On May 13, 1939, the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner belonging to the Hamburg-Amerika line, departed its home port in Germany, headed for Havana, Cuba, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
This was the start of a month-long odyssey. The Jews were turned away from both Cuba and the United States, and the St. Louis was eventually forced to return to Europe, where the passengers were dispersed among several countries. By the end of the war, 254 are believed to have been murdered by the Germans.
The St. Louis (named for the French king Louis IX) was launched by Hamburg-Amerika in 1928; it plied both the North Atlantic route and the Caribbean. The May 1939 journey was special in that nearly all of its passengers were Jews, desperate to depart Germany while it was still possible. The violence of Kristallnacht, the pogroms of November 9-10, 1938, had made it clear to anyone who still had doubts that Jews had no future in Hitler’s Germany.
The St. Louis’ captain was Gustav Schroeder, and he was determined that not only would his passengers be treated with respect, but that they should be able to enjoy their journey. A bust of the Fuehrer was covered with a tablecloth, food that was already rationed back in Germany was readily available, the ship offered live entertainment, and Sabbath services were held on Friday night.
The Cubans change their mind
The vessel departed with 937 passengers, nearly all of them German Jews. All held entry visas to Cuba, and most had already applied for American visas too, so they expected their stay in Havana to be short.
What they didn’t know was that a week before their departure, the Cuban government had changed its criteria for visas, retroactively invalidating the papers held by most of the Jews.
Cuba had already admitted some 2,500 refugees, a fact that angered much of the public. On May 8, a former Cuban president, Ramon Grau San Martin, was among the sponsors of a demonstration in Havana that drew some 40,000 people who wanted to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.”
The St. Louis entered Havana harbor on May 27, 1939, and was denied docking privileges. A week of frantic diplomacy ensued, at the end of which neither Cuban or American authorities agreed to admit the Jews.
For the U.S. to override its strict limits on alien immigration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would have had to sign an executive order to that effect, something he was not ready to do. A campaign by a group of Canadian academics and churchmen urging Prime Minister MacKenzie King to open his country to the refugees similarly fell on deaf ears.
Frantically seeking solutions
Capt. Schroeder was determined not to take his human cargo back to Hamburg, but in the end he had no choice but to return to Europe. While it sailed, the Joint American Committee for Aid Distribution made urgent pleas to the governments of a number of Western European countries.
Eventually, the United Kingdom agreed to accept 288 refugees, and France, Belgium and the Netherlands said they would take in 224, 214 and 181, respectively, until new homes could be found for them.
The Joint agreed to put up a $500 bond for each of them, and to cover the costs of taking them in.
All of those taken in by Britain survived the war, with the exception of one who died in a 1940 bombing raid. Of the 619 who were relocated on the Continent, 365 are believed to have made it through the war alive, with 254 meeting their deaths in the Holocaust.
When Capt. Schroeder brought the ship back to Hamburg, it was empty. He too managed to survive the war, dying in 1959, at age 73. In 1993 was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
After service with the German navy during World War II, the St. Louis was retired and sold for scrap in 1952.