On May 13 1939, 937 refugees boarded the St. Louis to set sail from Hamburg (Germany) for Havana (Cuba). Most passengers were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially “stateless”. 254 of these people, seeking protection from Nazi Germany, would be murdered in the Holocaust.

The Jewish passengers had applied for visas for the United States. They held landing certificates and transit visas for Cuba, where they planned to stay only until they could enter the United States. But they did not know that Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú had issued a decree just a week before the ship sailed that invalidated all recently issued landing certificates.

The voyage of the St. Louis caused a stir in public opinion. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers were demanding the Cuban government refuse the Jewish refugees entry to the country.

Many Cubans were unhappy about the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews) the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs. The immigrant issue was hyped in right-wing publications and demonstrations, claiming that incoming Jews were Communists. Hostility toward immigrants fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia.

On May 27 the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor. The Cuban government admitted 28 passengers: 22 Jewish people with valid US visas, four Spanish citizens with valid entry documents and two Cuban nationals. One other passenger was evacuated to a hospital in Havana after attempting to commit suicide. The remaining passengers were denied entry into Cuba.

Refugees from Nazi Germany on board the St. Louis en route to Cuba. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota of 27,370 was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years.

US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions.

President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.

“You know, we always cling to the hope something is going to happen. They’re not going to let us rot on the ocean. I mean, something had to happen to us. Of course, the fear was that we would go back to Germany.”Testimonial by Gerda Blachmann Wilchfort, source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The St. Louis, carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, arrives in the port of Antwerp after Cuba and the United States denied it permission to land. Belgium, June 17, 1939. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On June 6 1939, following the United States’ refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe.

The governments of The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and France agreeed to receive the refugees until homes in other countries could be found. A cash guarantee of $500,000 ($500 per refugee) was paid by the Joint Distribution Committee in order to make the arrangement feasible and to cover upkeep costs wherever necessary.

Some of the 907 passengers on board the St. Louis arriving in Belgium after being refused entry into Cuba and the U.S. Source: Joint Distribution Committee

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 Europe, 87 managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half – 278 – survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium, 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.

Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, passengers on the St. Louis, disembark in the port of Antwerp. Cuba and the United States denied entry to these refugees. Belgian police guard the gangway. Antwerp, Belgium, June 17, 1939. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The story in this blog post is based on two excellent resources that can be used for educational purposes or if you are just looking for more information on the story of the St. Louis:

  • The Joint Distribution Committee created a Topic Guide about the St. Louis including context, photographs and a collection of documents from 1939 to illustrate the story.
  • The US Holocaust Memorial Museum gives a comprehensive summary of the fate of the St. Louis. You also find photographs, maps and testimonials from a few St. Louis passengers.

If you have any questions or comments concerning this story, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us via email or leave a message below this post.