The journey of the MS St. Louis lasted only a period of a few weeks, and yet for many, it has come to symbolize American indifference to the desperation of German Jews seeking safety from Nazi oppression. According to the standard telling, a ship of German Jewish refugees arrived in the United States after being denied entry to Cuba, its initial destination. Rather than allow the passengers to enter the country and find safety from Nazi persecution, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cruelly turned the ship away. Out of options, the St. Louis returned to Europe and soon thereafter, its passengers, abandoned to their fate, died in the Holocaust. This account, with occasional variations, is frequently evoked in discussions of how the United States responded to the Nazi Holocaust. Some see in the story of the St. Louis evidence of American apathy toward the plight of Hitler’s victims. Others have gone so far as to argue that it proves that the United States acquiesced with German plans to exterminate European Jewry. Some see proof of a particular American anti-Semitism while others evoke the St. Louis as an ethical lesson in order to advocate on behalf of refugees from subsequent conflicts. As it turns out, the actual history of the St. Louis is far more complicated than this account allows. When understood correctly, it is less an example of how the United States responded to the Holocaust than it is one an illustration of the extent to which this difficult period is misunderstood and misrepresented.
A more accurate summary of events is that in mid-May 1939, the St. Louis, part of the Hamburg-American line (known as Hapag), departed Hamburg, Germany. After a stop in Cherbourg, France, the ship headed for Havana, Cuba, with 937 passengers. Most travelers were German Jewish émigrés who held landing permits issued by the Cuban government. Seven-hundred-forty-three of them were on a waiting list to receive visas to enter the United States and had arranged to stay in Cuba until their documents would arrive. For some time, Cuba had served as a temporary refuge for German Jews awaiting their entry into the United States via an immigration-quota system that had been in place since 1924. According to the law, the number of persons arriving from any particular country was fixed and—reflecting the racist intentions of the 1924 law—varied according to the perceived “whiteness” of the country’s inhabitants, with Western European countries allotted higher quotas than Eastern or Southern European ones. Under the quota for Germany, which President Roosevelt had unilaterally combined with Austria’s following its 1938 annexation by Germany, the number of available immigration was visas was 27,370. By the time of the St. Louis’ departure, the wait for visas under the German quota was many years long and included more than 300,000 names. For Jews desperate to get out of Germany, Cuba served as a convenient place to reside until they were permitted to enter the United States via the quota system.
However, in the days just prior to the ship’s departure, tensions in Cuba over the growing number of European Jews escalated, and internal feuds within the Cuban government prompted President Federico Laredo Brú to tighten the rules for new arrivals, requiring them to procure additional approvals to land in Cuba. Although Hapag officials were notified of the change, the St. Louis left Hamburg on the optimistic assumption that the new rules did not apply to its passengers, because they had already received permission to enter Cuba. Upon landing in Havana two weeks later on May 27, however, the passengers discovered that most of them would not be permitted to enter on account of the new regulations. Twenty-eight had papers that allowed them to disembark, and the rest were confined to the ship.
Even as the ship was en route to Cuba, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (a relief organization popularly known as “the Joint”), working closely with officials from the State Department in Washington, began to advocate on behalf of the passengers. Its representatives in the United States had warned the Hapag line that its passengers might not be granted entry to Cuba. Its agent in Havana entered into negotiations with the Cuban government, but they were unable to reach a settlement. The story of the refugees’ increasingly desperate plight was picked up in the press, and reporters were sympathetic to the passengers. On June 2, the New York Times reported that the anxiety of the refugees was palpable:
Late this afternoon the St. Louis was surrounded by boats filled with relatives and friends of those on board. Police patrolled the liner’s docks and forbade any except government officials to approach too closely or to step on the floating dock alongside the ship. Huge spotlights attached to the vessel’s sides lighted the surrounding waters tonight.
The St. Louis’s passengers, many sobbing despairingly, lined the rail and talked with those in the surrounding boats, some of whom remained several hours.
One passenger was quoted as saying, “ ‘If we are returned to Germany,’ he lamented, ‘it will mean the concentration camp for most of us.’ ” Another, a Breslau attorney named Max Loewe, cut his wrists and jumped overboard out of desperation for his wife and children, who were also aboard the ship.
In spite of thousands of telegrams in support of the refugees sent to President Brú by concerned Americans, the ship left the port of Havana on June 2. While the ship sailed in the waters of the Caribbean, advocates for the passengers sought a wide range of alternatives to returning the ship and its passengers to Germany. Plans to post a $500 bond for each passenger (approximately $450,000, or nearly $7.86 million in today’s dollars) or to allow the passengers to disembark into Santo Domingo came to no avail. Others suggested allowing the refugees to enter the United States either outside of or ahead of their place on the waiting list, but this was deemed untenable both by State Department officials who were opposed to any relaxing of immigration laws (and had no authority to change them even if they wanted to) and the president’s own advisers, who did not want to threaten his good-neighbor policy of nonintervention in Latin American countries’ internal affairs. Popular sentiment in the country was decidedly opposed to any relaxation of immigration laws. Furthermore, permitting such a move would have forced those who had waited for their quota number to come up to wait even longer for their turn to enter the country. Among the more callous proposals was one to encourage the United States to request that the German government not permit refugees to leave unless they had certainty of the passengers’ destinations. Complicating matters even more was the fact that while the crisis of the St. Louis was underway, tense debates were occurring in Congress over proposed legislation that would have allowed as many as 20,000 German refugee children to enter the United States outside the normal quota system. As the ship approached the Florida coast, a United States Coast Guard ship and plane monitored its progress. The ship did not, as some later reports claimed, fire a “warning shot” across the bow of the St. Louis.
