Voyage of the St. Louis

A Ship Full of Jewish Refugees Headed to Cuba

The St. Louis
A view of the St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana. (Picture ourtesy of the USHMM)

What Happened to the St. Louis?

On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis, left Hamburg, Germany with 937 passengers, most of whom were Jewish refugees, heading to Havana, Cuba. Upon reaching Cuba, the passengers were shocked to discover that their paperwork was no longer valid.

After long, muddled negotiations and the unwillingness of the United States to help, the St. Louis and all her passengers were sent back to Europe.

Disembarking between June 16 to 20, 1939, just months before WWII started, many of these refugees ultimately ended up in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust.

Visas Were Just Too Hard to Acquire

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that it was time to leave. Although many German Jews had emigrated in the preceding years, the Jews who remained had a more difficult time because emigration policies had toughened. By 1939, not only were visas needed to be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave Germany.

Since many countries, especially the United States, had immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short time spans in which they were needed. For many, the visas were acquired after it was too late. The opportunity that the St. Louis presented seemed like a last hope to escape.

Boarding

The St. Louis, part of the Hamburg-America Line (Hapag), was tied up at Shed 76 in Hamburg awaiting its next voyage, which was to take Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba.

Once the refugees arrived in Cuba they would await their quota number to be able to enter the United States.

The black and white ship with eight decks held room for 400 first-class passengers (800 Reichsmarks each) and 500 tourist-class passengers (600 Reichsmarks each). The passengers were also required to pay an additional 230 Reichsmarks for the "customary contingency fee," which was supposed to cover the cost if there was an unplanned return voyage.1

As most Jews had been forced out of their jobs and had been charged high rents under the Nazi regime, most Jews did not have this kind of money. Some of these passengers had money sent to them from relatives outside of Germany and Europe, while other families had to pool resources to send even one member to freedom.

On Saturday, May 13, 1939, the passengers boarded. Women and men. Young and old. Many other passengers had either left family members behind while some were also going to be meeting relatives that had traveled earlier. As the passengers boarded they remembered the many years of persecution that they had been living under. Some had come out of hiding to board the ship and none were certain that they would not receive the same kind of treatment once aboard. 

The Nazi flag flying above the ship and the picture of Adolf Hitler hanging in the social hall did not allay their fears. Earlier, Captain Gustav Schroeder had given the 231 member crew stern warnings that these passengers were to be treated just like any others. While many were willing to do this, others were not.

In particular, there was one crew member who was disgusted by this policy and was ready to make trouble, Otto Schiendick the Ortsgruppenleiter.

Not only was Schiendick ready to make trouble and was constantly trying, he was a courier for the Abwehr (German Secret Police). On this trip, Schiendick was to pick up secret documents about the U.S. military from Robert Hoffman in Cuba. This mission was code-named Operation Sunshine.

Despite the worries of the passengers, the ship sailed at 8:00 p.m. on that Saturday (May 13).

Beginning Their Journey

Only a half an hour after the St. Louis set sail, it received a message from Claus-Gottfried Holthusen, the marine superintendent of Hapag. The message stated that the St. Louis was to "make all speed" because there were two other ships (the Flandre and the Orduna) carrying Jewish refugees and heading for Cuba.2 Though there was no explanation for the need to hurry, this message seemed to warn of impending trouble.

The passengers slowly started adjusting to life aboard a large ship. With lots of good food, movies, and swimming pools, the mood began to relax a little. Children enjoyed each others' company and made new friendships as well as played childish pranks, including locking bathroom stall doors and then climbing out underneath as well as soaping doorknobs.

Several times Schiendick attempted to disturb this calm by posting copies of Der Stürmer, by substituting a newsreel with Nazi propaganda for the intended film, and by singing Nazi songs.

Two Deaths at Sea

Recha Weiler's main concern was for her husband since his health continued to deteriorate. For over a week, the ship's doctor continued to prescribe medicine for Moritz Weiler but nothing helped. On Tuesday, May 23, Moritz passed away.

Captain Schroeder, the purser, and the ship's doctor helped Recha to lay out her husband, provided candles, and found a rabbi on board. Though Recha wanted her husband buried once they reached Cuba, there was no storage facility where the body could be kept. Recha agreed to a burial at sea for her husband.

After the funeral rites were observed, the body was wrapped in a large Hapag flag that was then sewn up. Schiendick, trying to make trouble, insisted that the Party regulations stated that the bier, in a burial at sea, should be draped in a swastika flag. Schiendick's proposal was refused. That evening, after a short funeral service the body slid into the sea.

Within half an hour, a depressed crew member jumped overboard at the same location that the body had left the ship. The St. Louis turned around and sent out search parties. The likelihood of finding the man overboard was small and the delay cost the ship valuable time in its race to Cuba against the Flandre and the Orduna. After several hours of searching, the search was called off and the ship resumed its course.

The news of the two deaths disturbed the passengers and suspicions and tensions increased. For Max Loewe, who was already on edge, the deaths increased his psychosis.

Max's wife and two children were increasingly worried about Max but tried to hide it.

