Who Will Weep? is a song of compassion for refugees.

Who Will Weep?

In History, Social Justiceby Keith Sanford5 Comments

Who Will Weep? is a song of compassion for refugees.
In 1939, the SS St. Louis sailed near the coast of Florida with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board fleeing from Nazi Germany. The United States forced them to return to Europe and many later perished in the Holocaust.

Who Will Weep?

A song of compassion for refugees

Words and music by Keith Sanford. Performance includes Keith Sanford on drums, percussion, keyboard synthesizers, and vocals.

A song of compassion for refugees

The song, Who Will Weep?, is about refugees aboard the SS St. Louis fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. Faith can move us to feel compassion for refugees, and this song is both a song expressing these feelings of compassion and a song that helps us remember this tragic story of the refugees aboard the SS St Louis. Our compassion for refugees can grow stronger and deeper when we remember and understand these types of historical events and when we learn from them. This includes understanding why people are sometimes hostile toward immigrants and learning how this hostility is reflected in the history of immigration in the United States.

To provide perspective on this history, the song, Who Will Weep?, draws from one of Jesus’ parables. I say more about this Biblical allusion below, but first, I turn to the history of immigration and ask a key question, “why are people sometimes hostile towards refugees and immigrants?”

The United States is often described as a country of immigrants and refugees, but it is also a country with a long history of hostility toward immigrants and refugees.

What is this history, and where does this hostility come from? It may be natural for humans to feel suspicious of people that appear to be strangers or foreigners. In part, this is probably because so many aspects of living involve competition. We compete to get jobs, to make money, to get ahead, to be able to buy and keep the things we need and the things we want. Consequently, humans may have evolved to be especially quick to notice anything that might help or hinder our level of competitiveness. We are quick to respond if we think someone is cheating and not following the established rules or laws. In addition, we may experience strong emotional reactions if we see an increase in the number of people all competing to get something we want. Our brains are easily activated in ways that motivate us to fight for dominance or survival.

What does this have to do with attitudes toward immigrants? When people experience fear, callousness, or hostility toward immigrants, it is often based on a belief that the immigrants are somehow tilting the balance of competition. Immigrants may be viewed as a new group of intruders that are increasing levels of competition for existing resources in a community – for example, by taking jobs or using government assistance. Because immigrants may look, act, or talk differently from native people, they are easily noticed as outsiders, and this can activate fears about whether immigrants are trustworthy. People might worry that immigrants will fail to adhere to laws and customs that have been established regulate fair competition – in other words, they worry immigrants might not play fairly and thereby gain a competitive advantage.

If humans have evolved to be especially sensitive to issues involving competition, we may be prone to perceiving immigrants as threats to competition and hesitant to perceive them as trustworthy. This tendency to view immigrants as threats may be further amplified in several situations. For example, it may be amplified when the current economy is depressed and people are already competing for scarce resources, or when the number of immigrants is perceived to be especially large, or when immigrants have customs or characteristics that are perceived as unusual or distinct. In many cases, the negative beliefs or fears that people may have about immigrants are exaggerated, unfounded, or entirely false. But if humans are especially prone to perceiving threats to competition, then it would not take much to activate these fears and beliefs. And once these fears and beliefs are activated, feelings of compassion and kindness are overpowered by a driving desire for self-protection.

What is the story of hostility toward immigrants in the United States?

To tell the story of immigration in the United States, it is useful to begin by noting the composition of the country around 1788, when the constitution was ratified, and the United States was a new country. At that time, the United States was comprised primarily of a population of white people whose ancestors immigrated from Europe and a population of enslaved black people whose ancestors were taken by force from Africa. Over the next several decades, this new country pursued a program of military conquest taking territory from native peoples that previously lived on the land. As the country grew, from time to time, events throughout the world caused new peoples to immigrate to this land seeking refuge or a better way of life.

In the early days of the United States, there were no laws restricting immigration, and even if there were laws, there would have been no way to enforce them. The boarders were too wide, and the federal government was too small. However, this does not mean immigrants were always welcomed.

