The Tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis
(May 13 - June 20, 1939)
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that
it was time to leave. Though many German Jews had emigrated in the
preceding years, the Jews who remained had a more difficult time leaving the country because
emigration policies had been toughened. By 1939, not only were visas needed to
be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave
Germany. Since many countries, especially the United States, had
immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short
time spans in which they were needed. For many, the visas were acquired
after it was too late.
The opportunity that the S.S. St. Louis presented seemed like a last hope to escape.
The S.S. St. Louis, part of the Hamburg-America Line (Hapag), was
tied up at Shed 76 awaiting its next voyage which was to take Jewish
refugees from Germany to Cuba. Once the refugees arrived in Cuba they would
await their quota number to be able to enter the United States. The black
and white ship with eight decks held room for four hundred first-class
passengers (800 Reichsmarks each) and five hundred tourist-class passengers
(600 Reichsmarks each). The passengers were also required to pay an
additional 230 Reichsmarks for the "customary contingency fee"
which was supposed to cover the cost if there was an unplanned return
voyage.1 As most Jews had been forced out of their jobs and had
been charged high rents under the Nazi regime, most Jews did not have this
kind of money. Some of these passengers had money sent to them from
relatives outside of Germany and Europe while other families had to pool
resources to send even one member to freedom.
On Saturday, May 13, 1939,
the passengers boarded. Women and men; young and old. Each person who
boarded had their own story of persecution.
One passenger, Aaron Pozner, had
just been released from Dachau. On the night of Kristallnacht,
Pozner along with 26,000 other Jews had been arrested
and deported to concentration camps. While interned
at Dachau, Pozner witnessed brutal murders by hanging,
drowning, and crucifixion as well as torture by flogging
and castrations by a bayonet.2 Surprisingly, one day Pozner was released from Dachau on the condition that he leave Germany within fourteen
days. Though his family had very little money, they
were able to pool enough money to buy a ticket for
him to board the S.S. St. Louis. Pozner said goodbye
to his wife and two children, knowing that they would
never be able to raise enough money to buy another
ticket to freedom. Beaten and forced to sleep amongst
bloody animal hides on his journey to reach the ship,
Pozner boarded with the knowledge that it was up to
him to earn the money to bring his family to freedom.
Many other passengers had either left family members behind while some were
also going to be meeting relatives that had traveled earlier. As the
passengers boarded they remembered the many years of persecution that they
had been living under. Some had come out of hiding to board the ship and
none were certain that they would not receive the same kind of treatment
once aboard. The Nazi flag flying above the ship and the picture of Hitler hanging in the social hall did not allay their fears. Earlier, Captain
Gustav Schroeder had given the 231 member crew stern warnings that these
passengers were to be treated just like any others. Many were willing to do
this, two stewards even carried Moritz and Recha Weiler's luggage for them
since they were elderly.
But there was one crew member who was disgusted by
this policy and was ready to make trouble - Otto Schiendick the
Ortsgruppenleiter. Not only was Schiendick ready to make trouble and was
constantly trying, he was a courier for the Abwehr (German Secret Police).
On this trip, Schiendick was to pick up secret documents about the U.S.
military from Robert Hoffman in Cuba. This mission was code-named Operation
The captain made a note in his diary:
There is a somewhat nervous disposition among the passengers. Despite this,
everyone seems convinced they will never see Germany again. Touching
departure scenes have taken place. Many seem light of heart, having left
their homes. Others take it heavily. But beautiful weather, pure sea air,
good food, and attentive service will soon provide the usual worry-free
atmosphere of long sea voyages. Painful impressions on land disappear
quickly at sea and soon seem merely like dreams.3
At 8:00 p.m. on the evening of Saturday May 13, the ship sailed.
The Trip to Cuba
Only a half an hour after the S.S. St. Louis set sail, it received a
message from Claus-Gottfried Holthusen, the marine superintendent of Hapag.
