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 more difficulty leaving the country because emigration policies had been toughened. By 1939, visas were needed to enter another country, but money was also required to leave Germany. Since many countries, especially the United States, had immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short periods in which they were needed. For many, the visas were obtained 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 Hamburg, 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 of 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, 937 passengers boarded. Women and men, young and old. Each person who boarded had their own story of persecution.
Many other passengers had either left family members behind, while some were meeting relatives that had traveled earlier. As the passengers boarded, they remembered the many years of persecution 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 since they were elderly.
But one crew member was disgusted by this policy and was ready to make trouble - Otto Schiendick, the Ortsgruppenleiter. Not only was Schiendick prepared to make trouble and was constantly trying, but he was also 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 Sunshine.
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
The ship sailed at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 13.
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 notice stated that the S.S. St. Louis was to
make all speed because two other ships (the Flandre and the Orduna) were carrying Jewish refugees and heading for Cuba.4 Though there was no explanation for the need to hurry, this message seemed to warn of impending trouble.
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, made new friendships, and played childish pranks, including locking bathroom stall doors and then climbing underneath and soaping doorknobs. Schiendick attempted to disturb this quiet several times by posting copies of Der Stürmer, substituting a newsreel with Nazi propaganda for the intended film, and singing Nazi songs.
For Recha Weiler, who a steward helped 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 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 to keep the body. Recha agreed to a burial at sea for her husband. To not unduly disturb the other passengers, the funeral was held at eleven o’clock the same night.
After the funeral rites were observed, the body was wrapped in a large Hapag flag and sewn up. Schiendick, trying to make trouble, insisted that party regulations stated that the bier, in a burial at sea, should be draped in a swastika flag. Schiendick’s proposal was rejected. That evening, after a short funeral service, the body slid into the sea.
Within half an hour, a depressed crew member jumped overboard at the exact location where 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 vessel 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 Cuba.
Decree 55 was adopted in Cuba in early 1939. It distinguished 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 or a refugee. He decided that he would take advantage of this loophole and make money by selling landing permits that 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 offering 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 Cubans would have otherwise held.
On May 5, Decree 937 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 days on the ship and wondered what their new lives would be like in Cuba.
Late Friday afternoon, the last full day before the ship arrived, 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.
At three o’clock in the morning, the pilot boarded. Captain Schroeder was anxious to ask the pilot why 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 rang 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 explaining why they had to anchor in the harbor nor giving an assurance that the passengers would be allowed to disembark. As the morning elapsed, family and friends of the passengers in Cuba began renting boats and encircling the St. Louis. The passengers 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 surrounding their fate.
Manuel Benitez was a significant player in the fate of the refugees since he had signed their landing permits. Luis Clasing, one of Hapag’s officials, met several times with Benitez, hoping that he could assure that the passengers would be allowed to disembark. Benitez misjudged President Bru’s stance and maintained that Bru would back down once the St. Louis was permitted in the harbor. He wanted $250,000, a share in the landing permit profits, to use as a bribe to mend his relations with Bru and convince him to rescind Decree 937. Hapag had already given Benitez many
bonuses and considered the request too much.
Bru refused to listen to Benitez’s requests. Though he no longer had access to Bru, Benitez continued to espouse his assurance that Bru would back down. His confident attitude and slick talk convinced some influential people that the circumstances were not as serious as they seemed; thus, no action was taken.
Another Hapag official in Havana, Robert Hoffman, needed the ship to land so that he could meet with Schiendick and give him the secret documents. Captain Schroeder refused to give shore leave to the crew, however, so Hoffman needed to find a way onto the ship or a way to get Schiendick off.
Before the St. Louis arrived in Havana, Martin Goldsmith, director of the Relief Committee in Cuba, which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee financed, 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 come until four days later.
Meanwhile, Joseph 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.
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 occupied with 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 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 supporter 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.
Max Loewe became increasingly paranoid each day that the St. Louis sat in the harbor. His family had worried before, but Max became extremely disturbed, believing that many S.S. and Gestapo were 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 visit him.
