The plight of German-Jewish refugees, persecuted at home and unwanted abroad, is poignantly illustrated by the Voyage of the St. Louis.
Many of Germany’s Jews sought refuge abroad in 1939 as Nazi anti-Jewish measures dramatically intensified. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938, the nationwide Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom in November, and the subsequent seizure of Jewish-owned property had caused tens of thousands of German Jews to line up at foreign consulates desperate for visas. Despite worldwide sympathy for their plight, few countries, even the United States with its restrictive quota system, were willing to open their doors any wider.
In April 1939, Germany’s Hamburg-America Line announced a special voyage to Havana on the luxury liner St. Louis, departing May 13. The 937 tickets were quickly sold out, with more than 900 of them purchased by Jews. Most had purchased landing permits for Cuba, where they hoped to wait for the United States to call their quota number. Unknown to them, their landing permits, issued by the corrupt Cuban director of immigration, had already been invalidated by the Cuban government.
The voyage of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees. More than money, corruption, and internal power struggles were at work in Cuba. Like the United States and the Americas in general, Cuba struggled with the Great Depression. Many Cubans resented the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews), whom the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs. Hostility toward immigrants fueled both anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, but Cuban officials denied entry to all but 28 passengers (22 were Jewish with valid Cuban visas and six were of Spanish with valid entry documents). After Cuba denied entry to the passengers on the St. Louis, the press throughout Europe and the Americas, including the United States, brought the story to millions of readers throughout the world. Though U.S. newspapers generally portrayed the plight of the passengers with great sympathy, only a few journalists and editors suggested that the refugees be admitted into the United States.
For a week, while the ship sat at anchor in sweltering heat, representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) negotiated with Cuban president Federico Laredo Brú. The Cuban government rejected the JDC’s proposals and forced the ship to leave the harbor. The ship’s captain, Gustav Schröder, piloted the St. Louis to the Florida coast in hopes that the U.S. would accept the passengers or that Brú would reverse his decision.
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” The Coast Guard denied the ship entrance into American waters. With no options left, on June 6th the St. Louis turned back to Europe.
Fearful of returning to Germany, the passengers pleaded with world leaders to offer them refuge. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. Jewish organizations (particularly the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) negotiated with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers: Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands admitted 181 passengers, Belgium took in 214 passengers; and 224 passengers found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. The remaining 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. The other 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.