The story of immigrants from Ireland

Consider the 1840s. This was a few decades before the civil war, a time when steam engine trains were brand new, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. At this time, Ireland was hit by a severe famine that was caused, in part, by a blight that destroyed potato crops. In a desperate effort to escape this famine, large numbers of Irish, Catholic people immigrated to the United States. This was followed in the United States by a surge of prejudice against Irish people and against Catholicism. Irish people were portrayed as being aggressive, unintelligent, and prone to drunkenness. Catholicism was portrayed as being incompatible with democracy because, it was presumed, the religion required allegiance to the pope. There were riots opposing Irish immigrants, acts of violence against Catholic and Irish people, and the burning and destruction of Catholic churches. In addition, people formed a new political party, commonly called the “Know Nothing” party (because members were sometimes secretive about party activities), and the platform of this party was specifically to oppose immigration and to oppose Catholicism.

The story of immigrants from China.

Afew years later, there was another wave of immigration from China. Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and this wave began during the subsequent gold rush of the 1850ies, and it continued through the years of reconstruction following the Civil War. During this time, there was political unrest in China. The ruling Qing dynasty was weakened after being defeated by Brittan in a series of “opium wars,” thereby giving British merchants the ability to sell opium in China. After these wars, there was famine, and then China had its own horrifically bloody civil war called the Taiping Rebellion. Thus, large numbers of people, mostly men, immigrated from China to California in search of gold and work. Many of these immigrants took low-paying menial labor jobs such as building railroads, and in the western states where Chinese immigrants lived and worked, there was widespread prejudice against them. Popular attitudes of that time are depicted in the political cartoon below.

Chinese Exclusion Act Cartoon

The above political cartoon (downloaded from Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-1242) was first published in 1878. The caption reads, “A picture for employers. Why they can live on 40 cents a day, and they can’t.” On the left, Chinese men are depicted as sub-human animals crowded together smoking opium and eating rats. On the right, a white man of European descent returns home from work to his family. The implication is that immigrants take jobs and push down wages in a way that is harmful and unfair to current citizens. It also promotes a callous unsympathetic view toward the plight and hardships faced by the immigrants.

This prejudice against Chinese people led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first law in the United States to limit immigration. This law prohibited Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States.

The story of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

Another wave of immigration occurred around the turn of the century and shortly after 1900. This was a time when the Wright Brothers made their first successful airplane flight, Ford sold his first Model-T automobile, and Americans watched the first silent movie that told a story with a plot (a movie called, “The Great Train Robbery”). During these years, many of the new immigrants were Jewish, and many came from eastern and southern parts of Europe, such as Italy, Hungary, Poland, and parts of Russia. Consequently, people in the United States developed new prejudices against these immigrant groups.

This type of prejudice was widespread, and it was reflected in the academic viewpoints proposed by scholars at universities. For example, scholars in the brand-new academic discipline of Psychology began creating tests that unfairly depicted new immigrants as having low intelligence. In addition, most well-educated people began supporting the idea of Eugenics, which was a belief that the quality of the people in a country will improve if intelligent people are encouraged to have babies and those of low intelligence are prevented from having babies. As might be expected, the promoters of Eugenics were mostly white, protestant people descending from western Europe, and not surprisingly, these people generally presumed that they were the most intelligent and that other groups were less intelligent. These types of theories were used to justify concerns that the influx of immigrants from eastern and southern parts of Europe was bad for the United States.

Although immigration decreased during World War One, it increased again after the war. This was a time when jazz music was becoming popular, and the United States passed constitutional amendments that enacted prohibition, making the sale of alcohol illegal, and that gave women the right to vote. At this time, there were renewed concerns over immigrants who were Jewish, and immigrants form eastern and southern parts of Europe. In 1924, these concerns led to the establishment of the National Origins Act, which was the first comprehensive immigration law. This law placed a limit on the total number of immigrants that would be allowed into the United States, and it placed a quota on how many people would be allowed to immigrate from each country.

The voyage of the SS St. Louis

A decade later, in the 1930s, the United States had fallen into the great depression, and the unemployment rate exceeded twenty percent. This was also the time when Hitler rose to power in Germany, and tensions in Europe set the stage for the beginning of the second world war. Then, on the night of November 9, 1938, Hitler’s government organized a night of terrible persecution against Jewish people. This night came to be known as “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” Nazis smashed windows, and they burned, and looted Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes. Many Jewish people were killed, and thousands were arrested. Over the next few weeks, the Nazi government ordered Jewish people to pay an atonement fine, ordered all Jewish retail establishments to be closed, and ordered the confiscation of all Jewish property. At this point, it became abundantly clear that it was not safe to be a Jewish person living in Nazi Germany, and many Jewish people sought to escape.

Although people in the United States were concerned about events happening in Europe, most favored an “isolationist” approach, and were strongly opposed to getting involved. During the great depression, concerns about Jewish people in Germany were not strong enough to overpower people’s desires for self-protection and their fears about immigrants. Surveys conducted at the time suggested that over 80 percent of people in the United States were opposed to expanding the quota system to accept more Jewish refugees. This fear of immigrants had tragic consequences.

On May 27, 1939, Captain Gustave Schroeder sailed the passenger ship, SS St. Louis, toward the Havana harbor in Cuba. On board were 930 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. They had been told they would be allowed to stay in Cuba as they sought placement on waiting lists for eventual entry into the United States as refugees. However, Cuba did not accept the refugees and the ship was forced to turn away.

Captain Schroeder then sailed for Florida in hopes that the people of the United States might have mercy and show compassion. The ship came so close to Florida that passengers could see the lights of Miami, and Captain Schroeder pleaded with the US government to allow the ship to dock. These pleas were in vain. Due to the quota system, and due to popular sentiment against accepting refugees, the ship was not allowed to dock. The United States coast guard trailed the ship to ensure that, if passengers tried to jump, they would be returned to the ship. Eventually, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Some refugees eventually entered Britain, but most were distributed to other European countries that soon fell to Nazi rule. Thus, it is likely that most passengers perished in the Holocaust.

The song, “Who Will Weep,” is about the Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis.

This song raises the question, who will have compassion for refugees? The song includes an image (drawn, in part, from a parable of Jesus in the Christian Bible) of poor children begging in a crowded marketplace, singing a dirge, or sad song about death, and being ignored by busy people who are unmoved by the children’s pleas. This image can be interpreted many ways. It could be a description of markets in impoverished cities in parts of the world where children sometimes need to beg to survive. The children in the marketplace could be a metaphor for refugees or the children of refugees. The dirge could be a song about the death that refugees may face as they attempt to flee from harsh, tragic, or violent conditions. The market could be a metaphor for a busy, competitive, market-driven country where concerns over self-protection tend to overpower feelings of compassion for refugees. Thus, there are many ways in which the image of children begging in a marketplace can be used to inspire feelings of compassion for refugees.

(See the section on "Biblical Allusions" below for further discussion of the use of Jesus' parable.)


  1. You ask for examples or reasons that would contradict your theory about “our ability to compete” as the main reason for hostility towards immigrants. I wonder if one example might be the kind of jobs that some immigrants have. One the one hand, there are low-paying jobs (mostly by illegal immigrants) such as those in the agricultural and hospitality (hotels) and service industry (restaurants) that many Americans don’t want; on the other hand, the highly-skilled employment, such as the IT people in the Silicon Valley, that not many Americans are incapable of doing, thus Microsoft, for example, is forced to look for workers overseas. And how about the automation of jobs? Recently, 4 million jobs had been automated away in the retail and sales industry of which Amazon is the biggest culprit. And, of course, before automation, millions more were lost to outsourcing of jobs overseas especially in the manufacturing industry. Immigrants have not taken American jobs away; outsourcing and automation have. I wonder if a greater issue might be greed and the kind of capitalism we have in America that can allow big business to be uncaring to be exploitative of our workers? But thank you for your article on immigration. Generally, I believe you are correct.

  2. I thought this whole presentation was excellent and has great potential for group study and discussions.

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