The days continued to progress, and the passengers became increasingly suspicious and fearful. The Nazis would surely send them to concentration camps if they returned to Germany.
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 illuminating the water.
The world followed the fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis. Journalists around the world covered their story. The U.S. Ambassador to Cuba met with an influential member of the Cuban government and spoke diplomatically about the Cubans’ precarious position. 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 passengers.
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 ordered to leave within three hours. Pleading by Schroeder that he needed more time to prepare for departure, the deadline was set back until Friday, June 2 at 10 a.m.
No options remained for the St. Louis. If the ship did not leave, it would be forced out by the Cuban navy.
On Friday morning, the S.S. St. Louis roared up its engines and began to 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), the exact amount 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.
The following day, Berenson was approached by several men claiming affiliation with the Cuban government, one identifying 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 hoping the United States would accept the refugees. A U.S. Coast Guard ship and planes followed the St. Louis to prevent it from landing. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. learned of this from the newspapers but did not intervene beyond verifying that the St. Louis was being followed with the Coast Guard commander.
Some of the passengers cabled the president and State Department asking that an exception be made to U.S. immigration policy so they could disembark in Miami. A New York Times report said, “The refugees could even see the shimmering towers of Miami rising from the sea but, for them, they were only the battlements of another Forbidden City.”
The president did not respond, but a State Department official telegraphed the passengers, telling them that they “must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
The U.S. had a quota allowing only 27,370 people from Germany and Austria combined to enter the country. That quota had already been filled, and there was a waiting list of several years. The American public supported these restrictions. A Fortune Magazine, for example, found that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.
Still, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “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.”
Roosevelt was not alone; Canada’s prime minister also refused to accept the passengers of the St. Louis. “If these Jews were to find a home [in Canada],” immigration minister Frederick Blair said, “they would be followed by other shiploads…the line must be drawn somewhere.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador in Havana urged the Cuban government to allow the passengers to disembark.
The New York Times wrote on June 8:
No plague ship ever received a sorrier welcome. Yet those aboard her had sailed with high hopes….Yet out of Havana Harbor the St. Louis had to go, trailing pitiful cries of “Auf Wiedersehen.” Off our shores she was attended by a helpful Coast Guard vessel alert to pick up any passengers plunged overboard and thrust him back on the St. Louis again. It is useless now to discuss what might have been done. The case is disposed of. Germany with all the hospitality of its concentration camps will welcome these unfortunates home…. there seems to be no help for them now. The St. Louis will soon be home with her cargo of despair.
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 on the option of landing in Cuba or even the Dominican Republic. Once a cable came stating the S.S. St. Louis passengers could land on the Isla de la Juventud (formerly the 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 following day.
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.
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. The JDC offered to pay Bru’s every demand one day later, 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 Europe twenty-four days after leaving. As it left, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel followed to ensure no passengers tried to jump off the ship.
On 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.
On June 17, the liner docked at the Belgian port of Antwerp, more than a month after it had set sail from Hamburg.
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.
The ship, meanwhile, was scheduled for a tourist cruise.
According to the USHMM:
In 2012, the United States Department of State apologized to the survivors of the ship, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did the same in 2018.
The French ship Flandre and the British Orduña, carrying 104 and 72 passengers, respectively, also sailed to Cuba in May 1939. After being turned away, the Flandre returned to France. The Orduña had no luck either and sailed to several Latin American ports before being allowed to disembark in the US-controlled Canal Zone in Panama. Most were later allowed into the United States.
Sources: Parts of this article are reprinted with permission from Jennifer Rosenberg, a Guide at The Mining Company. Copyright © 1998 Jennifer Rosenberg.
Update regarding the Coast Guard role cited in a letter to AICE from Rafael Medoff, Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC. (May 20, 2014).
“Voyage of the St. Louis,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, (June 16, 2016).
Susan F. Martin, A Nation of Immigrants, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 163.
Erin Blakemore, “A Ship of Jewish Refugees Was Refused US Landing in 1939. This Was Their Fate,” History.com, [undated].
“Refugee Ship,” New York Times, (June 8, 1939).
Mike Lanchin, “SS St Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted,” BBC, (May 13, 2014).
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.