesn’t wish that saving the innocent was within their grasp? When people and places and histories and stories are not enough to provide comfort, who doesn’t wish they had enough power to do good to this bad world? Why, when the world is full of swords at the worst and pens at the best, does God only give us the empty, intangible command to love?

My great-grandfather, as I have said, never forgave Franklin D. Roosevelt for turning the boats back.

Three years later, the letters stopped coming from the old country.

As far as I know it, this is the whole of the story.


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