In May 1939, 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 the US.
Ever since Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) the Nazi’s had begun burning synagogues and confiscating Jewish property.
By 1939, Adolf Hitler had plans to close the German borders and many countries were imposing quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they’d take in. Havana was seen as a safe, temporary port to get to the US.
At the Hamburg docks, tearful relatives waved to their loved ones aboard the St. Louis. Given Hitler’s escalating anti-Jewish campaign, they didn’t know when they might see each other again. Those on the ship knew they were the lucky ones, managing to get out in time.
For many passengers, the anxiety they felt soon faded as the St Louis began a quiet 2 week voyage across the Atlantic. On board was a swimming pool, dance band in the evenings and even a movie theater. There were regular meals with rich foods the passengers rarely ate given the rationing in Germany.
Under Captain Gustav Schroder, the crew was ordered to treat the passengers with respect, a sharp contrast to the open hatred Jews received under the Nazis. Children were told by relieved parents that they were finally safe. They were going away and didn’t have to look over their shoulders ever again.
When the ocean liner reached Havana 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 … but 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 Cubans. For 7 nerve-wracking days, Captain Schroder tried in vain to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow his passengers to disembark. The Cubans declined their visas out of fear of being seen as a sanctuary and inundated with even more Jewish refugees.
Even before the ship sailed, Cuban newspapers demanded the 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 suffered with the Great Depression. Many resented the refugees already admitted, as they competed for scarce jobs. The owners of the St. Louis knew before the ship sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking, but told none of them.
The plight of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. After Cuba denied entry to the refugees, the press in Europe and the US broke the story to millions around the globe. Though US newspapers were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight, only a few editors suggested the US actually admit them. Hostility toward immigrants had fueled xenophobia and isolationism in the US as well.
Captain Schroder had no choice but to leave Havana and sail to Florida.
Unfortunately, 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, pleading for refuge. Roosevelt never responded directly. The State Dept sent a telegram to the ship stating that passengers must wait their turns and qualify for visas before they could be admitted.
Quotas established in the 1920’s strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted each year. In 1939, 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 immigration restrictions. Like Cuba, the Great Depression left millions without work and fearful of competition for scarce jobs. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order, but public hostility to immigrants and a forthcoming election were among his considerations.
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 desperation. No-one dared speak about what the Nazis would do to them once they returned to Germany. People were openly weeping as they wandered the ship – 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, 4 European countries agreed to split up the refugees. In June, the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, 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. Of the 620 passengers who returned to the continent, 532 were trapped when the German military stormed through Western Europe taking Belgium, Holland and ultimately France. Nearly all were captured and sent east to Nazi Death Camps. 278 managed to survive the Holocaust … 254 did not.
The journey of the SS St Louis and its ill-fated passengers was the subject of the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned.