The voyage of the damned: the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis

In this special report for Radio Habana Cuba, STEPHEN FAY recounts the case of the St. Louis's voyage to Cuba. The response of the Cuban government was all too characteristic. The Canadian and US governments also turned the ship and its 907 Jewish refugees away from their ports, Prime Minister Mackenzie King stating that he was 'emphatically opposed to the admission of the St. Louis' passengers'.

(November, 2004) -- THE HISTORY of the Jews in Cuba is almost unique the world over for the absence of anti-Semitism and the ease with which Jewish communities settled and thrived on the key to the Caribbean. But in the late 1930s the government of Frederico Laredo Bru put dirty money before morality and refused asylum to almost one thousand Jewish passengers on a trans-Atlantic liner fleeing Nazi persecution and almost certain death. This is the story of the S.S. St. Louis; the Voyage of the Damned.


AFTER the violent anti-Semitic pogroms in Germany in November 1938, known as Kristallnacht, or 'night of the broken glass' many European Jews fled for their lives. Hundreds of ships crossed the Atlantic carrying immigrants to new lives, primarily in the United States. The S.S. St. Louis, owned by the Hamburg-American Line (Hapag) was one such ship. But strict new US immigration quotas meant many refugees searched for third countries to await their turn in the quota queue. Cuba was one of the most attractive stop-off point for refugees heading northwards towards the US. For the 907 passengers waiting expectantly in the stiff Hamburg winter for their place on the S.S. St. Louis it was much more than that, it was their last chance.

The black and white eight-deck ship held room for four hundred first-class passengers (at 800 Reichsmarks each) and five hundred tourist-class passengers (at 600 Reichsmarks each). All were required to pay an additional 230 Reichsmarks for the "customary contingency fee", supposed to cover the cost of an unplanned return voyage.

Most German Jews had already been forced out of their jobs and these fares bit deeply into family savings. Some passengers were sent money from relatives outside Europe, while other families had to pool resources and send just one member to freedom. On Saturday, May 13th, 1939 the passengers boarded, every one with their own story to tell.

The return voyage Aaron Pozner had just been released from the Dachau concentration camp. On the night of Kristallnacht, Pozner and 26,000 other Jews had been arrested and deported to so-called detention camps. But while in 'detention' Pozner witnessed brutal murders by hanging, drowning, and crucifixion. Then all of a sudden he was released on the condition he leave Germany within fourteen days. His family scraped together enough money to buy him a ticket on the S.S. St. Louis and Pozner said goodbye to his wife and two children, knowing that it was up to him to earn the money to save his family from the Nazis.

This was a trans-Atlantic crossing unlike any other. The mood was a bitter blend of desperation, terror and the overwhelming guilt of the seemingly lucky few who were leaving so many unlucky loved ones behind. The Nazi flag flying above the ship and the picture of Hitler hanging in the dance hall did not allay their fears.

Earlier, Captain Gustav Schroeder gave the 231 member crew stern warnings that these passengers were to be treated just like any others. Most agreed, two stewards even carried elderly Moritz and Recha Weiler's luggage for them. But one crew member, Otto Schiendick sneered at the Captain's orders. Schiendick was a rabid Nazi and a courier for the Abwehr (German Secret Police). On this trip, Schiendick was to pick up secret documents about the U.S. military in Cuba. His mission was code-named Operation Sunshine.

As the ship prepared for departure the captain made a note in his diary:

There is a somewhat nervous disposition among the passengers. Touching departure scenes have taken place. Many seem light of heart, having left their homes. Others take it heavily. But beautiful weather, pure sea air, good food, and attentive service will soon provide the usual worry-free atmosphere of long sea voyages. Painful impressions on land disappear quickly at sea and soon seem merely like dreams.

At 8:00 p.m. on Saturday May 13, the ship set sail.

Life on Board

THE PASSENGERS slowly started adjusting to life aboard ship. With lots of good food, movies, and swimming pools the mood began to relax a little. Schiendick attempted to disturb this calm by substituting the intended film with a newsreel of Nazi propaganda or by singing Nazi songs, but the passengers ignored him.

On Tuesday, May 23rd a depressed crew member jumped overboard. The S.S. 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 two other refugee ships. After several hours of fruitless searching, the ship resumed its course.Life on Board

The news of the two deaths disturbed the passengers and suspicions and tensions increased. For Max Loewe, a passenger who was already seriously disturbed, the deaths took him to the brink of madness. Max's wife and two children stood nervously by.

On May 23 the Captain received a cable informing him that the passengers might not be able to land in Cuba at all. The tropical stop-over before final emigration to the US had become tragically complicated.

1930s Cuba: money or morality?

IN EARLY 1939 Cuba passed Decree 55 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. Tourists did not need visas. The Director of Immigration in Cuba, Manuel Benitez realized that the definition between tourist and refugee was so vague he could easily make money by selling permits which would allow refugees to land in Cuba as tourists. At $150 a piece Benitez soon became a very rich man.

The Cuban President at the time, Frederico Laredo Bru and his cabinet did not like Benitez making a great deal of money on Decree 55, of which they received no cut. On May 5th, Decree 937 was passed which closed the loophole. Without knowing it, almost every passenger on the S.S. St. Louis had purchased a landing permit for an inflated rate that by the time of sailing was completely useless because of Decree 937.

At three o'clock in the morning on May 27th the S.S. St. Louis entered Havana harbour. Cuban police and immigration officials boarded the St. Louis, but no one was allowed to disembark. As the morning wore on, family and friends who were already in Cuba began renting boats and circling the St. Louis.

Manuel Benitez now showed his truly repugnant colours and asked for $250,000 in bribes to persuade President Bru to repeal Decree 937. The local Hapag official Luis Clasing met Benitez several times, but the $250,000 that the director of immigration demanded was too much for Hapag to pay, especially considering they had already given Benitez many "bonuses".

Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler's chief of propaganda Joseph Goebbels had decided to use the St. Louis and her passengers in an anti-Semitic master plan. He sent agents to Havana to stir up local anti-Semitic sentiments and spread lies about the passengers' criminal activities in Europe. Cuba soon began to see the new arrivals as thoroughly undesirable.

Stuck in Cuba

THE PASSENGERS' patience began to run out as the waiting turned from hours into days.

Every day that the St. Louis sat in the harbour, Max Loewe became increasingly paranoid. He kept his family locked in their cabin, convinced that the SS and Gestapo were on board. On Tuesday May 30th Max Loewe slit his wrists and jumped over the side. The siren wailed for man-overboard and a courageous crew member, Heinrich Meier, jumped into the water. The uproar drew police crafts to the area. After some struggle, Meier was able to grab Loewe and push him into a police boat. 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. German newspapers and magazines bayed for Jewish blood and demanded the S.S. St. Louis be sent back to Germany, and slaughter, immediately.

On Wednesday May 31st, the Cuban cabinet met. They decided that the St. Louis passengers would not be allowed to land. Captain Schroeder began to fear mass suicides oss st Louis Departuren board. Mutiny was also a possibility. Nocturnal "suicide patrols" were established.

Two representatives from the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a Jewish aid organization set up in 1914, arrived in Havana and by Thursday, June 1st had persuaded Bru to reopen negotiations. But the stubborn president would not negotiate until the St. Louis was out of Cuban waters. Captain Schroeder was given notice to leave within three hours. Pleading that he needed more time to prepare for departure, the deadline was set back until Friday, June 2nd at 10 a.m.

On the morning of Friday June 2nd the S.S. St. Louis fired up its engines and left Havana harbour. Farewells were shouted overboard to friends and family in rented boats below. The ship began to circle Cuba, waiting and praying for the conclusion of negotiations between the Joint representative, Lawrence Berenson, and President Bru.

The JDC also contacted several South American countries including Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina. But none of these countries would except the passengers. On June 5th the Cuban government agreed to let them ashore if $453,000 could be raised in twenty-four hours. The JDC did not succeed, and the ship was sent to roam the oceans looking for a country that would accept them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made no comment on the situation. A New York Times editorial said: "We can only hope that some hearts will soften and some refuge will be found. The cruise of the St. Louis cries to high heaven of man's humanity." However, the US did take action by sending out the Coast Guard to make sure no one jumped over board in an attempt to sneak into the country.

During the 1930s and 40s the US armed itself against refugees with overwhelming paperwork and red tape. For a Jew to immigrate into the United States, they had to file papers with the American consulate in Europe. The consul then selected applicants on the basis of the amount of money in their bank accounts. From 1933 to 1945 the German immigration quota was only met in 1938 and 1939. From 1932 until 1938 more people emigrated from the United States than immigrated into the United States. This was the first time this had occurred in nearly 200 years of US history.

By June 6th the crew of the S.S. St. Louis realised that because of the speed which the ship had left Havana it would run out of food and water in less than two weeks. Captain Schroeder had no choice but to order the ship to set course for Europe.

The return voyage

ON WEDNESDAY June 7th Captain Schroeder informed the passengers that they were returning to Europe. Though the situation was desperate there was still hope they would be allowed to land in countries other than Germany.

But Dachau survivor Aaron Pozner's patience had run out. He rallied some other young men and launched a mutiny. They succeeded in capturing the bridge, but couldn't reach other strategic locations. The mutiny was overcome. The atmosphere of dread was heightened when one of the crew hung himself in his bunk.

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

The passengers disembarked from the S.S. St. Louis from June 16th to June 21st 1939. World War II was just months away. The lives of many was drawing to a tragic close.

A typical story is that of the Blumenstein family. Franz Blumenstein operated a successful business in Vienna but was arrested on Kristallnacht along with more than 3,000 other Viennese Jews and taken to the Dachau concentration camp. His wife Else obtained his release with a sizeable bribe and Franz left Germany and made his eventually to Cuba. There he purchased landing certificates for his wife, their 3-year-old son Heinz Georg, and his mother Regina. Waving to each other from deck to dock was the closest the family came to a reunion. After the voyage of the damned Franz' family disembarked in Holland, which the Nazis occupied in 1940.

The following is an excerpt of a letter from Else to her husband Franz as he continued his desperate attempts to secure safe passage for his family to Cuba:

March 12, 1941
My Dearest Feryle,

As you wrote me that you have not yet received Heinzile's photo, I am sending it once again and also enclosing passport photos of both of us. Perhaps they will arrive in time for your birthday. . . For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive. Our Golden Boy is a splendid fellow. He always has something to tell: what they have done in school, with whom he has had a fight, and where I have to take him after school.
Now the latest is that in the afternoons, I must give him 1 or 2 cents, and then, all by himself, he buys either chewing gum or candy. . . . I am lucky that I have put a few gulden away to help with our daily expenses. Everything has become expensive and scarce.
I and your dear child kiss you in longing and deep love. Your faithful companion for life. A thousand kisses
Else and Heinz

During the height of the deportations from Holland, Regina hid her grandson Heinz just minutes before she was arrested. Else came for her son as soon as the police left and fled to northern Holland, where the Dutch resistance provided them with safe hiding in separate houses. Else was arrested and deported to Auschwitz on September 24, 1943. She died there. Heinz survived the war in hiding and later rejoined his father in the United States.

An estimated 6 million Jews were killed in the holocaust. Of the 907 passengers that boarded the S.S. St. Louis on May 13th 1939 less than 300 survived.

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