St. Louis, Voyage of the

views updated


In 1938 and 1939, the Nazi regime intensified its efforts to force Germany's Jews to emigrate by using terror, discriminatory legislation, and the expropriation of property. Tens of thousands of Jews lined up at foreign consulates to obtain visas and immigration papers, and in the space of some ten months, more than 115,000 Jews had left Germany.

In April 1939, Germany's Hamburg-America Line announced the upcoming departure of the passenger liner, the msSt. Louis, for Cuba. Within weeks all the tickets were purchased, mostly by Jews anxious to flee Germany. The shipping line calculated that more than 95 percent of the passengers were Jewish. On May 13, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, carrying 937 passengers, for a two-week trip to Cuba. The vast majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for U.S. visas, and had planned only to remain temporarily in Cuba until their quota numbers for the United States were called.

Unbeknown to those on board the ship, the political situation in Cuba was ominous. Some eight days before the St. Louis departed Hamburg, the Cuban president, Laredo Bru, had invalidated the landing permits which most of the passengers carried and required that henceforth only visas authorized by the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and the posting of a $500 bond were acceptable. Although the German government and the Hamburg–America Line had been informed of the new decree, the ship left port with the understanding that permits purchased prior to the decree would be accepted.

By May 1939, the political climate in economically depressed Cuba had turned against the increased influx of refugees. On May 8, the single largest antisemitic demonstration took place in Havana, attended by some 40,000 persons. News of the St. Louis 's pending arrival further fanned the flames of hatred and focused more public and official attention on the sale of landing permits by the Director-General of Cuba's immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez. Such certificates were to be given out gratis to tourists who were awaiting visas for the United States or other countries, but they were routinely sold for $150 or more to desperate refugees seeking haven from Nazi persecution. American officials in Havana estimated that Benitez Gonzalez had accrued a personal fortune of $500,000 to $1,000,000 through the sale of landing permits.

When the St. Louis docked in Havana harbor on May 27, 1939, Cuban officials allowed only 28 passengers holding proper visas to enter the country. The remaining passengers, all carrying landing permits signed by Benitez Gonzalez, were denied admittance. The following day, the American Jewish *Joint Distribution Committee dispatched Lawrence Berenson, an attorney with extensive business and political connections, to Cuba, to negotiate on behalf of the passengers. Newspapers from around the world soon began printing stories about the plight of the passengers on board the ill-fated ship. Without breaking off the talks, Bru ordered the ship to leave Cuban waters. Several days later, after failing to reach agreement on the appropriate bond for each passenger, the Cuban president ended the negotiations.

In the hopes of gaining admission to the United States, the ship's captain, Gustav Schroeder, sailed close to the Florida coast, where the passengers could see the lights of Miami. The United States Coast Guard thereupon signaled the St. Louis to remain outside the country's territorial waters. Urgent appeals by the ship's passengers to the State Department and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went unanswered. Concerned Americans, including Hollywood celebrities, such as Edward G. Robinson, Carl Laemmle, Melvyn Douglas, Sylvia Sidney, Luise Rainer, and writer Dashiell Hammett, also requested aid for the refugees. The State Department, however, was ordered by the White House not to officially intervene with Cuban authorities, only to stress the humanitarian aspects of the situation, and not to permit the ship to land in the United States. Its standard response to requests to grant the passengers haven was that they "must await their turns on the waiting list and then qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States." American public opinion, though sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and increasingly antagonistic toward Nazi Germany, still supported immigration restrictions, and few politicians, including the president, were willing to challenge the prevailing mood of the nation.

With little hope of refuge in the New World, and supplies running short, the St. Louis was forced to head back to Europe on June 6. The passengers, fearing a return to Nazi Germany, continued their international appeals. Working with Jewish and other organizations in Europe, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with the governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium to arrange for temporary haven for the passengers in those countries. By June 14, agreement had been reached on the number of refugees for each country: Great Britain would accept 287, France, 224, Belgium, 214, and the Netherlands 181. (During the voyage to Cuba, one passenger died and another attempted suicide in the Havana harbor but was later transported to England.) The St. Louis docked in Antwerp on June 17, after being at sea for over a month, and the refugees were dispersed to their new homes.

At the time, European and American newspapers, Jewish organizations, and the passengers themselves viewed the ship's landing in Belgium as a major success story. A few months later, the plight of the passengers once again turned tragic. With the German attack on Poland in September 1939, and particularly after the May 1940 invasion of Western Europe, many of the former passengers found themselves declared "enemy aliens" because most still carried German passports. Dozens of them, even perhaps a few hundred, were interned by Belgian, British, and French authorities. Those detained in French camps often remained there after the country's surrender to Germany, awaiting permission to leave for the United States or elsewhere.

Like other Jews in German-controlled Europe, they were subjected to discriminatory legislation and deportation. Of the 908 passengers who returned to Europe, only those who were admitted to Great Britain were relatively safe. Although the outbreak of war severely restricted trans-Atlantic passages, a number of these refugees reached the United States when their numbers on the immigration quota came up.

The chances for survival on the European mainland were slim after the mass deportations from Western Europe to the Nazi extermination camps began in 1942. Some of the St. Louis passengers were hidden by non-Jews in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, while a few managed to emigrate abroad. Those who could not find refuge were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto and the Auschwitz and Sobibór killing centers. More than 250 of the former passengers died during the Holocaust.

[Steven Luckert (2nd ed.)]

About this article

St. Louis, Voyage of the

Updated About content Print Article


St. Louis, Voyage of the