Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Today is the anniversary of the day the SS St. Louis set sail from Germany in 1939, with 937 passengers aboard. I will give a synopsis here, but for the whole story, see the movie "Voyage of the Damned".


The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939 under command of Captain Gustav Schröder. Upon the ship's arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government, headed by President Federico Laredo Brú, refused to accept the foreign refugees. Passengers had previously purchased legal visas, but on May 5, 1939, four months before World War II began, Havana abandoned its former pragmatic immigration policy and visas issued before May 5 were invalidated retroactively. None of the passengers were aware that the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their landing permits.

The journey to Cuba was a joyous affair. Crew members treated the passengers well—Captain Schröder insisted on this. Elegantly clad stewards served foods that by 1939 had been rationed in Germany; there was a full-time nursemaid to care for small children when their parents sat to eat. There were dances and concerts, and the captain allowed passengers to hold Friday evening religious services in the dining room and even permitted them to throw a tablecloth over a plaster bust of Hitler that sat there. Children were given swimming lessons in the on-deck pool.

The ship dropped anchor at 4 A.M. on May 27 at the far end of the Havana harbor and was denied entry to the usual docking areas. The next six days on the harbor were tumultuous times. It was finally announced that passengers arriving on the ship would only be allowed to enter if they had official Cuban visas. Thus, only 22 non-Jewish passengers were allowed to disembark on Cuban shores. After long negotiations, the remaining 915 passengers (mostly Jewish) were forced to return to Europe.

Prohibited from landing in Cuba, Captain Schröder took the ship and its passengers to Florida. America not only refused their entry but even fired a warning shot to keep them away from Florida's shores. ]Legally the refugees could not enter the United States on tourist visas, as they had no return addresses. The U.S. had passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

As the St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade the nation's Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship's passengers, as it was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia. But, Canadian immigration officials and cabinet ministers hostile to Jewish immigration persuaded the Prime Minister on June 9 not to intervene.

As the situation of the vessel deteriorated, Captain Schröder personally negotiated and schemed to find them a safe haven. At one point he formulated plans to wreck the ship on the British coast to force the passengers to be taken as refugees. He refused to return the ship to Germany until all the passengers had been given entry to some other country. US officials worked with Britain and European nations to find refuge for the travelers in Europe. The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939.

The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers, who disembarked and traveled to the UK by other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France, 214 by Belgium, and 181 by the Netherlands. Without any passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg. The following year, after the Nazi German invasions of Belgium and France in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were again at risk.

Research estimates that 254 of them were killed.

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