This Week in History: 'St. Louis' forced to Europe

Turned away by Cuba, US and Canada, German liner carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Third Reich had no choice but to turn back.

Members of the Heldenmuth family board SS St. Louis  370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Members of the Heldenmuth family board SS St. Louis 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 recalls.
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.
The 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.
The US 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 somewhere."
"We had to return to Europe knowing fully well what it meant," Karliner remembers.
Following 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.
Finally, 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.
Unaware of 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.
However, 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.