The message stated that the S.S. St. Louis was to "make all
speed" because there were two other ships (the Flandre and the Orduna)
carrying Jewish refugees and heading for Cuba.4 Though there was
no explanation for the need to hurry, this message seemed to warn of
The passengers slowly started adjusting to life aboard a large ship.
With lots of good food, movies, and swimming pools the mood began to relax
a little. Children enjoyed each others' company and made new friendships as
well as played childish pranks including locking bathroom stall doors and
then climbing out underneath as well as soaping doorknobs. Several times
Schiendick attempted to disturb this calm by posting copies of Der
Stürmer, by substituting a newsreel with Nazi propaganda for the
intended film, and by singing Nazi songs.
For Recha Weiler, who was helped by a steward with her luggage, her main
concern was for her husband since his health continued to deteriorate. For
over a week, the ship's doctor continued to prescribe medicine for Moritz
Weiler but nothing helped. On Tuesday, May 23, Moritz passed away. Captain
Schroeder, the purser, and the ship's doctor helped Recha to lay out her
husband, provided candles, and found a rabbi on board. Though Recha wanted
her husband buried once they reached Cuba, there was no storage facility
where the body could be kept. Recha agreed to a burial at sea for her
husband. To not unduly disturb the other passengers, it was agreed to hold
the funeral at eleven o'clock the same night.
After the funeral rites were observed, the body was wrapped in a large
Hapag flag that was then sewn up. Schiendick, trying to make trouble,
insisted that the Party regulations stated that the bier, in a burial at
sea, should be draped in a swastika flag. Schiendick's proposal was
refused. That evening, after a short funeral service the body slid into the
Within half an hour, a depressed crew member jumped overboard at the
same location that the body had left the ship. The S.S. St. Louis turned around and sent out search parties. The likelihood of finding the
man overboard was small and the delay cost the ship valuable time in its
race to Cuba against the Flandre and the Orduna. After several hours of
searching, the search was called off and the ship resumed its course.
The news of the two deaths disturbed the passengers and suspicions and
tensions increased. For Max Loewe, who was already on edge, the deaths
increased his psychosis. Max's wife and two children were increasingly
worried about Max but tried to hide it.
Once the Captain received a cable on May 23 which stated that the S.S.
St. Louis passengers might not be able to land in Cuba because of
Decree 937, he felt it wise to establish a small passenger committee. The
committee was to explore possibilities if there were problems landing in
In Cuba in early 1939, Decree 55 had passed which drew a distinction
between refugees and tourists. The decree stated that each refugee needed a
visa and was required to pay a $500 bond to guarantee that they would not
become wards of Cuba. But the decree also said that tourists were still
welcome and did not need visas. The director of immigration in Cuba, Manuel
Benitez, realized that Decree 55 did not define a tourist nor a refugee. He
decided that he would take advantage of this loophole and make money by
selling landing permits which would allow refugees to land in Cuba by
calling them tourists. He sold these permits to anyone who would pay $150.
Though only allowing someone to land as a tourist, these permits looked
authentic, even were individually signed by Benitez, and generally were
made to look like visas. Some people bought a large group of these for $150
each and then resold them to desperate refugees for much more. Benitez
himself had made a small fortune in selling these permits as well as
receiving money from the cruise line. Hapag had realized the advantage of
being able to offer a package deal to their passengers, a permit and
passage on their ship.
The President of Cuba, Frederico Laredo Bru, and his cabinet did not
like Benitez making a great deal of money - that he was unwilling to share
- on the loophole in Decree 55. Also, Cuba's economy had begun to stagnate
and many blamed the incoming refugees for taking jobs that otherwise would
have been held by Cubans.
On May 5, Decree 937 was passed which closed the loophole. Without
knowing it, almost every passenger on the S.S. St. Louis had
purchased a landing permit for an inflated rate which, by the time of sailing,
had already been nullified by Decree 937.
