The 1939 Voyage of the St Louis, Refugee Ship

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The summer of 1939 was a politically tense time. Democracies in western Europe feared the imminent outbreak of war with Nazi Germany   – with good reason, as it turned out. German Jews, in particular, were becoming frantic after the state-sponsored terrorism of Kristallnacht (9 November, 1938). It was clear that it was dangerous to remain in Germany. The problem was that it was increasingly difficult to get out of the country.

Emigration permits were becoming harder and harder to obtain. Emigrants had to find somewhere to go, and that country had to accept them. Worse, the German government would confiscate all the emigrants' property. They could take very little money with them – not enough to satisfy the immigration requirements of the new host country. Finding a safe haven in a hostile world was becoming more and more challenging.

The Nazis knew this. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was prepared to make the most of an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that German antisemitism wasn't unique. He intended to stage a public event to show that, while Germans didn't want their Jewish citizens, neither did anyone else. Which is why the government allowed 937 would-be migrants – including some who had recently been released from concentration camps – to board the St Louis on its way from Hamburg to Havana.

The journey of the St Louis became an agony for all involved. It caused deaths, both immediate and in its long-term effects. And it did, indeed, demonstrate widespread world indifference to the plight of the refugees from Hitler's Germany.

The Situation

In the past months he [Manuel Benitez, Cuban director of immigration] had signed his name to some 4000 landing permits at $150 a signature, bringing him about $600,000 for an outlay of some seventy-five cents for a new fountain pen.

– Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned, p87

The Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG) was founded in 1847. It was a major shipping line that initially specialised in bringing European emigrants to the Americas. Its long-time general director Albert Ballin (1857-1918) was a Danish Jew who immigrated to Hamburg and was so successful that he became hoffähig, or presentable at the imperial court. Unfortunately, in the 1930s a more hostile Nazi government bought a controlling interest in the company. HAPAG was forced to fly the swastika flag.

The MS (=Motorschiff) St Louis was a diesel-powered vessel launched in 1928. It weighed in at 16,732 Gross Register Tons and measured 175 meters in length. On the voyage in question, it was very near its passenger capacity of 973. 937 people were aboard when the St Louis started from Hamburg on 13 May, 1939, destination Havana, Cuba. All but a handful of these people were German Jewish refugees.

Kapitän Gustav Schröder (1885-1959) had 37 years of sea-going experience under his belt. He was a well-respected officer, imposing to his crew in spite of the fact that he was the smallest officer in the German merchant navy. (He stood 5'4"/164 cm.) That Captain Schröder didn't like Nazis was a fact. He most particularly didn't like the six 'firemen' below decks who were really Gestapo agents. He wasn't thrilled about one of the stewards, either.

Otto Schiendick was the ship's Ortsgruppenleiter, or party shop steward. Schiendick went around posting propaganda on the crew bulletin boards and taking names of those he suspected of disloyalty. Schröder wasn't happy about this. He would have been even unhappier if he had known that Schiendick was an agent for the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency. Schiendick's mission was to exchange secret information with an agent in Havana. The steward's lack of tact toward the passengers and crew were evidence that he wasn't a particularly good Abwehr agent.

The 937 passengers aboard the St Louis ranged in age from young children to the elderly. They came from different walks of life. All were extremely stressed: some of the men came almost directly from concentration camps, where they had been released and given two weeks to leave the country permanently. Some passengers had relatives waiting in Havana. Others were leaving family members behind in the hope that they would be able to send for them later. Many viewed Havana as a safe haven from which to wait until their quota numbers came up, allowing them to enter the restricted United States.

Meanwhile, in Havana, there was political theatre. Having let the Jews sail, the German propaganda ministry was busy spreading stories about the undesirability of the refugees. Public opinion was being stirred up against admitting any more migrants. Worse, the president of Cuba had discovered that the director of immigration had made a lot of money selling landing permits – and committed the crime of not including the president in the payoffs.

