At eight in the evening of Saturday, May 13, 1939, the transatlantic liner St. Louis of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie (HAPAG) set sail from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. The ship was carrying 900 passengers, the vast majority of them German Jewish refugees, and 231 crew. Two days later, another 37 passengers boarded at the port of Cherbourg.
The refugees had landing permits issued by Manuel Benítez, the director of the Cuban Department of Immigration and provided by the HAPAG company, which had offices in Havana. Cuba was to be a transit point, as the travelers already had visas to enter the United States. They were meant to stay in Cuba while they waited their turn: a stay that could last between one month and several years.
A week before the ship set sail from Hamburg, Cuba’s president, Federico Laredo Brú, published Decree 937 (so called because of the total number of passengers aboard the St. Louis) invalidating the landing permits Benítez had signed. Only the documents issued by the secretary of state and labor of Cuba would be accepted. The refugees had paid 150 US dollars for each permit, and passages on the St. Louis cost between 600 and 800 reichsmarks. When they left, Germany had demanded that every refugee buy return tickets, and permitted them to take with them only 10 reichsmarks per person.
The ship arrived in the port of Havana at four in the morning on May 27, 1939. The Cuban authorities would not allow it to dock in the area corresponding to the HAPAG company, and so it was forced to anchor in Havana Bay.
Some of the passengers had relatives waiting for them in Havana, many of whom rented boats to go out to the ship, but they were not allowed on deck.
Only four Cubans and two non-Jewish Spaniards were authorized to disembark, together with twenty-two refugees who had obtained landing permits from the Cuban State Department prior to the ones issued by Benítez, who was supported by the army chief, Fulgencio Batista.
On June 1, lawyer Lawrence Berenson, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, met with President Laredo Brú in Havana but was unable to reach an agreement to enable the passengers to land.
The negotiations continued, and the next development was that the Cuban president demanded from Berenson a surety of 500 US dollars for each passenger before they could disembark. Representatives of various Jewish organizations, as well as members of the US embassy in Cuba, held unsuccessful talks with Laredo Brú. They also tried to contact Batista, only to be told by his personal physician that the general had caught a cold on the same day that the St. Louis arrived in Cuba, that he had to rest, and could not even come to the telephone.
When Berenson made a counterproposal reducing the amount of money demanded as surety by $23.16 per passenger, the Cuban president decided to break off negotiations and demanded that the ship leave Cuban territorial waters on June 2 by eleven in the morning. If this order was not obeyed, the St. Louis would be towed out into the open sea by the Cuban authorities.
The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, had protected his passengers ever since their departure from Hamburg, and began to do all he could to find a non-German port where they could disembark.
The St. Louis steamed for Miami, but when it came very close to the Florida coast, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government denied it entry into the United States. This refusal was repeated in Canada by the government of Mackenzie King.
The ship was therefore forced to head back across the Atlantic toward Hamburg. A few days before it arrived, Morris Troper, director of the European Committee for Joint Distribution, came to an agreement for several countries to take in the refugees.
Great Britain accepted 287; France, 224; Belgium, 214; and Holland, 181. In September 1939 Germany declared war, and the countries of continental Europe that had accepted the passengers were soon occupied by the armies of Adolf Hitler.
Only the 287 taken in by Great Britain were safe. Most of the remainder of the former St. Louis passengers suffered the horrors of war or were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.
Captain Gustav Schroeder commanded the St. Louis one further time, and his return to Germany coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War. He did not set to sea again but was given desk jobs in the shipping company. The St. Louis was destroyed during Allied air raids on Germany. After the war, during the denazification process, Captain Schroeder was put on trial, but thanks to testimonies and letters in his favor from the St. Louis survivors, the charges against him were dropped. In 1949 he wrote the book Heimatlos auf hoher See, about the journey the St. Louis had made. In 1957 the federal government of Germany awarded him the Order of Merit for his services in the rescue of the refugees.
Captain Schroeder died in 1959 at the age of seventy-three. On March 11 of that year, Yad Vashem, the official Israeli institution dedicated to the conservation of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, recognized him posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations.
In 2009 the United States Senate passed a resolution “acknowledging the suffering of those refugees as a result of the refusal by the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada to offer them political asylum”. In 2012 the US State Department apologized publicly for what had happened to the St. Louis, and invited the survivors to its headquarters so that they could tell their stories.
The year 2011 saw the unveiling in Halifax, Canada, of a monument financed by the Canadian government and known as The Wheel of Conscience. It recalls and deplores the refusal by that country to take in the refugees from the St. Louis.
Until now, in Cuba, the tragedy of the St. Louis has been a topic absent from classrooms and history books. All the documents related to the arrival of the ship in Havana and the negotiations with Federico Laredo Brú’s government and Fulgencio Batista have disappeared from the Cuban National Archive.
ARMANDO LUCAS CORREA
THE SS SAINT LOUIS