Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Journalist and Historian

Remembering the Jewish refugees aboard the ill-fated St. Louis 80 years later

German Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis as it sits in Havana, Cuba's harbor, May 1939. Source: JDC Archives

Eighty years ago in history, on May 27, 1939, 937 Jewish refugee passengers aboard the ship the S.S. St. Louis later known as “the Voyage of the Damned” reached their destination of Havana, Cuba after departing from Hamburg, Germany two weeks earlier on May 13, 1939. Cuba, the United States, and Canada would refuse entry to the Jewish refugees, as anti-immigration sentiment, isolationism, and anti-Semitism would prevail as the American countries that already instituted tight laws to prevent immigration. Cuba made its final decision to refuse the refugees entry on June 5, sending them away from the Havana on June 2, where they were never allowed to disembark. Between June 2 and June 5 as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) attempted to broker deals with Cuba and the US, the St Louis lingered by the Miami, Florida shoreline as the refugees desperately cabled for entry to the American shores they longingly saw.

On June 5, the final word came from the US State Department and the US Coast Guard escorted the St. Louis away from the US shores. They began their slow trip back to Europe on June 6, fearful they would return to Germany and certain death. The JDC and advocates continued negotiating for the refugees’ disembarkment but on June 7, Canada refused the refugees entry. The JDC turned to Western Europe as the St. Louis crawled back towards Great Britain. On June 11, The JDC would hear good news, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Britain would divide-up the refugees. They would reach their destinations between June 16 and 20, 1939, however, within a year, two-thirds would end up under Nazi-controlled territories and a quarter would die in the Holocaust. The world’s reaction and treatment of the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis was a defining moment and turning point that the world scales tipped towards anti-Semitism.

After the Kristallnacht on November 9–10, 1938, Germany’s Jews were looking for a way out of the country, while Germany was looking to rid the country of Jews. However, European transit countries were no longer taking in Jewish immigrants and after Arab protests, Britain tightened immigration to Eretz Israel/Palestine. Latin America with a plan of later entry the United States was the last hope for many Jewish refugees in Germany. Cuba was one of the destinations because of its proximity to the US and agreement with Germany. Cuba would end up revoking their landing permits and in the end, only let a handful of Jewish refugees remain. Nowhere in the Americas would neither the United States nor Canada would accept the refugees. Both countries had immigration quota systems and strict restrictive laws in place, as isolationist and anti-immigration policies were in the norm in the interwar years.

The majority of the refugees were German citizens, while a few were from Eastern European countries, practically all aboard applied for US visas and only intended to stay in Cuba while they awaited US immigration’s approval on their visas. Havana, Cuba had been the safe haven previously for refugees but not for the over 900 Jews aboard the St. Louis. Over 2,500 Jews already found saftey in immigrating to Cuba. News of the ship’s arrival put the Cuban left in motion; they wanted the government to stop the Jewish refugees from arriving. As the St Louis set sail, however, there were already issues the Hamburg-Amerika Line that owned the St. Louis, kept the information hidden from the passengers.

The St. Louis’ captain Gustav Schroeder, a German sympathetic to his Jewish passengers already suspected there might be problems with the landing permits. The Director-General of the Cuban immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez had been making a very profitable business from selling landing certificates. Gonzalez took advantage of a loophole in the law, which stated tourists, and those “transiting” through Cuba going to other countries did not need to buy the $500 a person bond required in Decree 55. Gonzalez had an arrangement with the Hamburg-Amerika Line he sold them landing permits and the company, in turn, sold them for $235 to their desperate Jewish passengers. Gonsalez’s corruption led to the Cuban government to force him to resign.

On May 8, Cuban leftist protesters headed by former president Grau San Martin took the streets of Havana objecting to the arrival of more Jewish refugees in the country. Although Cubans worried about the refugees taking away jobs from them during the Depression, the motivation behind this huge rally was anti-Semitism aiming to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.” Over 40,000 attended the rally, which was also broadcast on radio. The newspapers in Havana and the province argued Jews were Communists to feed the frenzy, while the Cuban Nazi Party spread “anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic” propaganda. (Ogilvie & Miller, 18)

The rally convinced the Cuban government to change their minds about accepting the refugees. The week before their arrival Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru decided to invalidate all the landing certificates and transit, which the Cuban Director-General of Immigration granted the St Louis’ refugees. The new law Decree 937 would close the loophole and it would require the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor to personally write and sign permissions to anyone entering the country, and each individual with the exception of American citizens would be required to post $500 in bond. Bru caved to the pressure to turn away the St. Louis’ refugees from Cuba.

Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller in their book Refuge Denied, The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust point out, “But now, quite suddenly, a convergence of factors — including greed, political infighting, public agitation against immigration, fascist influences, and anti-Semitism — changed that equation, making the majority of those aboard the St. Louis unwelcome on Cuban soil.” With Cuba added to the list of countries unwilling to accept Jewish refugees, the German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry was able to use it to their advantage proving nowhere n the world wanted Jews and that they were letting their Jewish population go free.

Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts recount in their book, Voyage of the Damned, A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal, and Nazi Terror, “The voyage could be exploited to the full for propaganda purposes: the German nation could be told that it was part of the general “housecleaning” operation; the world at large could be told that there was clear evidence that Germany was allowing Jews to leave unharmed and unimpeded.” (Thomas & Morgan Witts, 17) The Jews leaving Germany paid a heavy price to leave; they could only take four dollars and personal clothing and effects, giving up any other belongings they owned. The St. Louis would be one of the last ships to leave Germany with refugees before World War II commenced.

On May 23, Captain Schroeder was notified that the passengers might not be allowed to disembark because of the change in Cuban laws. The Hamburg-Amerika line sent Schroeder a cable saying, “MAJORITY OF YOUR PASSENGERS “IN CONTRAVENTION OF NEW CUBAN LAW 937 AND MAY NOT BE GIVEN PERMISSION TO DISEMBARK. . . . YOU WILL MAINTAIN SPEED AND COURSE, AS SITUATION IS NOT COMPLETELY CLEAR BUT CERTAINLY CRITICAL IF NOT RESOLVED BEFORE YOUR ARRIVAL.” Schroeder recruited five of the male passengers to deal with the permits crisis. The passengers’ committee was led by lawyer Josef Joseph and included Max Weiss, Max Zellner, Arthur Hausdorff, and Herbert Manassee. (Ogilvie & Miller, 15–16) The committee served as the spokesmen for the refugees and would “play a key role communicating with international relief agencies and advocating on behalf of the passengers.” (Ogilvie & Miller, 15–16)

The St. Louis reached Havana on Saturday, May 27, docking in the middle of the harbor. The Havana police came aboard and marked R for return on the majority of the refugees’ passports. Family members waiting at the harbor were not allowed to go see their loved ones on the ship. Later in the day, the police permitted only 22 of the 936 Jewish refugees, who had valid US visas and secured the bond to go to land (one refugee died during the trip and had been buried a sea). Additionally, Cuba let in six other passengers, “four Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals.” On May 30, another passenger Max Loewe attempted suicide slitting his wrists and jumping overboard and was able to stay because he was hospitalized, he later was sent to Britain. The remaining 908 passengers were refused entry neither were they allowed to disembark based on Gonzalez’s permits. The ship and its refugees became the story in the European and American press, however, American journalists did not consider that the refugees be allowed entry into the US, their sympathy only went so far.

On May 28, Lawrence Berenson, who was a lawyer and representative from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) arrived from the US to Havana to attempt to negotiate the St. Louis’ passengers’ entry. Berenson had ties to Cuba having served as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce. Berenson personally met with President Bru, who was adamant against allowed the refugees to enter, and on June 2, he demanded they leave Havana. After the St. Louis departed Berenson and the JDC kept negotiating with the Cuban government. JDC and Berenson offered $125,000 and promised none of the refugees would seek employment in Cuba and would just stay there as they wait for the US visas. The Cuban government wanted the JDC to post the $500 a passenger bond, a staggering $453,500. According to historian Howard Sachar in his book A History of Jews in America, Bru demanded the JDC post a million dollar bond for the refugees, an amount beyond their reach still, Berenson and the JDC asked for more time. Bru refused, ending the Jewish passengers’ chances to find refuge in Cuba. On June 5, Berenson secured $500,000 in cash and deposited in a Havana bank but Bru was unable to agree to allow the refugees in bowing to public pressure. (Sachar, 493)