The Journey to Havana

Against this invasion we must react with the same energy as have other peoples of the globe. Otherwise we will be absorbed, and the day will come when the blood of our martyrs and heroes shall have served solely to enable the Jews to enjoy a country conquered by our ancestors.

– Havana Avance, Wednesday, 17 May, 1939

The St Louis was a top-of-the-line cruise ship. In spite of orders to the contrary, Captain Schröder insisted on treating this voyage like any other. He commanded his stewards to treat the passengers with every courtesy, and offered the usual amenities: swimming in a pool on deck, leisure activities, film nights, and fine dining. The refugees, who had experienced years of being systematically shut out of public life in their homeland, appreciated the luxuries. Disgruntled, Otto Schiendick took notes, especially when the Captain provided Sabbath services for Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform worshippers.

The journey out was marred by a death. Dr Moritz Weiler, a retired university professor from Cologne, died of a heart attack. HAPAG authorities insisted by cable that the professor be buried at sea. Captain Schröder, forced to comply for health reasons, arranged a quiet ceremony under the supervision of a rabbi on board. The crew attended respectfully. Schröder gave widow Recha Weiler a map marking the location of her husband's sea burial.

Schröder was alarmed at the cables he received from management, urging him to make all possible speed in order to outrun other refugee ships headed for Havana. He made all the speed he could, but it was too late. German propaganda had been very effective in Cuba. By the time the ship arrived on 27 May, it was denied entry by Havana authorities.

Visits to various Cuban leaders, promises of bribes, negotiations by the US-based Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish relief agency, all were in vain. Only 22 of the Jewish refugees were allowed to leave the St Louis, and one additional passenger. Dr Max Loewe, a lawyer from Breslau, had slashed his wrists and jumped overboard. Rescued from the water, Dr Loewe was taken to a Havana hospital.

The Abwehr agents had a few bad moments, as well. Visitors weren't allowed on board except on official business. Captain Schröder refused to let his crew off the ship. Finally, an Abwehr agent made it on board as a representative of the negotiating team – but Cuban guards refused to allow him to bring his belongings on board. As these contained the microfilms the Abwehr wanted sent to Germany, the agent was forced to come clean to Captain Schröder. Schröder was appalled at the use of his ship for spying, but had to allow Schiendick to go ashore and retrieve his secrets.

Homeless on the Sea

MY INTENTION IS TO DO ALL POSSIBLE TO ALLEVIATE MOUNTING CONCERN OF MY PASSENGERS WHOSE ONLY WISH IS TO FIND A HOME.

– Schroeder cable, 4 June, 1939

On Friday, 2 June, the St Louis left Havana harbour. Cuban authorities had threatened to drive the ship away by force. Captain Schröder steered a course for Florida, 90 miles (145 km) away. But approaching US waters, the ship was confronted by the US Coast Guard and warned to stay out.

American newspapers had been covering the story. Some were sympathetic, others, like the Italian-American newspaper La Sentinella (published in Bridgeport, Connecticut), were outspokenly antisemitic:

At this writing, the daily press reports that the German refugee ship, Saint Louis, is hovering near the Florida coast and is being watched closely by the United States Coast Guard...The Saint Louis with nearly 1,000 German Jews on board was forbidden to unload its human cargo in Cuba. The Jewish passengers threatened mass suicide or mutiny if forced to return to Germany. It is strange that the matter of visas and an exact knowledge of whether or not the Cuban government would receive them upon arrival did not occur to these Jewish passengers who enjoy a reputation for intelligence...

– 'The German Refugee Ship'

That account goes on to accuse Jews of having 'an oriental cunning beyond the keen [sic] of mere Americans.'

