On June 6 1939, a German transatlantic liner carrying over 900 Jewish
refugees fleeing the Third Reich was forced to turn back to Europe after
having been turned away from the shores of Cuba, the United States and
Canada. 936 people had set off on the SS St. Louis
from Hamburg, Germany on May 15 of that year, holding permits to enter
Havana. Most were Jews seeking to escape the clutches of Nazi Germany,
however, their fate seemed ominous as ever as they were sent back where
they came from.
Captain Gustav Schroeder described high hopes and
spirits despite evident nerves, as they headed toward Central America
in the luxury boat. He had instructed his crew that all aboard the ship
were paying passengers and must be treated as such. According to Sarah
Ogilvie and Scott Miller's Refuge denied: the St. Louis passengers and the Holocaust,
Schroeder even instructed the removal of a large picture of Adolf
Hitler that usually hung in the ballroom, in order for his Jewish
passengers to use the hall for prayer.
The passengers were soon
to discover, however, that their permits were now worthless. In a
money-making scheme, Cuban Director General of Immigration Manuel
Benitez Gonzalez had manipulated a loophole in policy and sold the
usually-free certificates at high rates. But angered by his actions, the
Cuban government passed decree 937, closing the loophole, invalidating
the St. Louis passengers'
tickets, and establishing rigid immigration laws. The Yad Vashem center
also attributes the government's decision to fascist tendencies and
public aversion to immigrants.
Upon arrival in Cuba, only 29 of
the passengers were permitted to disembark. "We found out that we could
not land, and the nightmare started again," survivor Herbert Karliner
After six days hopefully waiting at the Havana harbor, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis
to leave. Spirits plunged, panic and desperation rose, and two
passenger attempted suicide. "No more fun on board: panic, telegrams
etc. were the current events of the day," Karliner relates.
American Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish agencies appealed
to other Latin American countries to accept the refugees, but all
refused. The US and Canada were their final hope. The boat sailed toward
Miami, and the captain pleaded with the authorities. Passengers sent
telegrams to then-US president Franklin D Roosevelt, but to no avail.
"We sent a plea to Mrs. Roosevelt to allow only the children to enter
the US, but it came to dead ears," says Karliner.
Immigration Act of 1924 placed strict limits on immigration, and while
dramatic headlines splashed across newspapers, such as "Fear Suicide
Wave on Refugees' Ship," in the New York Times,
the majority of the US public was averse to immigrants and refugees
landing on their shores; unemployment was at a high and Americans were
unwilling to lose out on job spots to foreigners. In a Fortune Magazine
poll carried out a couple of months earlier, 83 percent of Americans
answered "no" to "open[ing] the doors of the United States to a large
number of European refugees."
Meanwhile, Canadian President
Mackenzie King dismissed the plea as a non-Canadian problem, and
Immigration Director Frederick Charles Blair said, "No country could
open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of
Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn
"We had to return to Europe knowing fully well what it meant," Karliner remembers.
multiple rejections, Captain Schroeder was forced to return to Europe,
however he did not give up on his efforts to avoid returning to Germany,
even devising a contingency plan to shipwreck the St. Louis near the English coast, thus making it a problem the British government would have to deal with.
after heavy negotiating led by the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee, the United Kingdom agreed to admit 287 of the passengers,
Belgium 214, France 224 and Holland 181. One man died during the voyage.
Schroeder has been hailed as the St. Louis hero,
for his determination to find a safe haven for his passengers. While
the solution that he found was far less desirable than America which lay
far from the grips of Nazism, Schroeder's actions saved lives by
preventing his passengers from heading straight to Germany's death
camps. After World War II, Schroder was awarded the Order of Merit of
the Federal Republic of Germany and on March 11, 1993, Yad Vashem
recognized Schroeder as Righteous Among the Nations.
how events would unravel, news that other European countries had
accepted them was gratefully received. "At the end, finally the happy
news came that Belgium, France, Holland and England would accept us. We
disembarked in Antwerp to change ships," Karliner says.
for a significant portion of passengers aboard that ship, the seemingly
happy news led them to their tragic destinies, as Nazi Germany began
eating its way into Europe, Jews were deported to concentration camps
and France, Belgium and Holland were invaded. According to research
conducted by Miller and Ogilvie of the United States Holocaust Memorial
museum, of the 620 passengers that returned to Belgium, France and the
Netherlands, a total of 254 died during the Holocaust.