Voyage of the St. Louis

St. Louis leaving Hamburg, May 13, 1939

Our survivor Felicia Fuksman, in her hometown of Lodz, Poland, celebrated her nineteenth birthday on May 20, 1939. Despite the poverty that surrounded her, Felicia was a “happy teenager” who had no inkling of the dangers that were approaching.

A week before Felicia’s birthday and in contrast to her happiness, the doomed ocean liner St. Louis departed Hamburg, Germany, with nine hundred and seven Jewish refugees and twenty-three non-Jews. Among the group were two hundred and fifty women and one hundred and fifty children. The departure of the St. Louis attracted a lot of attention. Never had so many refugees left Germany on a single boat. Nazi propagandists gave the St. Louis plenty of coverage. They presented a story of Jews who were expelled from Germany and rejected by the world.

Captain Schroeder

The St. Louis sailed under the Nazi flag but the captain was far from being a Nazi. He was Gustav Schroeder, later honored as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem.

Seven hundred and forty-three passengers aboard the St. Louis had applied for U.S. visas. Their affidavits of support were in good order. But they preferred to wait outside Germany for their quota number to be called. pEach passenger paid $150 for a “landing certificate,” or a “tourist letter.” These were sold by corrupt Cuban officials in cahoots officials of the Hamburg-America steamboat company. The Gestapo also figured in the mix. Only twenty-two passengers had legitimate visas.

Eight days before the ship left Hamburg, officials of the Hamburg-America Line received word from Cuba that President Federico Laredo Bru had signed a decree (Decree 937) invalidating all “landing certificates.” Officials of the Hamburg-America Line (Hapag) and their partners in the Gestapo did not want to refund all those tickets. They stood to lose a fortune. There were four hundred first class berths on the St. Louis. Each cost 800 RM, a small fortune. There were five hundred tourist class berths, each costing 230 RM. Passengers paid an additional 230 RM as a bond in the event of “circumstances beyond Hapag’s control.”

Postcard of the St. Louis

The trip across the Atlantic was uneventful. The passengers were ecstatic.  Except for a handful of Nazis, the crew was polite and even sympathetic.The St. Louis docked in Havana’s harbor on May 27, 1939. Only now did the refugees learn that their “landing permits” were invalid. The Cuban government prohibited those without legitimate visas from disembarking. They were stranded aboard on the ship. The idea of returning to Nazi Germany caused hysteria. One man, who had survived a concentration camp, slit his wrists and jumped overboard. He was rescued against his will. Two crew members would later commit suicide on the voyage.

St. Louis in Havana’s harbor

Negotiations were soon underway between Lawrence Berenson, a representative of the Jewish organization JOINT (American Distribution Committee), and various Cuban officials. The Cubans were determined to exploit the passengers for as much money as possible. Their actions were governed by a lethal mixture of greed and anti-Semitism. President Bru would make the final decision. The first round of negotiations did not succeed and President Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters on Friday, June 2nd.

Sisters on the St. Louis

The Times-Picayune’s coverage began on June 2, 1939. Between June 2nd and 9th,the newspaper published eight articles about the tortured journey of the St. Louis. Two of the articles found a prominent spot on page 1.

The article tells us that Cuban president Bru had ordered “the tragic shipload” to leave Cuban waters “with the threat to use gunboats if necessary…” Cuban police aboard the St. Louis (guarding the passengers) told the reporter about the hysteria: “Mothers and children wailed and children wailed incessantly and calls to meals virtually were unanswered.”

Captain Schroeder let the reporter know that he feared a “collective suicide pact” among the passengers. There was concern that some “might be driven to desperation and might try to jump overboard.” Cuban police motoring around the ship and on hand to “pick up any who might try to end their lives in this manner rather than return to their former homeland.”

We learn that the harbor was lined with ten thousand spectators. This included relatives of the passengers. Aboard the St. Louis a rumor made the rounds that another country “in the Western world” was willing to offer them refuge (for a price, naturally).

The reporter was not aboard the ship but managed to describe the scene: “Smiles spread over tear-stained faces among refugees who took the report at face value. Wailing which had grown louder during five days of vain efforts to enter Cuba turned to happy laughter.”

A seemingly inexplicable incident occurred when a motor boat pulled alongside the St. Louis and six passengers climbed aboard before it quickly sped off. The Cuban police, standing guard on the St. Louis, looked the other way. Evidentially these lucky people had powerful friends.

The June 4th article in The Times-Picayune suggested that the refugees would be permitted to disembark in Cuba after all. The reporter mentioned a “new regulation to modify Cuba’s immigration law.” It was “expected” that the Cuban president would sign the new regulation “within a few days.” The new regulation required a $500 bond for each passenger

The article referred to “an offer of haven” from the Dominican Republic. This particular “haven” imposed a “$500 tax to remain permanently in the country.” JOINT officials considered a plot of land in the Dominican Republic, with poor facilities, was not a feasible for urban dwelling Jews. But two years later several hundred Jewish refugees ended up in the Dominican Republic.

