- Six months after the Nazis celebrated Kristallnacht, the German transatlantic liner MS St. Louis sailed on May 13, 1939, from Hamburg Germany.
- The voyage became a symbol of American and Canadian heartlessness, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.
- Flags were flapping in the wind and well-wishers waved from the Hamburg pier. On board, the eight-deck ship were 938 paying passengers, all but one of whom were Jews fleeing Germany for their lives. They had all purchased landing permits from the Cuban government. Several passengers had relatives, spouses, or children waiting for them in Havana. Most were on the waiting list for visas to the United States and planned to stay in Cuba until America granted them entry.
The SS St. Louis sails out of Hamburg
The voyage turned out to be a cruel set-up. Cuba had no intention of letting any passengers off the ship. Caving into anti-Semitic pressure, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had signed “Decree 938” eight days before the ship departed Germany. The decree invalidated the landing permits. No one had told the passengers.
It was more than hiding the truth. The Reich was playing an espionage game and the St. Louis passengers were its pawns. Havana, after all, was the center of German intelligence and espionage activity directed against the United States—a city where Nazi intelligence officers had purchased top-secret documents detailing U.S. submarine designs. The method for smuggling these plans back into Germany was simple. A Nazi agent, planted as a St. Louis crewman, would disembark in Havana, rendezvous with a Nazi intelligence agent there, carry the documents back to the ship, and deliver them to Berlin as soon as the St. Louis returned to Hamburg with its Jewish cargo intact.
Clockwise: Passengers are seen disembarking after returning to Europe; Children on deck; Mother and daughter; and passengers boarding for the fateful voyage.
Over and above the documents payoff was the negative PR potential. Nazi propaganda minster Joseph Goebbels couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make the United States look like a hypocrite in the eyes of the world. The St. Louis would at once show the German people that the Reich was serious about ridding the country of its Jews and would demonstrate to the world that the Reich was allowing its Jews to leave freely and unharmed. Finally, it would make concrete in human terms what Evian had told the world in theoretical terms: Nobody, especially the United States, was willing to take German and Austrian Jews.
To make sure Cuban President Bru would not change his mind under pressure from the United States and the world community, Goebbels sent fourteen Nazi propagandists to Cuba to stoke the smoldering flames of anti-Semitism. The strategy worked. Five days before the St. Louis steamed out of Hamburg harbor, the streets of Havana boiled over with forty thousand angry demonstrators, the largest anti-Semitic demonstration in Cuban history.
First Class Dining Room
The Hamburg-Amerika Line, operating under the direction of the Reich, had chosen Gustav Schroeder, an experienced seaman and staunch anti-Nazi, to captain the St. Louis. While the Reich didn’t trust him, Schroeder was perfect window dressing for their charade.
Captain Schroder gave orders to officers and crew the refugees were to be given the same courtesy and service as all paying passengers of the Hamburg-America Line. The voyage to Cuba was similar to any other sailing with dances, costume parties, and deck sports. Schroder accommodated observant Jews aboard the St. Louis for services using the ship’s lounges in Cabin and Tourist Classes.
A Hamburg-Amerika Line luncheon menu showing what meals were like on the St. Louis for the Cabin Class passengers.
The St. Louis reached Cuban territorial waters in mid-May. To the shock and anger of Captain Schroeder and its passengers, Cuba refused to allow passengers to disembark until a sales transaction was completed. President Bru put a price of five hundred dollars on the head of each passenger. The bill came to about half a million dollars (nearly $8 million today). It was a bluff. Bru knew the passengers didn’t have that kind of money, and he gambled on the assumption that no one else would come to their rescue. The moment an international coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish leaders called his bluff and deposited the money in the Chase National Bank of Cuba, Bru raised the ante to $650 per head. When an international negotiator tried to bargain with him, Bru abruptly removed his offer from the table.
In 1957, two years before he passed away, Captain Gustav Schröder received a medal from West Germany for helping the St. Louis passengers as best he could. And, in 1993, Yad Vashem awarded him posthumously the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
President Bru’s denial of entry left Captain Schroeder with two choices: return to Hamburg as ordered by the Hamburg-Amerika line or find another country willing to accept more than nine hundred Jewish refugees.
Captain Schroeder took it upon himself to find his passengers a safe new home. He formed a passenger committee and they brainstormed every possibility together.