Anticipation grew as the S.S. St. Louis neared the Havana harbor.
No new mysterious or foreboding telegrams. No more deaths. Passengers
enjoyed their last remaining days on ship and wondered what their new lives
would be like in Cuba.
Late Friday afternoon, the last full day before the ship was to arrive,
Captain Schroeder received a telegram from Luis Clasing (the local Hapag
official in Havana) which stated that the St. Louis would have to
anchor at the roadstead. Originally planning to dock at Hapag's pier,
anchoring at the roadstead had been a concession by President Bru since he
still disallowed the St. Louis passengers to land. Captain Schroeder
went to sleep that night wondering about this change.
Arrival at Cuba
S.S. St. Louis surrounded
by smaller vessels in the port of Havana (USHMM Photo)
At three o'clock in the morning, the pilot boarded. Captain Schroeder was
anxious to ask the pilot about the reasons that they were to anchor in the
harbor but the pilot used the language barrier as a reason not to answer
the captain's questions. A bell was rung at four in the morning to awaken
the passengers and breakfast was served at half past four.
Cuban police and immigration officials boarded the St. Louis on Saturday morning. Then the immigration officials suddenly left with no
explanation. The police stayed on board and guarded the accommodation
ladder. Several officials boarded but then left without an explanation as
to why they had to anchor in the harbor nor gave an assurance that the
passengers would be allowed to disembark. As the morning elapsed, family
and friends of the passengers who were in Cuba began renting boats and
encircling the St. Louis. The passengers on board waved and shouted to
those below, but the smaller ships weren't allowed to get too close.
The passengers remained anxious to disembark, not realizing the
international and political negotiations which surrounded their fate.
Negotiations and Influences
Though a major player in the fate of the refugees since it was he who had
signed their landing permits, he continually underestimated President Bru's
stance. Benitez constantly maintained that Bru would back down since the St.
Louis was allowed in the harbor. He wanted $250,000 in bribes so that
he could try to amend his relations with Bru and rescind Decree 937.
President Bru refused to listen to Benitez' requests. Though he no longer
had access to Bru, he continued to espouse his assurance that Bru would
back down. His confident attitude and slick talk convinced a number of
influential people that the circumstances were not as serious as they
seemed, thus action was not taken.
Luis Clasing & Robert Hoffman (Hapag officials in Havana)
Clasing met several times with Benitez, hoping that Benitez could assure
that the passengers would be allowed to disembark. Benitez wanted $250,000
- enough to pay President Bru what would seem a share in the landing permit
profits. This was too much for Hapag to pay. Hapag had already given
Benitez many "bonuses;" Benitez' request was in response to his
lack of influence to change Bru's opinion.
Hoffman needed the ship to land so that he could meet with Schiendick
and give him the secret documents. Captain Schroeder had refused to give
shore leave to the crew so Hoffman needed to find a way on to the ship or a
way to get Schiendick off.
Martin Goldsmith (director of the Relief Committee in Cuba which was
financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)
Before the St. Louis arrived in Havana, Goldsmith had repeatedly
asked the Joint for additional funds to help the refugees already in Cuba
and those about to arrive. The Joint refused. The local Jewish community
donated to the Relief Committee but felt that the world should be helping.
After the St. Louis arrived, the Joint began to realize the
seriousness of the predicament. They would send two professionals to
negotiate - but they would not arrive until four days later.
Joseph Goebbels & Anti-Semitism
Goebbels had decided to use the S.S. St. Louis and her passengers in
a master propaganda plan. Having sent agents to Havana to stir up
anti-Semitism, Nazi propaganda fabricated and hyped the passengers'
criminal nature - making them seem even more undesirable. The agents within
Cuba stirred anti-Semitism and organized protests. Soon, an additional
1,000 Jewish refugees entering Cuba was seen as a threat.
Stuck in Cuba
The anxiousness and expectation of imminent departure transformed into
anxiety and suspiciousness as the waiting was prolonged from hours to days.
