In May 1939, just before World War II started, 937 anxious Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany aboard an ocean liner named the SS St Louis. Most were German citizens, though a few were from other countries like Poland and Austria. The passengers planned to reach Cuba first, then ultimately travel to and seek asylum in the US.
Ever since Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) in 1938, the Nazi’s had begun burning synagogues and confiscating Jewish property.
Adolf Hitler had launched an intense propaganda campaign against German Jews. By 1939, Hitler and the Nazis had already annexed Austria and planned to close the German borders in advance of invading Poland. Many countries around the world, including the U.S., began imposing quotas, limiting the number of Jewish refugees they’d take in. Havana, Cuba was still open and seen as a safe, temporary port, until trying for the US.
At the Hamburg docks, tearful relatives waved to their loved ones aboard decks of the St. Louis. Given Hitler’s escalating anti-Jewish campaign, they didn’t know when or IF they might see each other again. Those on the ship knew they were the lucky ones, managing to get out in time. The fate of their Jewish family and friends left behind was uncertain. Still unknown to the world, the Jewish Holocaust had begun.
For many passengers, the anxiety they felt in Germany soon faded as the St Louis left port and began a quiet 2 week voyage across the calm Atlantic Ocean. On board was a swimming pool, dance band in the evenings, and even a motion picture theater. There were regular meals with rich foods the passengers rarely ate given the pre-war rationing in Germany.
Under Captain Gustav Schroder, the German crew was ordered to treat the passengers with respect, a sharp contrast to the open hatred Jews received in their hometowns under Hitler. Children were told by relieved parents that they were finally safe and the Nazis would not be coming to get them. They were going far away and didn’t have to look over their shoulders ever again.
When the ocean liner reached Havana two weeks later in May, that sense of relief soon evaporated, replaced by fear and a growing dread. Passengers were up on deck, their suitcases packed and ready to disembark, when Cuban officials came aboard to speak to the officers … and nothing happened!
It quickly became clear the ship was not going to be allowed to dock and no-one would be allowed off.
They kept hearing the words “manana, manana” from the Cuban officials. For 7 nerve-wracking days, Captain Schroder tried in vain to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow his Jewish passengers to disembark. The Cuban officials declined their visas out of fear of being seen as a sanctuary and then inundated with even more Jewish refugees. Only 28 passengers with valid US visas were allowed to disembark.
Even before the ship sailed, Cuban newspapers demanded their government stop admitting Jews. The Cuban President had issued a decree a week before the ship left Germany that invalidated all landing certificates. Like the US, Cuba still suffered from the Great Depression. Many resented the refugees already admitted, as they competed for scarce Cuban jobs. The owners of the St. Louis knew before the ship sailed that its paying passengers might have trouble disembarking, but told none of them.
The plight of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention around the globe. After Cuba denied entry to the refugees, the press in Europe and the US broke the story to millions around the world. Though US newspapers were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, only a few editors suggested the US actually admit them. Hostility toward all immigrants had fueled xenophobia and isolationism in the US as well.
After 5 days, Captain Schroder had no choice but to leave Havana and sail to Florida.
Unfortunately, when they got there, US authorities also refused to allow it to dock. Sailing so close to Florida they could see the night lights of Miami, passengers telegraphed the President himself, pleading for refuge. Roosevelt never responded directly. The State Department sent a telegram to the ship stating that passengers must wait their turns, and qualify for visas before they could be admitted.
After decades of Ellis Island freely admitting any immigrant, quotas established in the 1920’s strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted each year. In 1939, due to the unrest caused by Hitler and the Nazis, the annual German immigration quota was quickly filled, with a long waiting list of several years.
US public opinion, though critical of Hitler and sympathetic to the refugees, favored the immigration restrictions. Like Cuba, the Great Depression left millions without work and fearful of foreign competition for scarce jobs. President Franklin D Roosevelt could have issued an Executive Order to allow the St. Louis to dock, but public hostility to immigrants and a forthcoming election were among his considerations. A request to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia was also denied by the Canadian Prime Minister.
By June, Captain Schroder had no option but to turn the ocean liner back to Europe.
The joy the Jewish passengers had felt in May was replaced by utter desperation. What was to happen to them now? No-one dared speak about what vengeance the Nazis would inflict upon them once they returned to Germany. People were openly weeping as they wandered the ship’s decks – one passenger even committed suicide by slitting his wrists and jumping overboard.
As it turned out, the Jews did not have to return to Nazi Germany. Instead, much to the relief of the passengers, 4 European countries agreed to split up the refugees. In June, the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, Belgium, over a month after it left Germany. Four governments agreed to secure visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288; the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214 and France 224.
Of the 288 passengers admitted to the UK, all survived World War II unharmed. Of the 620 passengers who returned to the continent, 532 were trapped when the German military stormed through Western Europe in 1939, overthrowing their host nations Belgium, Holland, Denmark and ultimately France. Nearly all were captured and sent east to Nazi Death Camps Auschwitz and Sobibor. 278 managed to survive the deadly Holocaust … but 254 did not.
The journey of the SS St Louis and its ill-fated passengers was the subject of a 1974 nonfiction best seller, Voyage of the Damned. Then a subsequent 1976 award winning film on which it was based, Voyage of the Damned, starring Max von Sydow as Captain Schroeder.
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