Sending Jewish Refugees Back to Nazi Europe: A Permanent Stain on Cuba’s Memory

The saga of the ship of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe in 1939, which was turned away and sent back by Cuba and the U.S., is a cautionary tale about refugees – and a reminder that history doesn’t forget countries with immoral policies and cynical interests

Margalit Bejarano
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An illustration of the SS St. Louis, which set sail from Europe in May 1939 with over 900 refugees, most of them Jews, and was turned back by Cuba and the United States, forcing the ship back to the Continent.
An illustration of the St. Louis, which set sail from Europe in May 1939.Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Margalit Bejarano

Nearly eight decades have passed but the tragedy of the St. Louis – the ship carrying Jews fleeing the Nazis in 1939, which Cuba and the U.S. turned away and sent back to Europe – still resonates powerfully in light of the plight of the millions of refugees roaming the globe today.

Some of the ship's passengers who survived the Holocaust shared their experiences with Cuban journalist and author Armando Lucas Correa in his best-selling novel "The German Girl." A half-dozen elderly survivors were also on hand at a conference in Jerusalem entitled “Refugees in Crisis – State Policies and Personal Experiences” at the Hebrew University's Truman research institute, a year ago.

Refugees arrive in Antwerp on the MS St. Louis after over a month at sea, during which they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, 17th June 1939. Credit: Three Lions / Hulton Archive / G

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In addition to the academic lectures at the conference by scholars from Germany, Turkey, the United States and Latin America, these survivors added a personal and human dimension to the discussion. Most of them well into their 80s, they were brought to Jerusalem by Robert Krakow, an American lawyer and head of the SS St. Louis Legacy Project, which aims to raise awareness about immigration, refugees and human rights.

The group at the conference were among the 937 passengers on the ship; only a small number were allowed into Cuba, but the rest were returned to Europe where many of them perished in the Holocaust. "The Girl of Berlin" – the heroine of Correa's novel – shared their horrific experience.

Correa's personal inspiration for his 2016 book, which came out in Spanish and English, were stories from his own grandmother, who stood on the dock at the Havana harbor in May, 1939. His aim: to acquaint Cubans, Americans and others with a historical event that remains a stain on their countries' past.

"The German Girl" tells the story of Hannah, a twelve year old girl from a wealthy family from Germany who sets sail on the St. Louis accompanied by her parents and a boy of her age who promises to share his life with her. Hannah and her mother are torn away from the husband/father and the boyfriend after the two are admitted entry into Cuba, where they are sentenced to a life of loneliness and sorrow.

Fast-forward 70 years: Anna, a Jewish girl in New York whose father was killed in the Twin Towers on September 11, receives a package from the aunt who raised her father in Cuba. She sets out on a journey in which she discovers her father’s past and other family mysteries from her great aunt – Hannah.

Grandmother's stories

Author Correa's grandmother regaled him with memories of seeing the desperate refugees gathered on board the St. Louis, surrounded by boats filled with relatives trying to communicate with them by shouting. The sight shocked her to the core and she told him repetitively that Cuba would pay for its crime for at least 100 years. But in effect the incident that came to symbolize the cold-heartedness of the free world to the Jewish refugees had been forgotten by collective Cuban memory.

Armando Lucas Correa at an international book fair, where he presented "The German Girl" (La Niña Alemana), 2018.Credit: Screen grab from Twitter

Correa, who lives in New York since 1991, was born in Cuba in 1959, the year Fidel Castro rose to power. Correa was brought up and educated in a country that tried to mold a new type of citizen who wouldn’t be tainted by capitalist crimes. Revolutionary Cuba accepted Jews indiscriminately, but their history was of no interest to it. "The New Man" was born during the revolution, and ethnic heritage was pushed to the sidelines. Thus pupils in schools in Cuba during those years learned very little about the fate of Jews during World War II. Only the elderly people who had stood on the docks at the port of Havana remembered the tragedy that came to their doorstep, but they had apparently learned to repress their memories.

In 1990 I visited the national archives of Cuba looking for source material for my doctorate about the Jews of Cuba. Working with Cuban historian Maritza Corrales, I found many documents dealing with Jewish immigration to the country and about Jewish refugees who were permitted to enter it at some point during the Holocaust. But when we got to May 1939, when the St. Louis arrived, it turned out that all the material linked to what is perhaps the most significant event in Cuba vis-à-vis Jewish history had disappeared from the archive.

Somebody had made sure to erase from the collective historic memory the role of Cuba’s government in rejecting Jews fleeing from Nazi-dominated Europe.

The general picture we uncovered is that Cuba provided temporary shelter to 12,000 Jewish refugees, half of them entering before May 1939, and the rest between September 1940 and April 1942. Those individuals, however, were not rescued out of the goodness of anyone’s heart in the government in Havana. Cuban policy, similar to that of many countries around the world during that period, was to deny entry to refugees, although there were loopholes in immigration laws that permitted some to sneak into the country.

It emerges that Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, director general of Cuba's Immigration Department, had sold refugees illegal permits to enter Cuba as tourists or passengers in transit, and arranged for their departure from Germany and Austria, for a fee of $150 or more. Benitez cooperated in this venture with the shipping company Hamburg-America Line (Hapag), which was controlled by the Gestapo: They had a common interest to permitting Jews to leave, lining the pockets of Benitez and his colleagues while cleansing the Reich of their unwanted presence.