Once the Captain received a cable on May 23, which stated that the St. Louis passengers might not be able to land in Cuba because of Decree 937, he felt it wise to establish a small passenger committee. The committee was to explore possibilities if there were problems landing in Cuba.

Decree 937

In Cuba in early 1939, Decree 55 had passed, which drew a distinction between refugees and tourists. The Decree stated that each refugee needed a visa and was required to pay a $500 bond to guarantee that they would not become wards of Cuba. But the Decree also said that tourists were still welcome and did not need visas.

The director of immigration in Cuba, Manuel Benitez, realized that Decree 55 did not define a tourist nor a refugee. He decided that he would take advantage of this loophole and make money my selling landing permits that would allow refugees to land in Cuba by calling them tourists. He sold these permits to anyone who would pay $150.

Hapag had realized the advantage of being able to offer a package deal to their passengers, a permit and passage on their ship.

The President of Cuba, Frederico Laredo Bru, and his cabinet did not like Benitez making a great deal of money - that he was unwilling to share - on the loophole in Decree 55. Also, Cuba's economy had begun to stagnate and many blamed the incoming refugees for taking jobs that otherwise would have been held by Cubans.

On May 5, Decree 937 was passed which closed the loophole. Without knowing it, almost every passenger on the St. Louis had purchased a landing permit for an inflated rate but by the time of sailing, had already been nullified by Decree 937.

Arrival at Cuba

Late Friday afternoon, the last full day before the ship was to arrive, Captain Schroeder received a telegram from Luis Clasing (the local Hapag official in Havana), which stated that the St. Louis would have to anchor at the roadstead. Originally planning to dock at Hapag's pier, anchoring at the roadstead had been a concession by President Bru since he still disallowed the St. Louis passengers to land. Captain Schroeder went to sleep that night wondering about this change.

At three o'clock in the morning, the pilot boarded. Captain Schroeder was anxious to ask the pilot about the reasons that they were to anchor in the harbor, but the pilot used the language barrier as a reason not to answer the captain's questions. 

Cuban police and immigration officials boarded the St. Louis Saturday morning. Then the immigration officials suddenly left with no explanation. The police stayed on board and guarded the accommodation ladder. Several officials boarded but then left without an explanation as to why they had to anchor in the harbor nor gave an assurance that the passengers would be allowed to disembark.

As the morning elapsed, family and friends of the passengers who were in Cuba began renting boats and encircling the St. Louis. The passengers on board waved and shouted to those below, but the smaller ships weren't allowed to get too close.

The passengers remained anxious to disembark, not realizing the international and political negotiations that surrounded their fate.

Negotiations and Influences

President Bru was determined to stop refugees from entering his country and yet Benitez continued to assure all those he talked to that he could change Bru's mind if he was given $250,000 to use as bribes. Hapag was unable to come up with that large sum, but were encouraged to have hope that this would all end well anyway. 

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee refused to get involved with the situation until the St. Louis actually arrived in Cuba. Unfortunately, by then it was too late; the two professionals they sent to negotiate did not arrive until four days later, missing much of the crucial time for negotiation.

In the meantime, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decided that the St. Louis and her Jewish passengers were an ideal way to stir up anti-Semitism. He thus sent agents to Havana, who fabricated and hyped the passengers' criminal nature - making them seem even more undesirable. Soon, an additional 1,000 Jewish refugees entering Cuba was seen as a threat.

The Secret Abwehr Documents

On Monday, two days after arriving in Cuba, Robert Hoffman, a local Hapag official and Schiendick's Abwehr contact, found a way to board the St. Louis. Hoffman needed to pass some secret documents to Schiendick so that they could be taken back to Germany.

Hoffman, having already hidden the secret documents in the spine of magazines, inside pens, and inside a walking cane, brought these with him to the ship. At the accommodation ladder, Hoffman was told he was allowed onto the ship but that he couldn't bring anything on board. Leaving his magazines and cane behind, Hoffman boarded with the pens.

Sent directly to Captain Schroeder, Hoffman used the influence of the Abwehr to force Schroeder into allowing the crew to go to shore. Schroeder, shocked that the Abwehr was connected to his ship, acquiesced. After a quick meeting with Schiendick, Hoffman left the ship. With the change in shore leave policy, Schiendick was able to pick up the magazines and cane and reboard the St. Louis.

Now, Schiendick became a major push to head back to Germany with no stop in America for fear of being caught with the secret documents.

Waiting

On Tuesday, Captain Schroeder called the passenger committee for a meeting for only the second time. The committee had become distrustful of the captain. The St. Louis had sat in the harbor for four days before they were called. No good news had come forward and the passenger committee was asked to send telegrams to influential people, family, and friends asking for help.

Each day that the St. Louis sat in the harbor, Max Loewe became increasingly paranoid. His family had worried before, but Max became extremely disturbed believing that there were many SS and Gestapo on board plotting to arrest him and put him in a concentration camp.

On Tuesday, Max Loewe slit his wrists and jumped overboard at the same spot that the body had gone over the side. Splashing around as he clawed at his arms attempting to pull out his veins, Max Loewe drew the attention of many on board. The siren wailed for man-overboard and a courageous crew member, Heinrich Meier, jumped into the water.