On Monday, two days after arriving in Cuba, Hoffman found a way to board
the St. Louis. Clasing had allowed Hoffman to go aboard in his place since
Clasing was currently occupied about what he was to do with the 250
passengers who were supposed to board the St. Louis on a return
voyage to Germany. Would President Bru allow 250 refugees to land so that
these passengers waiting in Havana could make their return journey?
Hoffman had already hidden the secret documents in the spine of
magazines, inside pens, and inside a walking cane, so he brought these with
him to the ship. At the accommodation ladder, Hoffman was told he was
allowed onto the ship but that he couldn't bring anything on board. Leaving
his magazines and cane behind, Hoffman boarded with the pens. Sent directly
to Captain Schroeder, Hoffman used the influence of the Abwehr to force
Schroeder into allowing the crew to go to shore. Schroeder, shocked that
the Abwehr was connected to his ship, acquiesced. After a quick meeting
with Schiendick, Hoffman left the ship. With the change in shore leave
policy, Schiendick was able to pick up the magazines and cane and reboard
the St. Louis. Now, Schiendick became a major supported for a push to head back to Germany with no stop in America for fear of being caught with the secret documents.
On Tuesday, Captain Schroeder called the passenger committee for a
meeting for only the second time. The committee had become distrustful of
the captain. The St. Louis had sat in the harbor for four days
before they were called. No good news had come forward and the passenger
committee was asked to send telegrams to influential people, family, and
friends asking for help.
Each day that the St. Louis sat in the harbor, Max Loewe became
increasingly paranoid. His family had worried before, but Max became
extremely disturbed believing that there were many SS and Gestapo on board
plotting to arrest him and put him in a concentration camp.
On Tuesday, Max Loewe slit his wrists and jumped overboard at the same
spot that the body had gone over the side. Splashing around as he clawed at
his arms attempting to pull out his veins, Max Loewe drew the attention of
many on board. The siren wailed for man-overboard and a courageous crew
member, Heinrich Meier, jumped into the water. The siren and uproar drew
police crafts to the area. After some struggle, Meier was able to grab
Loewe and push him into a police boat. Loewe kept screaming and had to be
tackled to keep him from jumping back into the water. He was taken to an
awaiting ambulance and then to a hospital. His wife was not allowed to
The days continued to progress and the passengers all became
increasingly suspicious and fearful. If they were forced back to Germany,
they would surely be sent to concentration camps. The possible consequences
of their return were loudly suggested in German newspapers and magazines.
For anyone thinking about jumping overboard, the chances were slim of
their success with the increased number of police crafts, the searchlights
that scanned the ship, and the dangling lights used to illuminate the
The world followed the fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis.
Their story was covered around the world. The U.S. Ambassador to Cuba met
with an influential member of the Cuban government and spoke diplomatically
about the precarious position the Cubans were now in. The Ambassador had
spoken without direct instructions from the President but he made the
concerns of the U.S. known. The Cuban Secretary of State stated that the
subject was to be determined by the cabinet.
On Wednesday, the cabinet met. The passengers aboard the St. Louis would not be allowed to land, not even 250 to allow room for return
Captain Schroeder began to fear mass suicides on board. Mutiny was also
a possibility. With the help of the passenger committee, "suicide
patrols" were created to patrol at night.
The two Americans from the JDC had arrived in Havana and by Thursday,
June 1, had befriended a couple of influential people who convinced
President Bru to reopen negotiations. To their shock though, Bru would not
negotiate until the St. Louis was out of Cuban waters. The St.
Louis was given notice to leave within three hours. Pleading by
Schroener that he needed more time to prepare for departure, the deadline
was set back until Friday, June 2 at 10 a.m.
No options were left for the St. Louis, if they did not leave
peacefully, they were to be forced out by the Cuban navy.