The New York Times showed more support for the refugees:

No plague ship ever received a sorrier welcome. Yet those aboard her had sailed with high hopes….Yet out of Havana Harbor the St. Louis had to go, trailing pitiful cries of 'Auf Wiedersehen.' Off our shores she was attended by a helpful Coast Guard vessel alert to pick up any passengers plunged overboard and thrust him back on the St. Louis again. It is useless now to discuss what might have been done. The case is disposed of. Germany with all the hospitality of its concentration camps will welcome these unfortunates home….

– 8 June, 1939

Appeals by sympathetic Americans were made to President Franklin D Roosevelt and to his wife Eleanor, who was known to be a supporter of refugees and their issues. Unfortunately, Roosevelt was facing an upcoming election year. The America First movement was both isolationist and antisemitic, and boasted a million followers. Roosevelt may have felt he was sacrificing these people to a 'higher good'. We don't know. We do know that the US refused to accept over 900 desperate people who were, indeed, threatening mass suicide or mutiny.

What prevented both were the actions of Gustav Schröder. The Captain urged his passengers to wait. He was determined not to return his ship to Hamburg, although he had been ordered to. His plan, which he eventually confided to the leaders among the passengers, was to ground the St Louis off Beachy Head, then set fire to the ship. Following an 'emergency evacuation', he and the crew could put out the fire they'd set. At any rate, he promised, he wasn't turning his passengers over to the mercies of the Gestapo.

Decision and Aftermath

Captain Schröder didn't have to set fire to the St Louis after all. At the last minute, the negotiation efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee succeeded where bribery had failed. Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France had agreed to take the refugees, at least temporarily. The relief on board ship was great. Joseph Goebbels wasn't happy: he'd wanted to prove that nobody would take the Jews of Germany, and he very nearly had. Between 16 and 20 June, the St Louis passengers were transferred to other ships, which took them to their new destinations. None returned to Hamburg.

What happened to the passengers? It depended on where they went. Those who went to Britain were most likely to have survived. Some made it to Cuba or South America, others to the US. Still others spent the war in hiding, or perished in the death camps. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes: 'Of the passengers sent to Belgium, France, and and the Netherlands, 254 died during the Holocaust, including entire families and children as young as six.' The failure of governments in the Americas to grant admission to these asylum seekers had tragic consequences.

Captain Schröder took the St Louis to New York City, where he carried out summer cruises until late August, when the ship abruptly cancelled the next cruise and sailed away empty. The St Louis was at sea when war broke out on 2 September. Schröder ran the British blockade to dock at Murmansk. Four months later, he succeeded in bringing his ship back to Hamburg. There he took up desk duty for the duration of the war.

After the war, grateful St Louis survivors who had maintained contact were able to do Schröder a favour: they testified on his behalf. Successfully 'denazified', the retired sea captain took up writing. He is listed by Yad Vashem as 'Righteous Among the Nations', and has a Hamburg park named after him. He had this to say about his experiences with the St Louis refugee voyage:

I must think of my old teacher, who always preached tolerance to us pupils. He never said an unkind word about a fellow human, not even about his enemies….So I will leave the question of guilt alone out of respect. It is much better to speak of gratitude, gratitude for everything good that we experience from others. I have to thank countless people who helped me to make the lives of our passengers on the St Louis as pleasant as possible.

– Gustav Schröder, Heimatlos auf hoher See, 1947. [This Researcher's translation]

We do know what happened to Otto Schiendick. In 1945, he was engaged in blowing up the underground complex of the Abwehr's overseas message service in Hamburg. He was shot dead by British troops.

For Further Information

The go-to book for more information on the St Louis remains the 1974 study by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned. The 1976 film of the book was nominated for three Academy Awards and six Golden Globes, winning one Golden Globe.

An account of 21st-century researchers' search to learn the fates of the St Louis passengers can be found in Refuge Denied: The St Louis Passenger and the Holocaust, by Sarah A Ogilvie and Scott Miller, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2006.

If you read German, check out Heimatlos auf hoher See by Gustav Schröder.

Also for German speakers: Die Irrfahrt der St Louis is a documentary/reenactment of the story with survivor interviews.


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