The Passenger committee chairman Josef Joseph described the site as the St. Louis left the Havana harbor:

The sirens signaled the engines and we were moving out of Havana into the sunlit blue Caribbean. To our right, we passed the lush colors of tropical gardens, blossoming trees, and exciting flora. To the left, the docks were bordered by the ostentatiously ornate buildings of a tropical metropolis. . . . Crowds filled every space along the shoreline, waving, weeping and watching with great sadness. Automobiles accompanied us as far as the roadway permitted. And alongside a motorboat with a gentleman from the Joint Distribution Committee as well as a HAPAG [Hamburg-America Line] official who all shouted continuous encouragement and hopes for a speedy “Wiedersehen,” see you soon. A harbor patrol boat followed them and us. It was their duty to see that we moved swiftly out of the harbor. But the officer in sight managed to convey his sympathy for our plight. An indescribable drama of human concern and despair played on us as we sailed into the twilight of uncertainty. This is one of the most tragic days on board because we feel cheated for the freedom we had hoped for. What started as a voyage of freedom is now a voyage of doom.” (Ogilvie & Miller, 18–19)

As they left Cuba, Captain Schroeder slowly steered the boat north close to the coast of Florida, even docking close to Miami on June 3. Schroeder hoped the US would take the refugees since they already have filed the necessary immigration documents. To the St. Louis’ passengers, “America was a magic word. It was the be-all and end-all. We knew America would not let us down.” (Ogilvie & Miller, 19) The JDC and the committee attempted to negotiate a possible docking in the US. On June 5, the US Coast Guard guarding Miami ports to ensure that the ship would not dock or any refugees would attempt to swim to shore and military planes flew overhead. They used a cutter to force the St. Louis away from the shoreline and go north away from American shorelines. The Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis could see Miami and the freedom they craved in the US but were not allowed to enter. A number of the passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the White House, while the children wrote letters to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The White House did not respond and the State Department’s only response came from A. M. Warren of the State Department’s Visa Division who cabled on June 4, “The German refugees… must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” The St. Louis lingering around Miami became a tragic news story. Only Hollywood stars, which included a number American Jews cabled Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull to no avail but that was as far as American sympathy went. (Ogilvie & Miller, 20)

The United States and President Roosevelt refused to accept the refugees. Since 1924, when the Republican-controlled Congress US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, quotas were put in place limiting the number of immigrants allowed to come from a given country. In 1939, only 27,370 immigrants Germany and Austria were allowed to enter the US and each year thousands were waitlisted waiting for maybe three years or more until they could enter depending on the country. Although a large number in peacetime, the US government further limited the number of Jews to be included in the quota making it a quota within a quota. Historians and Jewish leaders have criticized Roosevelt primarily on two inactions, not admitting the refugees aboard the St. Louis and later not bombing the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz. Roosevelt heeded to the anti-immigrant lobby in not allowing the St. Louis refugees into America. The president viewed it unfair to the other Jewish refugees in Cuba and Europe, who were awaiting entry to the U.S. to have the St. Louis circumvent the system, and giving a bad example to other ships.

Although, Americans were sympathetic to the refugees’ story, not enough to overcome their deep resentment for immigrants. An April 1939 Fortune poll showed an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans opposed increasing immigration in March 1939, rising from 67 percent the previous year. Roosevelt’s decision not to admit the St. Louis refugees was politically motivated. In the 1938 midterm election Republicans and their promises of increased and sustained isolationism, gained seats in Congress. At that, point if Roosevelt even thought of running for a third presidential term he had to consider the mood of the country. The country was fiercely isolationist and opposed to immigrants entering. While “middle blue-collar Americans” were mostly anti-Semitic adherent to Father Charles E. Coughlin whose radio show reached millions and preached “Nazi anti-Semitic principles.” (Thomas, Morgan-Witts, 16) Roosevelt, the State Department, the FBI and the country also had a mostly unfounded fear that refugees including Jews from Germany were spies.

However, reluctant Americans were they were not supportive of the opposite extreme total restrictionism. Three restrictionist bills were introduced in Congress in 1939. Senator Robert Reynolds and Representative Joseph Starnes of Alabama introduced a bill intended to stop all immigration for 10 years or until only three million Americans were unemployed, it also would have fingerprinted and registered all immigrants in a database, and deport any “inimical to the public interest.” (Sachar, 491) This bill also died in the committee stage despite outside support from restrictionist groups including the American Legion and a public wary of admitting immigrants into the country.

Changes in immigration could not pass through Congress. After the Anschluss in 1938, Congressional Representatives Samuel Dickstein and Emanuel Celler both of New York introduced a bill allowing refugees to immigrate by using the combined unused country immigration quotas and “forgo the application of the ‘public charge’ provision.” (Sachar, 490) The bill was set for hearings when the restrictionists threatened to retaliate and the White House advised the Dickstein and Celler the bill would interfere in foreign policy. Celler reintroduced the bill in January 1939 allowing refugees to enter on a five-year probationary period. The bill died in the Ways and Means Committee.

In 1939, Congress again attempted to admit Jewish refugees, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) would have allowed 20,000 Jewish child refugees to immigrate to the US, both parties refused to take up the Wagner-Rogers Bill to a House or Senate vote and it languished in committee. The bill received support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The first lady was supportive of Jewish refugees but could not sway the president. The American Jewish Committee mounted a campaign in support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill and journalists and newspaper supported the bill to allow refugee children. (Sachar, 491)

Nativist groups used anti-Semitic propaganda calling it a “Jew Bill” and trying to scare the American public that the refugees would take away food from American children and it might lead to other immigrant children including the much disliked at the time Chinese. The biggest problem was the Roosevelt administration would not support the bill, with Secretary of State Cordell Hull afraid it would open a “Pandora’s box” in immigration requests. Had Roosevelt spoke out in favor of the bill it might have had a chance to pass in Congress. However, according to Thomas and Morgan-Witts, “The message was clear: any president would change the American immigration laws at his peril.” (Thomas & Morgan-Witts, 16)

In general, Americans and Congress wanted Jewish refugees to find a place but not in America, the right wing wanted to resettle European Jews in “British or French Guiana or Kenya.” (Sachar, 493) While President Roosevelt “appealed to the world for a suitable area ‘to which refugees could be admitted in almost unlimited numbers.’” (Thomas & Morgan-Witts, 14) The world played ping-pong with European Jewish refugees as their lives hung in the balance. The US wanted to find a place for Jews in Central Africa, with Roosevelt advocating Ethiopia. The Soviet Union wanted Alaska. Thomas and Morgan-Witts recount, “The Orinoco River valley in Venezuela, Mexico, the plateaus of southwestern Africa, Tanganyika, Kenya, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland — the entire confusing collection of suggested sites were discussed, investigated, and dismissed, either by Jewish organizations or by national governments.” (Thomas & Morgan-Witts, 14) Most Jews wanted to go to America, however, the American public, government, and Roosevelt refused.

As historians, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman analyze in their book, FDR and the Jews, that before and during World War II and the Holocaust Roosevelt’s actions towards Europe’s Jews was conflicting. Breitman and Lichtman explain, “For most of his presidency Roosevelt did little to aid the imperiled Jews of Germany and Europe. He put other policy priorities well ahead of saving Jews and deferred to fears of an anti-Semitic backlash at home. He worried that measures to assist European Jews might endanger his political coalition at home and then a wartime alliance abroad.” … Still, at times Roosevelt acted decisively to rescue Jews, often withstanding contrary pressures from the American public, Congress, and his own State Department. Oddly enough, he did more for the Jews than any other world figure, even if his efforts seem deficient in retrospect. He was a far better president for Jews than any of his political adversaries would have been.” (Breitman & Lichtman, 8)

The last hope for docking in the Americas was Canada, whose immigration policy was even tighter and crueler than the US. As historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper argue in their book, None Is Too Many, Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948, “Once Canada’s door was shut to Jews, it stayed shut. Even while the Nazis slaughter of European Jewry was taking place, the determination of immigration officials to withhold entry to those few Jews who might yet be rescued never wavered.” (Abella & Troper, 17) On June 7, 1939, a number of Canadians looked to have the Canadian government accept the St. Louis refugees. George Wrong led among those who advocated including “B.K. Sandwell of Saturday Night, Robert Falconer, past-president of the University of Toronto and Ellsworth Flavelle, a wealthy businessman.” (Abella & Troper, 64) They sent a telegram to Prime Minister Mackenzie King asking to “show true Christian charity.”