On Friday morning, the S.S. St. Louis roared up its engines and
began to take its leave. Farewells were shouted overboard to friends and
family in rented boats below.
The St. Louis was going to encircle Cuba, waiting and hoping for
the conclusion of negotiations between the JDC representative, Lawrence
Berenson, and President Bru.
The Cuban government wanted $500 per refugee (approximately $500,000 in
total). The same amount as required for any refugee to obtain a visa to
Cuba. Berenson didn't believe he would have to pay that much. Through
negotiations, he believed it would only cost the JDC around $125,000.
During the following day, Berenson was approached by several men
claiming affiliation with the Cuban government, one indentifying himself as
having powers to negotiate bestowed by Bru. These men insisted that
$400,000 to $500,000 were needed to ensure the St. Louis passengers'
return. Berenson believed that these men just wanted a cut in the profit by
negotiating a higher price. He was wrong.
While the negotiations continued, the St. Louis milled around
Cuba and then headed north, following the Florida coastline in the hopes
that perhaps the United States would accept the refugees. [Accounts
often mention that U.S. Coast Guard ships were following the St. Louis to prevent it from landing, but those ships had actually been sent at the
request of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., because the location
of the ship was unknown and he wanted to keep track of it in case a change
in policy would allow it to land.]
At this time, it was noticed that because of the lack of time to prepare
for leaving port, the St. Louis would run into food and water
shortages in less than two weeks. Telegrams continued to arrive insisting
the possibility of landing in Cuba or even the Dominican Republic. Once a
cable arrived stating the S.S. St. Louis passengers could land on
the Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isle of Pines), off of Cuba, Schroeder
turned the ship around and headed toward Cuba.
The good news was announced to those on board and everyone rejoiced.
Ready and awaiting a new life, the passengers prepared themselves for their
arrival the next morning.
The next morning, a telegram arrived stating that landing at the Isla de
la Juventud was not confirmed. Shocked, the passenger committee tried to
think of other alternatives.
Voyage of the SS St Louis
Around noon on Tuesday, June 6, President Bru closed the negotiations.
Through a misunderstanding, the money allotment had not been agreed upon
and Berenson missed a 48 hour deadline that he didn't know existed. One day
later, the JDC offered to pay Bru's every demand but Bru said it was too
late. The option of landing in Cuba was officially closed.
With a diminishing supply of food and pressures from Hapag to return to
Germany, Captain Schroeder ordered the ship to change heading to return to
The Return Voyage
The following day, Wednesday, June 7, Captain Schroeder informed the
passenger committee that they were returning to Europe. Though the
situation was desperate there was still hope that negotiations for their
landing in Europe somewhere other than Germany could be possible.
While massive negotiations were beginning, Aaron Pozner rallied some
youths aboard to participate in a mutiny. Though they succeeded in
capturing the bridge, they did not capture the other strategic locations of
the ship. The mutiny was overcome. A crew members suicide by hanging also
marked dread on the return voyage.
Through miraculous negotiations, the JDC was able to find
several countries that would take portions of the refugees. 181 could go to
Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium.
The passengers disembarked from the S.S. St. Louis from June 16
to June 20. Other ships were transformed to carry the passengers to their
Having crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, the passengers' original hopes
of freedom in Cuba and the U.S. turned into a forlorn effort to escape sure
death upon their return to Germany. Feeling alone and rejected by the
world, the passengers returned to Europe in June 1939. With World
War II just months away, many of these passengers were sent East with the
occupation of the countries to which they had been sent.
1Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York: Stein and Day, 1974), p. 37.
2Thomas, Voyage, p. 31.
3Gustav Schroeder as quoted in Thomas, Voyage, p. 64.
4Thomas, Voyage, p. 65.
Source: This feature is reprinted with permission from Jennifer Rosenberg,
a Guide at The Mining Company. Click here to follow this series online
at Jen's site about the Holocaust. Copyright © 1998 Jennifer Rosenberg.