Another refugee boat was plying the Gulf of Mexico in search of a haven. The French steamer Flanders (Flandre), with one hundred and forty refugees on board, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico. The passengers with enough money were allowed to remain in Mexico for six months. Those without sufficient funds sailed with the Flanders the next day. The vessel attempted to drop anchor in Havana’s harbor but was ordered to sea.

The reporter wrote that the St. Louis was “apparently steaming in aimless circles off” the coast of Florida as “negotiations” continued in Havana. The ship anchored “off the Miami light,” and two Coast Guard planes (and a Coast Guard cutter) were dispatched “to keep it under surveillance.” The U. S. immigration inspector let it be known that the ship would not be permitted to dock in Miami or Key West “unless distressed.” Captain Schroeder again expressed his concern that if he headed back to Europe there might be “mass suicides” or a “passenger mutiny.”

Yet another refugee boat, the steamship Orinoco, with two hundred refugees on board, was on its way to Cuba when ordered to return to Germany. It sailed in the opposite direction and ended up in the Panama Canal Zone. The passengers were allowed to disembark.

On the bottom of page 1 of the June 5th issue are two photographs that appear side by side: one is of the St. Louis leaving Havana’s harbor, the distraught faces of the passengers all too visible; the other photograph shows fifty Jewish refugee children who “were waving happily at the Statue of Liberty.”

The meaning behind this juxtaposition of the two photographs was as clear as it was fallacious: while Cuba closed its doors, the United States opened its arms.

On page 1 of this issue, the St. Louis was described as the “wandering liner St. Louis.” The startling news was that President Bru had offered to let the refugees stay in a “concentration camp” (his words) on the Isle of Pines for a limited period of time. The president defended himself to the press. He referred to Decree 937 and maintained that he had informed all the steamboat companies on May 5th that passengers would be denied landing privileges “unless all legal details had been fulfilled.”

The St. Louis left behind the lights of Miami and steamed back to Cuba. The passengers were jubilant. They would be allowed to disembark on Isle de Pinas. But negotiations between Cuban officials and JOINT’s Lawrence Berenson collapsed. The Cubans demanded more money, and Berenson attempted to negotiate. The noon deadline passed “without acceptance by refugee representatives of a Cuban plan to create a temporary haven on the Isle of Pines.” The reporter speculated that Jewish side was unable to raise the $500 bond for all of the passengers. For a second time the Cuban government refused to allow the passengers to set foot on Cuban soil. “Refugees reported ‘shakedown’ victims,” the reporter tells us. He concluded (accurately) that “vindictive politics and private desire for gain are involved in the plight” of the St. Louis.

We learn in this article that the “landing permits” sold for as much $400 in April 1939. The trip to Havana was billed as a “chartered voyage” and a ticket sold for twice as much as the regular fare.

Lawrence Berenson, JOINT’s representative, tried to renew negotiations with the Cuban government. The article described a proposed transaction between the Lawrence Berenson and the Cuban government. The deadline for the negotiations was set at noon on June 7, 1939.

According to the article, JOINT sent a “cablegram” to President Bru informing him that the organization agreed to pay a $500 “deposit” for every refugee on the St. Louis, the Flanders, and the Orduna, and assured him that none of refugees would become a “public charge.” JOINT’s “cablegram” included this request: “We are confident that while the St. Louis is said to be on the way back to Germany, it is not too late to radio to her to return to Havana. This we beg you to do.” The request fell on deaf ears and the St. Louis headed back to Europe.

While the tragedy of the St. Louis played out, the fighting between Jews and Arabs in Palestine intensified.

Passengers of the St. Louis, upon returning to Europe

On the trip back to Europe there was an attempted mutiny on the St. Louis. Three passengers tried to seize control of the ship but Captain Schroeder talked them out of it. The next day Schroeder addressed the passengers, assuring them that he would not return them to Germany under any circumstances. With remarkably little debate, four countries agreed to accept the St. Louis passengers: Belgium (200), Holland (194), France (250), and Great Britain (350). The passengers, steaming ever closer to Europe, learned the good news via a cable on June 13, 1939: “Final arrangements for disembarkation all passengers complete. Governments of Belgium, Holland, and France and England cooperated magnificently with American Joint Distribution Committee to effect this possibility.”

The “passenger committee” replied that its “gratitude is as immense as the ocean on which we have been traveling since May 13.” The ship docked at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939. Less than a year later, when the German armies swept across Western Europe, the former passengers of the St. Louis did not have much of a chanced. One source estimates that only 240 of the 907 passengers of the St. Louis survived the war, and they were mostly the lucky ones who ended up in England.