Ronnie Breslow was close enough to the United States to see the shining city lights.  But her entry into the country was blocked, and she was forced back to a troubled and dangerous land.

It wasn't this year. And it wasn't at a Southwest American border awash in fear and conflict, as the Trump administration enforces a "zero tolerance" policy toward migrants.

It was 1939, and Breslow, of Elkins Park, was an 8-year-old passenger aboard the St. Louis, the ship of 937 Jewish refugees that in flight from Nazi Germany was infamously turned away by the U.S., Canada, and Cuba. More than 250 of the passengers would die in the Holocaust after the ship returned to Europe.

"I see history repeating itself," Breslow said last week.

Breslow, now 88, spoke at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall at what is again a precarious moment. The world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with 22.5 million people forced from their countries, half of them under age 18. The U.S. is poised to admit the lowest number of refugees in decades.

Refugees from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America await a chance to come to this country. Meanwhile, families from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala trek north to escape drug violence, gangs and poverty.

In 1938, after the wave of violence across Germany and Austria during Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," Jews became desperate to escape the Nazis.

Breslow's father wrote to every overseas relative he knew, and heard back from a distant cousin in Philadelphia. Passports and ship tickets grew precious. Breslow's family managed to wangle one ticket to Cuba and decided the father should go first. She and her mother would follow, then all three would travel to America.

The liner departed Hamburg on May 13, 1939. For a child, the trip across the Atlantic was a grand adventure.

Ronnie Breslow points to a photo of the ocean line St. Louis, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Ronnie Breslow points to a photo of the ocean line St. Louis, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Mother and daughter believed all would be well, because they had legal "landing certificates" to admit them to Cuba. But the island nation, like the U.S., was still suffering from the Great Depression. Many people saw foreign refugees as competition for scarce jobs. Anti-Semitism was rife.

In the 1920s, the U.S. had set a strict numerical limit on immigration, about 350,000, then cut that number to 165,000. Quotas were placed on sending European nations.

When the St. Louis arrived at Havana on May 27, Breslow said, her father appeared in the harbor in a tiny rowboat, waving his arms in greeting.

Her father's embrace, safety, was so close.

But the passengers weren't allowed off. Day after day, Breslow asked her mother when they would leave the ship. The answer was always, "Tomorrow."

In fact, Cuba had invalidated the landing certificates. Only 28 passengers who held other papers were admitted, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

On June 2, the ship was ordered out of Cuba, and moved slowly toward Miami. The passengers stared at the lights of Miami Beach, Breslow said.

Capt. Gustav Schroeder pleaded with authorities for help. He was determined not to return to Germany, knowing that meant death for his passengers.

People aboard sent telegrams to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for refuge. He did not reply. With public opinion opposed to additional immigration, he decided to take no special measures to assist those aboard the St. Louis.

"The president would not allow us into the United States," Breslow said. "Nobody apparently cared enough to help us."

For 2018, Trump capped refugee admissions at 45,000, the lowest figure since Congress created the current refugee program in 1980, and less than half the 110,000 set by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Because of slow processing, said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group HIAS Pennsylvania, probably only 22,000 will actually be admitted to the U.S.

Many people approve of that: Forty-three percent of Americans say the United States has no responsibility to accept refugees; 51 percent say it does, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May.

After leaving Cuba, the St. Louis circled in the Atlantic. In June, following negotiations with Jewish relief agencies, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and France agreed to take the refugees. Those havens would later turn out to be no havens at all when the Nazis invaded and controlled all but England.

Breslow and her mother made their way from Holland to the U.S., reconnecting with the father in New York. Much of her family "was never able to get out of Germany in time, and were murdered," she said.

"I caution all of us, with the turbulence around today, we have to remain vigilant, so we don't lose this precious gift called freedom."