Tweets remember Jewish refugees U.S. turned away

Screenshots from the @Stl_Manifest Twitter account.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

The idea came to him one night recently. Russel Neiss was talking to a friend and colleague, Rabbi Charlie Schwartz of Cambridge, Mass., about the executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, which President Donald Trump was about to sign (and did sign the next day). 

“It also was coming up on International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” says Neiss, of University City, referring to Friday, Jan. 27. “We wanted to do something as a memorial to the victims of the Shoah.”

So the two put together a computer program that every five minutes tweeted out the name, picture and whatever-known details of the 937 passengers aboard the German transatlantic liner MS St. Louis. Most of the passengers were Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939. The ship was denied entry to Cuba and the United States; as a result, it had to turn back to Europe, where more than a quarter of the passengers wound up dying in Nazi death camps.

Neiss explained that the source information came from public records at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. “The museum did all the heavy lifting,” Neiss said. “We wrote a computer script that did all the copying and pasting and put it in a single document. From there, we set it out on Twitter in a program that tweeted out one entry at a time, every five minutes.”

Starting at midnight on Jan. 27, the Twitter account @Stl_Manifest  tweeted the name and circumstances of the 257 passengers who died, for 21 consecutive hours. Most read like this one: “My name is Joachim Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”

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Although Neiss wasn’t sure what the response would be, he said he could never have imagined how overwhelming it has become. “It went from one to 50,000 followers by the time the tweets stopped,” said Neiss, who is married to Rori Picker-Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. As of Tuesday, @Stl_Manifest had 73,900 followers.

In addition, Neiss fielded calls from reporters all over the country, including The Atlantic, CNN, “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and the Daily Beast. “I missed the call from the Washington Post because it came on Shabbat,” said Neiss, who is Orthodox and attends Congregation Bais Abraham. “On my way to trivia at (Saul) Mirowitz (Jewish Community School) Saturday night, a Norwegian reporter called and told me that a story on our tweets was the second most popular piece the next day.”

Neiss, who works as a software engineer and Jewish educator, said the executive order came out halfway through the 21 hours of tweets. “We primarily did this project for Holocaust Remembrance Day but it is impossible to ignore the political realities we find ourselves in.”

Neiss added that the “most powerful” response to the tweets came in a video from a diverse group of protestors in Los Angeles reading the names and profiles out loud for roughly 30 minutes as they denounced Trump’s executive order on immigration restrictions.


Students’ website celebrates immigrant success stories

Speaking of immigration restrictions, Washington University sophomore Jordan Gonen and a friend launched a website to pay tribute to generations of new Americans and the success they attained once they arrived in the United States. As the site points out: “25 percent of Fortune 500 startups are founded by immigrants. Diversity is in our DNA.”

Gonen and a high school buddy from Colorado, Henry Kaufman, launched, a site dedicated to highlighting the achievements of an ever-growing list of immigrants who founded innovative companies here. 

The list of more than 70 immigrants includes Polish-born Helena Rubinstein, who started her namesake cosmetics business, and Max Levchin, the founder of PayPal, who came here with his family from Ukraine in 1991, seeking political asylum. Both of these examples happen to be Jewish, though the site calls attention to immigrants of all races, religions and backgrounds. It so far has attracted more than 5,000 views from visitors representing several dozen nations.

“My dad is an immigrant from Israel who came to the United States when he was 23, after serving in the Israeli army,” said Gonen, who grew up in Arizona. “Obviously, the president’s immigration ban and my father’s experience got me thinking about what we could do that would be meaningful and call attention to the outstanding accomplishments of immigrants.”

Gonen said the purpose of the website is not to say immigrants should have rights “because they are rich or famous, but for all of us to be grateful for what they did once they got here.”

“Their stories of overcoming obstacles and taking risks are really inspiring,” added Gonen, 19, who is majoring in finance and computer science. 

Goren said he and Henry worked from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. to get the site up and running. They researched immigrant founders of companies, and compiled a list, linking the names and faces on their site to Wikipedia entries about each. They also included a “suggest a founder” button so that people could contribute names to the list.

“So far, we got about 30 more suggestions that we will be adding,” Gonen said.


The sweet taste of tzedakah

As demonstrated in both cases above, sometimes the best ideas come from a mutual interest. In Adina Levy and Rina Gersten’s case, it is baking and tzedakah.

“One day after school we were eating something I had baked over the weekend and Rina said, ‘Oh my gosh, these are so good. We could sell these and make money,’ ” Adina, 16, recalled. “I said, ‘OK, let’s do that for real.’ So we came up with the idea, a name and made a Facebook page.

“It kind of started as just a thing for fun, then we thought why not take it seriously. Together we decided we don’t really need the money for ourselves. We thought every month or so we could donate to an organization.”

The two Parkway Central High School juniors started their business, Better than Bubbie’s Baking, in September. They advertised their specialties — challah (at $5) and chocolate chip cookies (a dozen for $5) — as well as a few choice seasonal baked goods through their business and personal Facebook pages. 

“We also asked our parents to share on their Facebook pages,” said Rina, 17. “Our intention was to keep it low-key, mostly in the Jewish community.”

It didn’t take them long to get the word out. They now have some customers whom they bake for, and deliver to, regularly. They’ve landed some giant orders as well, including 300 chocolate chip cookies for two different USY events.

In those cases, they baked one order of the cookies at Traditional Congregation, where Adina belongs, and the other at Congregation B’nai Amoona, where Rina belongs.

A few weeks ago, Adina and Rina took $120 of their profits, went to Aldi’s and spent the money on toiletries and groceries to donate to the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

Says Adina: “Baking has always been a hobby of mine, I really like the science of measurement. To us it just made sense to combine our hobbies with helping out the community and giving tzedakah.”