The cover of "The German Girl."

Political struggles

Jewish refugees hoping to go to Cuba in the late 1930s fell victim to a struggle between the military chief of staff at the time, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, Benitez’s patron, and President Federico Laredo Brú, who led the camp of opponents of illegal immigration to Cuba. In May 1939, Laredo Brú signed a new immigration law that demanded a visa (which was nearly impossible to obtain during that period) even for tourists and passengers in transit, and voided the permits that Benitez had issued.

Meanwhile, the German propaganda ministry had painstakingly prepared the luxurious St. Louis for its voyage, and sent Nazi agents to Cuba with the aim of preparing a hostile reception for its passengers and generally inciting anti-Semitism there.

The German authorities turned a blind eye to Cuba's new immigration statute, figuring that in exchange for the right fee the Cuban authorities would agree to accept the refugees. But in the diplomatic dispute that erupted surrounding the ship's arrival, Laredo Brú and his Secretary of State (who appeared in the international arena as supporters of democracy), condemned the German government for making a mockery of Cuban sovereignty and refused to let the Jews enter.

For his part, Batista was busy paving his own way to the presidency and didn’t want to deal with any complications over such a contentious issue. He avoided the dramatic negotiations the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was conducting on behalf of the passengers, claiming he was ill – but behind the scenes, he was a party to Laredo’s decision to deny them entry. For its part, the U.S. government, whose representatives closely followed the feverish contacts between the JDC and Cuban authorities, didn’t lift a finger to help the beleaguered refugees.

The end of the saga is known: Great Britain, France, Holland and Belgium agreed to accept the refugees on the St. Louis, which was turned away by Cuba and the U.S., but most of them fell into Nazi captivity after the occupation of Western Europe.

After Batista assumed the presidency in 1940, the door was opened to purchasing again entry permits to Cuba – at exorbitant prices. The president headed a corrupt system based on military officials who wrested control over civilian life. Cuba joined the war effort alongside the United States, and Batista tried hard to cultivate his image as someone who had rescued Jewish refugees. The St. Louis affair was forgotten.

Parallel novels

Correa isn’t the first Cuban author who has sought to remind his countrymen about the tragic voyage of the St. Louis and their country's tainted past. Leonardo Padura Fuentes, considered to be one of the country's greatest writers, published a wide-ranging novel in 2013 called “Heretics,” which recently came out in Hebrew, as well.

The plot revolves around the story of a Rembrandt painting that disappeared from the belongings of a Jewish family named Kaminsky that arrived in Cuba aboard the St. Louis, and which was discovered anew in the early 21st century at a public auction in London. Padura essentially wove into his book three parallel novels based on three heroes who say the sort of things about Cuba's regime that he, the author, could not say openly: There is the story of a Sephardi Jew from Amsterdam from the 17th century who was the model for a profile of Jesus that Rembrandt painted; the saga of the refugee boy Daniel Kaminsky, who arrived on the St. Louis and was allowed into Havana, while the rest of his family was forced to return to Europe where they died in the Holocaust; and the tragic story of a young Cuban woman who reveals the fraught reality of life in modern-day Cuba.

In Padura's novel, a worthy subject of a separate article (the book was recently translated into Hebrew), Mario Conde, a former police detective hired by Daniel Kaminsky’s son to look for the Rembrandt painting, reacts thus, to hearing for the first time the shocking story of the St. Louis, about which he had only general knowledge beforehand: “It was a shameful, deep weakness that came from his being… for the same shameful moment Mario Conde as a Cuban, and although he didn’t have anything to do with what had happened in those terrible days, the fact that fellow countrymen were ready, for political or financial reasons, to permit the Nazis to carry out some of their crimes… aroused in him a feeling of disgust and a horrible taste in his mouth.”

To some extent, the two novels by Correa and Padura reflect the changes that have occurred in Cuba since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, among them what appears to be a renewed effort to uncover the roots of the various ethnic groups that comprise the Cuban nation, with the aim of attracting tourists. With respect to Jews, for example, Eusebio Leal, the historian of Havana, renovated a palace in the old city and turned it into a “Jewish” hotel, using biblical names for its rooms and décor based on themes related to Jewish heritage. In the lobby he hung up a painting by a Cuban painter created in 1940, and said (without offering any proof) that it depicted the passengers from the St. Louis. Thus the memory of the despair and tragedy of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich is being harnessed to the cause of attracting Jewish tourists to Cuba today.

French journalist and author Michel Porcheron, who works for the international edition of Granma, the official Cuban Communist Party organ, published an article that clears Revolutionary Cuba of the responsibility for the plight of the ship's passengers – and casts blame on the United States. The fact that the entire tragic episode is not well known and is frequently forgotten, he wrote, is the fault of those who bore a certain responsibility as well for the Jewish genocide by their complicity and inaction – in this case, the Allied governments.

In Israel, the St. Louis saga is part of collective memory about the Holocaust, but it also reminds and teaches us that states conduct their policies according to their interests, but history judges them according to moral standards.

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