Gambling on the generosity of America, Schroeder sailed north into international waters off the coast of Miami and aimlessly cruised up and down waiting for either a change of heart from Bru or a message of welcome from the United States. From the decks of the wandering ship, passengers could see blinking lights of hope from the luxury hotels lining Miami’s beaches. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter shadowed the ship, not so much to prevent it from docking as to “rescue” any passengers desperate enough to try to swim to freedom and to keep the ship in sight in case President Bru had a change of heart.
Members of the Dublon family on the deck of the MS St Louis. When the ship returned to Europe, the family disembarked in Belgium. All of them deported to Auschwitz, and all were killed by the Nazi German government.
Captain Schroeder sent a message to Roosevelt. He didn’t answer. The St Louis’s children cabled a plea for help to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She didn’t answer either.
President Roosevelt’s hands were not completely tied. Although U.S. immigration law prevented the St. Louis passengers from entering the country, he could have issued an executive order to accept them, arguably a politically dangerous move for a sitting president up for re-election. Such an order would also be unfair to the 2,500 Jews already waiting in Cuba for visas, as well as to the many more thousands in Europe who stood in line ahead of the St. Louis passengers. It would have triggered a wave of protest from the anti-immigrant lobby and encouraged the other ships filled with Jews roaming the seas in search of a home to head for the United States.
The “St. Louis,” carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, waits in the port of Havana. The Cuban government denied the passengers entry. Cuba, June 1 or 2, 1939.
To complicate the issue, even more, the U.S. unemployment rate was still over 17 percent, and national feelings of isolationism and anti-Semitism had not changed since the conference at Evian the previous year. Courage aside, Roosevelt was not prone to commit political suicide.
The State Department visa division didn’t keep Captain Schroeder waiting very long. “The German refugees,” it ruled, “must wait their turn before they may be admissible to the United States.” And immigration officials in Miami cabled the following blunt message to the German captain: “The St. Louis will not be allowed to dock here, or at any U.S. port.” To further encourage the problem to go away, the United States offered the ship no water, food, or fuel.
Passengers on the sun deck of the St. Louis heading to Cuba.
The international press followed the St. Louis story with great sympathy, as Goebbels had hoped. The United States was no better than Nazi Germany, they wrote. It didn’t want German and Austrian Jews either.
Excellent documentary on the St. Louis voyage and Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.
As the St. Louis pointed its bow back toward Germany and the lights of Miami faded like a dream, hope turned to despair. The passengers cabled President Roosevelt one last plea: “Repeating urgent appeal for help for passengers of the St. Louis. Help them, Mr. President.” Again, there was no response.
Passengers en route to Cuba on the Games Deck.
Canda refused to take the refugees. Religious intolerance and anti-Semitism were common in Canadian society and even in its cultural and right up to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. “We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood, as much the same thing as lies at the basis of the Oriental problem. I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews.” [Excerpt from King’s private diary, March 29 1938.]
Passengers waited in the warm sun aboard the MS St. Louis, looking at Miami in the distance. Roosevelt’s government refused to supply the ship with food or water or refuge from the Nazis.
The passengers now knew with awful certainty that a return to Hamburg would be a death sentence. Fearing mass suicides, Captain Schroeder set up suicide watch patrols. Then, in a desperate attempt to save themselves, a small group of refugees forcibly commandeered the ship. Schroeder talked them out of their futile mutiny and never pressed charges.
After Canada refused entry, including Britain, and the other European countries did not volunteer to accept any of the refugees, Captain Schroeder devised plan B. He would shipwreck the St. Louis off the coast of England and set the vessel on fire.
Had the St. Louis headed straight back to a German harbor, its Jewish passengers would have all certainly ended up in Nazi concentration camps. It was, thus, primarily thanks to Captain Schroeder’s courage and determination not to abandon his Jewish passengers to their fate that many of them were able to escape the Nazi death trap.
Under international law, Great Britain would then be forced to accept the refugees as shipwrecked passengers. Luckily, however, the plan never came to fruition. Before Schroeder could execute it, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, and France agreed to divide up the passengers.
Passengers swimming in the ship’s pool and boarding the St. Louis in Hamburg
The voyage of the St. Louis was an espionage and public relations success for the Reich. As for Captain Schroeder, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded him its Order of Merit medal after the war, and Israel posthumously honored him as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The 254 of the St. Louis Jews hiding in Belgium, Holland, and France wasn’t as lucky. They were murdered in the Holocaust, most in the killing camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor.