Padlocked, No Sanctuary

Padlocked, No Sanctuary • Composite Photograph & Poem • 2013. Sources: Original photography of an Iron gatae with discarded scarf draped over it, overlaid on brick buildigns in Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.
Padlocked, No Sanctuary • Composite Photograph & Poem • 2013

Padlocked, No Sanctuary (The Poem)

Red and Green happy-colored asylums.
Strained iron barrier,
Aggressive spikes oppose intrusion.
Crimson stained garment
hastily knotted and unremembered.

Promised land
of broken promises;
Yearning masses huddled and denied,
Xenophobic disturbances Unrestrained,
Falsities rendered as un-lied.

A padlock,
Black and sturdy
Bars enshrouded gate.
Only privilege welcomed
African slaves ported in
Contraband made.

In ’39 Third Reich-fleeing Jews
906 in number,
Aboard the S.S. St. Louis denied
By Coast Guard enforcers with orders.
Made to retrace ocean steps.
254 lost to Holocaust.

Mexican and Mayan farmers
Answering the promise
Baked by the dozen

Under the torturous Apache Sun,
Sardined in Coyotes’ 25-ton.

Chinese migrants
Enslaved by dearly-paid promises
Salted and boiled

In floating tin cans
Sent by sea.

Where is B. Traven now,
To relate his tale of
A stateless man
Shanghaied to face his doom by rusta dub tub?
Who now remembers the Death Ship truths he told
about papered borders
and unpapered wars in permanent ink?

Only privilege welcomed
Slaves unendingly ported in
Forever contraband made.

No human being is Illegal
Unshroud the gate,
Discover the lock’s secret
Can we make our slaves free?
Can we make ourselves free?
—Jay M. Ressler

Additional Comments

A kind of schizophrenia exists in this land of immigrants. A mean-spirited xenophobia creeps into the debate. This piece and the accompanying poem challenge those notions.

A couple of notes on the poem: In 1939 the S.S. St. Louis with 906 Jewish refugees onboard left Germany to escape the Holocaust, most had paid dearly for the passage. It planned to drop the passengers in Cuba (then a virtual U.S. protectorate) where they would wait to get permission to enter the United States. With the Administration of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt leading the way, both countries turned them away.

The ship was forced to sail back to Europe with all on board. Some found refuge in Europe, but 254 ended up in Nazi death camps.

A book, Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, was written about the incident and later adapted into a film of the same title and an opera titled “St. Louis Blues”

The poem refers to one of my favorite novelists, B. Traven. Traven’’s real identity is a subject of some controversy. Among his novels is a very funny book, The Death Ship, about an American merchant sailor who looses his papers when he oversleeps in a whorehouse. Our hero suffers one misadventure after another and is shuffled from country to country and from one miserable sailing to job ever-worsening and more dangerous ones. When he is rescued by a generous American captain whose ship is safe, clean, and has ample food, he finds himself in remote waters off Africa where his savior has scuttled the ship for insurance money.