This Month in Jewish History—The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis

On May 13, 1939, more than 900 German Jewish refugees boarded the luxury liner MS St. Louis in Hamburg. They were filled with hope of a new homeland, rejected by Germany. Since Kristallnacht the previous November, and even before that, their lives had been turned inside out. Many of the men had been taken to Dachau or Buchenwald. They lost their businesses and their liberties. Children were no longer able to attend their secular schools. They were taunted on the streets and not allowed to be with Gentiles.

Aboard the ship they found many freedoms—great food, great entertainment, and camaraderie. On May 27, the ship pulled into Havana harbor, its destination.

But it wasn’t allowed to dock. In fact, the captain received an order to keep the boat anchored about a mile out.

For the next few days, the fate of the refugees teetered as Cuban politicians and negotiators of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee bargained.

The Cuban immigration official had issued invalid landing permits for graft. The Cuban president wouldn’t let the refugees land because of it. Meanwhile, the German propaganda machine was in action, purposely stirring up anti-Semitic sentiment.

No one wanted these people, even America, despite letters and telegrams to FDR.

The Joint was finally able to negotiate with four countries to accept the refugees: Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, and France. Many of them perished in concentration camps as part of the Final Solution.

But others eventually came to the United States and live to tell their stories. I have interviewed seven survivors in the NJ-PA area. They tell a story of hope, survival, and renewal, despite the despair and heartbreak. It is a story I hope to tell on their behalf to children very soon.

For now, check out this video from David Gonzalez.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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