King was not interested in the plight of Jewish refugees he was hosting the royal family and “accompanying” them as their toured Washington, DC. King asked the Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe and director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources Charles Blair on the idea both were against it with Lapointe from French Quebec, “emphatically opposed.” Blair believed the Canadian government had already done enough for Jewish refugees from Europe, responding, Canada could “open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line has to be drawn somewhere.” (Abella & Troper, 64)

With the US and Canada refusing to take in the St. Louis refugees that only left the possibility of Western European countries and Great Britain. On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis started its return trip to Europe. The JDC turned its attention to finding the refugees a place in Europe away from Germany and Austria. The JDC’s European director Morris Troper “frantically” negotiated with European governments, offering to pay for the refugees “board and lodging.” None of the countries seemed receptive, Schroeder to ask his boss the Hamburg-Amerika Line in Berlin if they would allow him to sail to Shanghai, China, a location willing to accept Jewish refugees but they refused such an expense on Jews.

Instead, Schroeder slowly steered the St. Louis towards Europe and Great Britain to buy the JDC time. On the ship, desperation had seeped through with many of the passengers considering suicide. Schroeder devised a contingency plan somehow to crash the ship along the coast of Britain, with it shipwrecked; Britain would have to the Jewish refugees onto land. On June 11, Troper received a response, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and France would take in the refugees. Troper sent news to Schroeder and the St. Louis on June 13, where they would first arrive at the dock in Antwerp, Belgium. On June 17, the St. Louis reached Antwerp by June 20 they would all reach their destination countries. In 1993, the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel named Schroeder as Righteous Among the Nations.

There seems to be a historical disagreement on the number of each country accepted and how many died under the Nazis. The historian Howard Sachar noted in his book A History of the Jews in America, that the Netherlands accepted 194 refugees; Belgium and France admitted “250 refugees each,” while Britain took the remaining passengers. The United States Holocaust Museum Museum claims, “Great Britain took 288 passengers, the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers, and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France.” Sachar indicates that 617 out of the 621 who ended up on mainland Europe died within the year. The USHMM says, by May 1940 when Germany conquered Europe, 532 passengers remained on mainland Europe. Of them, 284 “survived” through the Holocaust, while 254 of the St. Louis refugees died in the Holocaust, “84 who had been in Belgium, 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.” Ogilvie and Miller recount, “While a significant number wound up in the relative safety of Great Britain, the rest found themselves embarking — although they at first might not have realized it — upon yet another perilous journey. In less than a year’s time, Germany would control much of Europe, and more than six hundred veterans of the St. Louis trapped on the Continent would once again be in the crosshairs of Nazi terror.” (Ogilvie & Miller, 25)

Had the United States or Canada acted taking a stand against anti-immigrationists and taken a humanitarian position, all the 936 passengers aboard the St. Louis, who arrived in Havana would have survived and thrived in freedom. The world and Europe’s Jews always viewed the US as a leader and beacon of hope for those in danger, President Roosevelt and the country let them down. Ogilvie and Miller indicate, “The St. Louis affair has come to symbolize the world’s indifference to the plight of European Jewry on the eve of World War II. The episode speaks directly to contradictions in American society when it was faced with the increasingly alarming effects of Hitler’s totalitarian regime. On the one hand, there was widespread disapproval of Nazi brutality and persecution of Jews and other minorities. On the other hand, tough economic times, isolationism, and anti-Semitism hindered any moves to let more refugees in. In the end, the resulting gap — “between sympathy and action” — proved too great to overcome.” (Ogilvie & Miller, 1)

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Abella, Irving M, and Harold M. Troper. None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

Breitman, Richard, and Allan J. Lichtman. FDR and the Jews. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.

Ogilvie, Sarah A, and Scott Miller. Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Thomas, Gordon, and Max Morgan-Witts. Voyage of the Damned: A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal and Nazi Terror. New York, N.Y: Skyhorse, 2010.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Voyage of the St. Louis,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/voyage-of-the-st-louis

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.
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