Many of Germany's Jews sought refuge abroad in 1939 as Nazi anti-Jewish measures dramatically intensified. Throughout the Reich, tens of thousands lined 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 St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, but Cuban officials denied entry to all but 28 passengers. 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. The State Department, however, refused to intervene in Cuban affairs, and the Coast Guard denied the ship entrance into American waters. The St. Louis turned back to Europe.
Fearful of returning to Germany, the passengers pleaded with world leaders to offer them refuge. Through the efforts of the JDC and other agencies, the governments of France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium granted the refugees temporary haven. After being at sea for over a month, the St. Louis docked in Antwerp on June 17, 1939.