Ruth B. Mandel did not remember her transatlantic passage on the St. Louis, a German ocean liner that set sail from Hamburg for Cuba in May 1939 carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees. Traveling with her parents, she was 9 months old, one of the youngest passengers aboard the ship that would come to loom over the collective memory of the Holocaust.
When the ship docked in Havana, the passengers were informed that Cuba had canceled their landing permits amid internal government turmoil. Without U.S. immigration visas, they could not enter the United States. Canada, too, denied them entry.
The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where a Jewish organization had frantically secured visas allowing the passengers to enter countries outside Nazi Germany. But with the invasion of Western Europe in 1940, even that safety proved fleeting for many of them, and by the end of World War II, 254 of the refugees had perished in the Holocaust, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The voyage of the St. Louis became emblematic of the plight of European Jews who sought safe haven outside Nazi Europe and were unable to find it because of a confluence of factors that included entrenched government bureaucracy, worldwide economic deprivation, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
For Dr. Mandel, who survived the war, settled in the United States and became a leading scholar and advocate of women in politics, the St. Louis was also a symbol of the power that governments held over “homeless souls wandering the seas at the mercy of forces and powers that had no knowledge of us as individuals.”
“My interest in politics didn’t come out of a political party,” she once told an interviewer, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “It came much more out of a family background of escaping from the Holocaust and thinking that unless we had good government and good democracy and the world got to be a better place, none of us would make it through.”
Dr. Mandel, 81, died April 11 at her home in Princeton, N.J. Her death was announced by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, which she had led from 1995 until last year and where she helped found the Center for American Women and Politics in 1971. She had ovarian cancer, said her daughter, Maud Mandel, who is president of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
When the St. Louis returned to Europe, four countries — Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands — each agreed to admit a group of the passengers. The most fortunate were the 288 refugees who ended up outside continental Europe in Great Britain, where except for one person killed in an air raid, all survived the war.
Dr. Mandel and her parents were among that group. In 1947, when she was 8, they once again sailed across the Atlantic, this time to join relatives in the United States.
“We entered New York waters on a clear May morning,” Dr. Mandel recalled years later at a naturalization ceremony held at the Eagleton Institute. “And there I saw her — standing tall and magnificent — the Statue of Liberty. It is the sight of that lady in the harbor that is my indelible moment of arrival.”
Scarred by their experience in the Holocaust, her parents never shed their fear of persecution, Dr. Mandel said. She recalled her mother’s anxiety when, in an early sign of her political engagement, Dr. Mandel wrote letters to the editor or signed petitions expressing opposition to the Vietnam War. “They’ll have your name,” her mother admonished her, “and then they can find you.”
Dr. Mandel completed a doctorate in English literature and had no expertise in politics when she accompanied her then-husband to Rutgers University for his teaching position. But when she heard about a fledgling center at the university devoted to women and politics, she joined the initiative as a volunteer, quickly rising to the position of director.
In that role, and later as director of the Eagleton Institute overall, Dr. Mandel became a sought-after voice on the obstacles women faced on the campaign trail and in government well into the 21st century.
“I don’t think we’re going back to a day when little girls grow up being told that if they want to be true females they’ll plan a life with four options — the kitchen, the church, kindergarten teaching or nursing,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989. But politics remained “brutal and grindingly difficult for women.”
Her writings included the book “In the Running: The New Woman Candidate” (1981), in which she explored the prejudices and double standards women faced even as they sought elective office in greater numbers. If they were overly passionate, they risked appearing strident; if they were more reserved, they might look weak. Too beautiful, and voters doubted their intelligence; not attractive enough, and they were mocked.
Under Dr. Mandel’s leadership, the Eagleton Institute pursued initiatives on topics such as youth political participation, state government and immigration, in addition to its work on female political candidates. Reporters turned to Dr. Mandel for insight when Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and U.S. senator, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.
“I have a question,” Dr. Mandel told the Star-Ledger in 2008, “about whether that is a rejection of this strong, outspoken, tough, older woman.”
Ruth Blumenstock was born in Vienna on Aug. 29, 1938. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father co-owned a small chain of women’s clothing stories. He was arrested and imprisoned temporarily at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938, prompting the young couple to seek a way out of Europe.
“My childhood was supposed to have played out differently,” Dr. Mandel said in 1999 in an address at the Holocaust museum. “I was supposed to have grown up as the daughter of a prosperous Viennese family. I was supposed to have had sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, grandparents on both sides. It didn’t work out that way.”
Dr. Mandel’s paternal grandparents and many other relatives died in the Holocaust. She and her parents were reunited with her mother’s family in New York, where her father worked at a box factory before resuming his earlier career and running several clothing stores with his wife.
Dr. Mandel studied English literature at Brooklyn College, from where she graduated in 1960, and at the University of Connecticut, where she received a PhD in 1969. She taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Rider College in New Jersey before joining Rutgers, where her first husband, Barrett John Mandel, taught English literature.
They were divorced but remained close until the end of Dr. Mandel’s life. In addition to their daughter, Maud Mandel of Williamstown, Dr. Mandel’s survivors include her husband of 29 years, Jeff Lucker, of Princeton; and two grandchildren.
Dr. Mandel rarely spoke publicly about her wartime experience until the founding of the Holocaust museum in Washington, which was chartered by an act of Congress in 1980 and opened in 1993.
She was inspired to share her story when she learned that the museum was planning an exhibit about the St. Louis. President George H.W. Bush appointed her in 1991 to the council governing the museum, and President Bill Clinton named her vice chair two years later. She remained on the board until 2005.
“My mom came to the United States as a young girl after having been turned away as a baby,” Maud Mandel said in an interview. “The United States did offer a beacon of hope but also a concern, because they had been on a ship that had not been allowed in. She saw this as a country that provided refuge . . . to her and her family and great opportunity for her personally, but she was also aware of how fragile the democratic project was.”
Dr. Mandel regarded that democratic project, her daughter said, as “something to be fought for and protected.”
“I do not know for sure that we learn from the past,” Dr. Mandel observed. “I have my doubts that recalling evil can make people good. But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries