Escape from the Nazi's

Nearly 100 German Jews perished over the course of two days in November 1938, an incident widely seen as signifying the beginning of the Holocaust. The evening of widespread Nazi vandalism, known as Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass," when windows and storefronts of Jewish synagogues, businesses, and houses were destroyed, convinced many German Jews that it was time to leave the country.

Refugees boarding the St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany. 1939.

SS St. Louis: The Jewish Refugee Ship That The U.S. Turned Away (

Because of its separation from the affairs of Europe at the time, America was particularly alluring to them and seen as a logical place to escape to, far away from the clutches of the Nazis. The waiting for American immigration visas was agonisingly long, and the country's 27,370 German-Austrian immigration quota swiftly became full. Over 900 persons, the majority of whom were German Jews, made the decision to try to enter the country anyway, such was their fear of what the Nazi regime would do to them, simply due to them being Jewish.

15-year-old Gisela Feldman on the St Louis.

Howard Barlow

Passengers on the St Louis.

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The refugees boarded the opulent cruise ship the SS St. Louis, which was being commanded by Gustav Schröder. Schröder had assisted in making arrangements for the refugees to fly to Cuba so they could wait out their visa approvals there.

Sadly, things did not turn out as we had hoped.

Arrival at Cuba

On 27th May 1939, the St. Louis arrived at the port in Havana, Cuba, and was met with hostility by the locals right away.

Cuba had suffered greatly during the Great Depression, just like the rest of the world. Around 2,500 additional Jewish migrants had previously been accepted by the nation, which many Cuban people bitterly opposed. Many others felt that it would be too difficult to accept additional 900 people. In fact, conservative Cuban publications had been urging the government to stop accepting refugees long before the St. Louis left port.

Gerald Granston (right) on the deck of the St Louis.

SS St Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted - BBC News

A demonstration led by the former president of Cuba, Grau San Martin, took place five days prior to the St. Louis' departure from Hamburg, gathering 40,000 onlookers and thousands more listening via radio to Grau's cries to "fight the Jews till the last one is driven out."

The size of the anti-Semitic protest was unprecedented.

The problem was only made worse by internal disputes within the Cuban government, particularly after it came to light that Manual Benitez Gonzalez, director-general of the immigration office, had been selling ships intending to dock in Cuba illegal landing certificates.

Just a week prior to the St. Louis' arrival, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru signed an executive order that effectively nullified all landing permits and demanded that anyone wishing to enter the country present a $500 bond as well as a letter of permission from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor.

The refugees onboard the St. Louis awaiting news as to whether or not they would be able to land in Cuba.

National Archives and Records Administration. College Park, Maryland.

In the end, just 28 passengers—22 Jews with legitimate US passports, four Spanish nationals, and two Cubans—were permitted entry into Cuba. One other passenger was also allowed on board, but only after they made an attempt at suicide and required emergency transport to a hospital in Havana. Such desperate actions were an indicator of how desperate the passengers were to find a new home.

The remainder were refused entry and directed towards Miami – a US city – instead. The Cuban government was passing the buck.

The USA refuses

As they approached Miami's lights, Schröder made contact with American authorities to request permission to anchor in Florida. Some travellers even wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally, but their requests went ignored.

The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) had by this time intervened and was making attempts at negotiation, but public opinion in the US was still in favour of strict immigration, and allowing St. Louis entry would also mean denying entry to hundreds of other people who were on the waiting list.

Passengers were reportedly treated with kindness by the staff aboard the St. Louis.

Montifraulo Collection/Getty Images

In the United States, the Great Depression had left millions of Americans jobless and afraid of competition for the few jobs that were available.

It also encouraged nativism, isolationism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. 83 percent of Americans at the time, according to a Fortune Magazine study, were against easing immigration limits.

The St. Louis refugees could have been admitted by executive order, but the general antipathy toward immigrants, isolationist Republicans' electoral victories in 1938, and President Roosevelt's consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president all worked against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt was not the only one who was reluctant to disagree with the nation's sentiment on the immigration problem. 

A large group of people wait on a food line in New York City. 1932. The effects of the Great Depression influenced Americans attitudes towards immigrants.

National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons; Ryan Stennes

A bill supported by Senator Robert Wagner and Representative Edith Rogers was allowed to die in committee three months before the St. Louis set sail. This bill would have increased the current quota by 20,000 Jewish children from Germany.

Life aboard the ship

Conditions on the ship weren't terrible, but eventually a telegraph from the U.S. State Department informed the passengers that they had to "...await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States." Schröder had instructed his staff to be kind to the passengers in an effort to provide them a better experience than they had in Germany. Onboard, there was a dance band, a movie theatre, regular meals, and a decent variety of food.

The image of Hitler that hung in the dining room was permitted to be removed so that Jewish passengers might observe customary Friday night prayers. But official U.S. ships pursued them around the coast as Schröder desperately considered running aground in Florida to save his passengers.

In the end, the captain realised that it had nowhere else to go but back to Europe.

Back to Europe

Negotiations to find the St. Louis a home began with other European nations once the JDC became fully involved, as their records reveal.

There was no way they could return to Germany.

In order to make the deal work and pay for maintenance costs, the JDC placed a cash guarantee of $500,000 ($500 per refugee), which allowed the ship to dock in Antwerp, Belgium, in June 1939 when it once again reached Europe.

Captain Schroder's letter thanking the JDC for arranging visas for the passengers.

SS St Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted - BBC News

The St Louis arrives in Antwerp, Belgium.

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In the end, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Great Britain took in refugees. Before Germany attacked western Europe in May 1940, 87 of the refugees were also able to successfully emigrate to America. However, the German conquest trapped 532 passengers. Only 278 of them made it through the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the Nazis murdered the remaining 254.

The journey of the St Louis - 'The Voyage of the Damned'.

Later ships

In May 1939, two smaller ships carrying Jewish refugees left for Cuba. The British ship Ordua held 72 passengers, whereas the French ship Flandre carried 104 passengers. These ships were not allowed to dock in Cuba, just like the St. Louis. While the Ordua continued to a number of ports in Latin America, the Flandre turned around and headed back to its point of departure in France. Finally, its passengers disembarked in Panama's US-controlled Canal Zone. Most of them were later admitted by the United States.

Further reading


National Archives and Records Administration. College Park, Maryland.

Montifraulo Collection/Getty Images

Howard Barlow

National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons; Ryan Stennes

Michael Grace