The siren and uproar drew police crafts to the area. After some struggle, Meier was able to grab Loewe and push him into a police boat. Loewe kept screaming and had to be tackled to keep him from jumping back into the water. He was taken to an awaiting ambulance and then to a hospital. His wife was not allowed to visit him.

The days continued to progress and the passengers all became increasingly suspicious and fearful. If they were forced back to Germany, they would surely be sent to concentration camps. The possible consequences of their return were loudly suggested in German newspapers and magazines.

For anyone thinking about jumping overboard, the chances were slim of their success with the increased number of police crafts, the searchlights that scanned the ship, and the dangling lights used to illuminate the water.

The World Watches

The world followed the fate of the passengers aboard the St. Louis. Their story was covered around the world.

The U.S. Ambassador to Cuba met with an influential member of the Cuban government and spoke diplomatically about the precarious position the Cubans were now in. The Ambassador had spoken without direct instructions from the President but he made the concerns of the U.S. known. The Cuban Secretary of State stated that the subject was to be determined by the cabinet.

On Wednesday, the cabinet met. The passengers aboard the St. Louis would not be allowed to land.

Captain Schroeder began to fear mass suicides on board. Mutiny was also a possibility. With the help of the passenger committee, "suicide patrols" were created to patrol at night.

The two Americans from the Joint had arrived in Havana and by Thursday, June 1, had befriended a couple of influential people who convinced President Bru to reopen negotiations. To their shock though, Bru would not negotiate until the St. Louis was out of Cuban waters.

The St. Louis was given notice to leave within three hours. Pleading by Schroener that he needed more time to prepare for departure, the deadline was set back until Friday, June 2 at 10 a.m.

No options were left for the St. Louis, if they did not leave peacefully, they were to be forced out by the Cuban navy.

Leaving Cuba

On Friday morning, the St. Louis roared up its engines and began to take its leave. Farewells were shouted overboard to friends and family in rented boats below.

The St. Louis was going to encircle Cuba, waiting and hoping for the conclusion of negotiations between the Joint representative, Lawrence Berenson, and President Bru.

The Cuban government wanted $500 per refugee (approximately $500,000 in total). The same amount as required for any refugee to obtain a visa to Cuba. Berenson didn't believe he would have to pay that much; with negotiations, he believed, it would only cost the Joint $125,000.

During the following day, Berenson was approached by several men claiming affiliation with the Cuban government, one identified himself as having powers to negotiate bestowed by Bru. Berenson believed that these men just wanted a cut in the profit by negotiating a higher price. He was wrong.

Traveling Along the U.S. Coastline

While the negotiations continued, the St. Louis milled around Cuba and then headed north, following the Florida coastline in the hopes that perhaps the United States would accept the refugees. At this time, it was noticed that the lack of time given to prepare for leaving port meant that the St. Louis would run into food and water shortages in less than two weeks. The United States would not let the St. Louis land.

Telegrams continued to arrive insisting the possibility of landing in Cuba or even the Dominican Republic. Once a cable arrived stating the St. Louis passengers could land on the Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isle of Pines), off of Cuba, Schroeder turned the ship around and headed toward Cuba.

The good news was announced to those on board and everyone rejoiced. Ready and awaiting a new life, the passengers prepared themselves for their arrival the next morning.

The next morning, a telegram arrived stating that landing at the Isla de la Juventud was not confirmed. Shocked, the passenger committee tried to think of other alternatives.

Negotiations Closed

Around noon on Tuesday, June 6, President Bru closed the negotiations. Through a misunderstanding, the money allotment had not been agreed upon and Berenson missed a 48-hour deadline that he didn't know existed.

One day later, the Joint offered to pay Bru's every demand but Bru said it was too late. The option of landing in Cuba was officially closed.

With a diminishing supply of food and pressures from Hapag to return to Germany, Captain Schroeder ordered the ship to change heading and return to Europe.

The Return Voyage

The following day, Wednesday, June 7, Captain Schroeder informed the passenger committee that they were returning to Europe. Though the situation was desperate, there was still hope that negotiations for their landing in Europe somewhere other than Germany could be possible.

While massive negotiations were beginning, passenger Aaron Pozner rallied some youths aboard to participate in a mutiny. Though they succeeded in capturing the bridge, they did not capture the other strategic locations of the ship. The mutiny was overcome.

A crew member's suicide by hanging also marked dread on the return voyage.

Disembarking

Through miraculous negotiations, the Joint was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees: 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium.

The passengers disembarked from the St. Louis from June 16 to June 20. Other ships carried the passengers to their locations.

Having crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, the passengers' original hopes of freedom in Cuba and the U.S. turned into a forlorn effort to escape sure death upon their return to Germany. Feeling alone and rejected by the world, the passengers returned to Europe in June 1939.

With World War II just months away, many of these passengers would eventually find themselves in countries overtaken by the Nazis and, ultimately, sent to concentration and death camps during the Holocaust

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is searching for passengers that were aboard the St. Louis.

Notes

1. Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York: Stein and Day, 1974) 37.
2. Thomas, Voyage 65.

Bibliography

Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan Witts. Voyage of the Damned. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.