In May 1939 a German Ocean liner sailed from Hamburg. It battled the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in the waters of Cuba. Aboard were 937 passengers - not rich tourists on an expensive transatlantic cruise but German and Austrian Jews, frightened from the escalating persecution of their communities under the Nazi regime, taking the brave, difficult step to exile in search of a less bleak future and a more welcoming new home.
Upon arriving in Havana, Cuba on 27 May 1939, it was prevented from docking and was condemned to a terrible limbo of frustrated anticipation for months, while decisions literally about life or death were being made behind closed doors. The ship's name was MS St Louis. Its story is one of deceit and spectacular, tragic lack of compassion; of shattered hopes, death, and impossible survival against the odds; of the worst and the best in the human nature.
The Jewish refugees aboard the MS St Louis had barely survived the terrible pogrom of the Kristallnacht (8-9 November 1938), when angry mobs destroyed Jewish synagogues and properties, attacked and terrorised the Jewish communities in Germany and Austria, leaving behind nearly 100 dead and tens of thousands interned in concentration camps. This was the violent climax of a series of measures taken against the Jews in Germany from 1933 onwards that had reduced them to second-class citizens and then to biological and social miasma.
May 1939, Hamburg Port, passengers aboard . (Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
Following the Kristallnacht, large numbers of those who could afford emigration chose this risky path. The passengers had already secured valid Cuban entry visas, which they would use as stepping stone to emigration to the USA - a highly desirable route of escape that was however becoming increasingly difficult due to the low quota number accepted by the US immigration authorities. The waiting list for entry to the USA stretched to more than seven years at the time. Still, even the prospect of leaving everything behind and embarking on a long, perilous journey with all the uncertainty surrounding immigration policy of potential host countries was preferable for the Jewish refugees to a life of escalating persecution in Nazi Germany or occupied Europe. But the Jewish passengers did not know that Cuba had in the meantime revoked their visas and would refuse them temporary entry, even as tourists. MS St Louis was not allowed to properly dock in Havana and, with the exception of a small number who were allowed to disembark because they already held valid US or Cuban visas, the passengers remained on board in the increasingly desperate hope of being accepted - somewhere, anywhere.
The German captain of SS St Louis, Gustav Schroeder, launched a dramatic campaign behind the scenes to ensure that his passengers would not be forced to return to Germany. He negotiated with the Cuban and the US governments, as well as with various Jewish organisations that intervened in order to reach a compromise. Once he had become convinced that Cuba would not allow disembarkation, he sailed to Maimi and circled desperately the coast of Florida in the hope that the US authorities would relent.
During the journey and the agonising limbo that followed it, he insisted that all passengers be treated with impeccable dignity by his crew. His determination not to give up was undoubtedly the most optimistic facet of this otherwise familiarly depressing incident (Flickr © Wolfgang Wiggers).
In the end, after weeks of tense anticipation and mounting frustration, the US authorities refused to accept the refugees aboard MS St Louis. Sympathy for the plight of European Jews was in plentiful supply, in both public opinion and the media reports in the USA. But the shadow of the economic Depression,the insecurity surrounding employment, and a deeply ingrained prejudice against both immigrants and Jews (who were also stereotypically suspected of being communists…), proved far stronger motivating factors. An isolationist Congress killed off a bill that would have allowed a significant number of Jewish refugees from Europe to find a safer home in the USA. While awaiting their fate floating off the shore of Miami, some passengers of the MS St Louis cabled a desperate appeal to President F D Roosevelt. They never received a reply. The US government, like the Cuban one a few days earlier and the Canadian one later, did not find the moral courage to go against the prevailing anti-immigration/-Jewish mood of the public opinion and make the humanitarian case for the refugees.
A very pleased Roosvelt puffing a cigarette as his companion tries to figure out how the reel works. They are fishing for tarpon in Gulf of Mexico in 1937 (photo courtesy of Bettmann Corbis via the Guardian.co.uk.).
Schroeder, however, did not give up. Having failed to dock in either Havana or Maiami, he sailed back to Europe - but only after he had negotiated agreements with various European governments to receive his passengers. Britain, France, The Netherlands, and Belgium agreed to do what three governments on the other side of the Altnatic had not found the courage to do - provide shelter even in difficult economic circumstances, even against the ingrained prejudices and fears of their citizens, out of human dignity and a sheer willingness to help those who needed it more. At around the same time with the MS St Louis, another ship carrying more than 70 Jewish refugees that sailed the Atlantic in search of a safer home in Cuba was prevented from docking but found a haven in Panama, its passengers later admitted to the USA.
Of the 937 original passengers of MS St Louis, one died of natural causes during the journey across the Atlantic. Of those who finally disembarked in continental Europe, 254 were trapped and in the end perished during WW2 - most in one of the Nazi extermination camps of Poland - after France, Belgium, and The Netherlands were occupied by the German armies. But all of those who had found shelter in Britain and more than half of those who ended up in the continent (a small number of whom managed to emigrate before Nazi occupation) did survive the war, having narrowly escaped xenophobia, prejudice, and hatred along their travails across the Atlantic and back.