Commemorating the Tragedy of the MS St. Louis, 1939

Tablet Magazine recently reported that Jewish communities throughout the United States plan to hold vigils to commemorate the MS St. Louis today, June 6.

On this day in 1939, the luxury liner’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, received orders from his superiors at the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line to return with his nearly 1,000 German-Jewish refugee passengers to Germany. Since May 27, the St. Louis had been making headlines. After anchoring at its destination in Havana harbor, its passengers were not allowed to disembark. Distress messages were sent all over the world from the radio room. No one seemed to want to help this group of refugees, not even the United States as recorded conversations between Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Secretary of State Cordell Hull revealed.

Hans Fisher, one of the surviving passengers I interviewed in 2010, thought for sure that President Roosevelt would take care of them. He thought this when Cuban police in motorboats escorted the ship back into international waters and he and his friend, Wolfie, returned to their checkers game on deck. He thought this when his father, who had arrived earlier in Havana, was prohibited from visiting his family on board. He could only wave to them from a skiff.

Through the efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, safe haven for the passengers was negotiated with four countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain. For three-quarters of the passengers, their freedom was short-lived as Nazi Germany occupied the countries that accepted them. Martin Goldsmith, for example, wrote a stunning memoir about his search to uncover the fate of his grandfather and uncle who had been aboard.

Refugees continue to struggle as the news reminds us daily. As Tablet reports, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) urged Jewish communities to show solidarity with refugees by staging vigils. As one survivor told me, “We have learned that we cannot stand by idly and watch people being bullied, harassed, and punished for no reason.”

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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4 Responses to Commemorating the Tragedy of the MS St. Louis, 1939

  1. Pnina Moed Kass says:

    Impressive retelling g! Fits our contemporary world like a damaged glove. Noted the inclusion of Belgium – my parents and my two brothers and I succeeded in escaping from Belgium in 1940.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Advice Column

    Dear Miss Liberty,

    I know you were born in France, but you have lived your entire life in New York harbor watching boatloads of people come and go. Since you arrived on these shores, times have changed and maybe you do not have such a great view of Kennedy International. I doubt you use a cellphone, but your empathy for the “…huddled masses yearning to breath free…” remains an iconic message. Our nation is mired in disagreement and the world is burning with conflicts. Yet, almost everyone looks up to you! Please explain, what the hell is happening?

    Grandson of Immigrants


    Dear Grandson,

    I am not surprised by your question and you’d be surprised how much I can see from this pedestal. You’re right, I don’t have a cellphone. No Twitter account either. I do read the NY Times as commuters and tourists glide past on ferries. I still hear many different languages among the visitors and have observed monumental changes for well over 100 years. Without a speaking voice, what more do you want me to say? To be honest, I’m a little disappointed at your apparent pessimism.

    I’ll just keep observing from an elevated perch, concerned, even alarmed at the water level rising toward my skirt. I rely on many true friends who are really great with words. Emma and I will always be rooting for you to keep my lamp lifted high, a golden glow beside a welcoming door.

    Your Enduring Symbol

    Steve Pollack

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