None of the proposals to identify homes for the passengers in North, Central, or South America was successful. As the St. Louis prepared for the return journey to Europe, the Times dubbed it, “the saddest ship afloat today” and, as did most critics, placed responsibility squarely on the Cuban government for its refusal to negotiate a solution to the crisis:
She is steaming back despite an offer made to Havana yesterday to give a guarantee through the Chase National bank of $500 apiece for every one of her passengers, men, women and children, who might land there. …[President Brú’s] cash terms have been met. But the St. Louis still keeps her course for Hamburg.
No plague ship ever received a sorrier welcome….
As the St. Louis headed toward Hamburg, the Joint successfully found havens for the passengers in Europe. In what was heralded at the time as a successful outcome, refugees disembarked in Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Although many anticipated that another war was on the near horizon, the passengers were relieved to have avoided being forced to return to Germany and awaited the time when they could finally settle in the United States. Three months later, Germany invaded Poland and started WWII in Europe. In May 1940, more than 11 months after the St. Louis crisis was resolved, Germany invaded Western Europe. Five hundred thirty-two of the former passengers found themselves in Nazi-occupied Europe; 254 of them perished during the war and Holocaust.
In spite of the attention paid to the St. Louis, it was not the only ship affected by the change in Cuban laws. The Orinoco, which set sail from Cuxhaven, Germany, for Cuba with 200 German Jewish passengers, was recalled once it was clear that they would not be permitted to disembark in Havana. The French liner Flandres, with 104 refugees aboard, was denied entry to Mexico after being prohibited from docking in Havana a few days after the St. Louis and returned to France. A British vessel, the Orduña, with 120 Jewish passengers aboard, arrived in Cuba the same day as the St. Louis. Seventy-two of the passengers who did not have appropriate landing permits were not allowed to disembark. Some were successful in finding sanctuary in South America. Fifty-five of these passengers, after a complicated and harrowing journey, were able to enter the United States in 1940.
The plight of the St. Louis highlights the desperation of refugees so anxious to escape Germany in mid-1939 on what was widely believed to be the eve of war. As a story of German Jews seeking to get to Cuba prior to entering the United States who eventually find sanctuary in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain, it reveals the truly international aspect of the refugee crisis. It demonstrates how the post-WWI preoccupation with passports, visas, and border controls restricted the freedom of movement and determined the fate of hundreds of thousands of people seeking to escape Europe during the pre-war Nazi era. It shows the extent to which isolationist concerns and racist views in America easily trumped humanitarian concerns. It also shows that, in spite of these many obstacles, the tireless efforts of officials within the United States government and representatives from private relief organizations were able to bring about what seemed at the time to be a positive ending to the matter. It reveals how structural racism in America governed the fate of many Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany. In its desire to preserve white racial supremacy and to isolate the country from foreigners, the United States Congress had passed legislation in the 1920s that exacerbated the refugee crisis in the 1930s and provided Hitler with evidence to claim that the world had turned its back on German Jews.
Subsequent events in the summer of 1939, culminating with the beginning of WWII in Europe on Sept. 1, quickly overshadowed the memory of the St. Louis. It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that historians writing on the response of the United States to the Holocaust began to recast it as either an example of American indifference to or (in extreme cases) collusion with Nazi goals to exterminate European Jewry. In time, the St. Louis began to serve as a metonym for how the United States responded to the larger refugee crisis. The plight of the St. Louis is featured prominently in the permanent exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). It has been the subject of countless news articles, several monographs, a feature film, and more recently, a dedicated Twitter account, and political protests. However, while President Roosevelt and government officials could have likely extended themselves further on behalf of these refugees, they acted entirely in accordance with the prevailing sentiment in the United States and with the governments of most other countries in the Americas. The plight of the St. Louis, therefore, is less accurately viewed as a specifically American failure and more correctly seen as a global one in which the United States played its own part.
What is curious about the common portrayal of the St. Louis was that its experience, like that of the other ships affected by the abrupt changes in Cuban policy, was exceptional for its time. The United States stands out in this story, more correctly, because its immigration policies, as racist and restrictive as they were, had actually granted the passengers the right to enter the country, once their quota number was reached. The fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis was at odds with that of most refugees who had secured the right to enter the United States. As the USHMM’s historian Rebecca Erbelding’s research has shown, from Jan. 1, 1939 to July 14, 1941 (when most United States consulate offices closed in Europe and no more visas could be issued), over 750 ships carrying refugees successfully docked in the United States and over 70,000 refugees were permitted to disembark. The United States in this era permitted more refugees to enter than did any other country. The St. Louis was not “turned back” because the passengers were Jews, as popular wisdom holds, but rather its passengers were forced to act within a monstrous system that prioritized secure borders and racial hierarchies over basic humanitarian concerns.
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Barry Trachtenberg is the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University. He is currently finishing a book on the United States and the Holocaust for Bloomsbury Publishing.