On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers, almost all of them Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially “stateless.”
The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. By the time the St. Louis sailed, however, there were signs that political conditions in Cuba might keep the passengers from landing there.
The US State Department in Washington, the US consulate in Havana, some Jewish organizations, and refugee agencies were all aware of the situation but the passengers themselves were not informed.
The owners of the St. Louis, the Hamburg-Amerika Line, knew even before the ship sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking in Cuba. The passengers, who held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, did not know that Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree just a week before the ship sailed that invalidated all recently issued landing certificates. Entry to Cuba required written authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and the posting of a $500 bond.
When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government admitted 28 passengers: 22 of them were Jewish and had valid US visas; the remaining six—four Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals—had valid entry documents.
The remaining 908 passengers—including one non-refugee, a Hungarian Jewish businessman—had been awaiting entry visas and carried only Cuban transit visas issued by Gonzales. Among them, 743 had been waiting to receive US visas. The Cuban government refused to admit or allow them to disembark from the ship.
After Cuba denied entry to the passengers, the press in Europe and the Americas, including the United States, brought the story to millions of readers throughout the world. On May 28, the day after the St. Louis docked in Havana, Lawrence Berenson, an attorney representing the US-based Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), arrived in Cuba to negotiate on behalf of the St. Louis passengers.
He met with President Bru, but failed to persuade him to admit the passengers into Cuba and on June 2, Bru ordered the ship out of Cuban waters. 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.
Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however, as Jewish organizations and individuals such as Morris Troper of the JDC 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 to 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 the continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940.
When Germany conquered Western Europe, 532 St. Louis passengers remained trapped. Just over half that number, 278, survived the Holocaust. In total, 254 St. Louis passengers perished in the Holocaust: 84 who were given refuge in Belgium, 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.
Taking a Stand
The story of the St. Louis represents two sides of taking a stand. The actions of Lawrence Berenson, Morris Troper and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee represent those who helped refugees in spite of bureaucratic restrictions and unwillingness by certain nations to take in refugees. Perhaps more significantly, the voyage of the St. Louis illustrates what can happen when individuals, institutions or government leaders do not take meaningful action to aid or rescue refugees fleeing persecution and violence.
To Learn More
- Voyage of the St. Louis Online Encyclopedia Article
- Voyage of the St. Louis–Maps
- Online Exhibition–Voyage of the St. Louis
- Confidential letter sent by JDC Chairman Paul Baerwald in London to JDC European Director Morris Troper in Paris regarding MS St. Louis refugees
- Typewritten English translation of a message sent by the members of the MS St. Louis Passenger Committee to the Joint Distribution Committee in New York