Of all the events in the years leading up to World War II, the May 1939 voyage of the German ocean liner S.S. St. Louis remains one of the most poignantly compelling. The tragic saga of the ship, whose more than 900 passengers, most of them German Jews, were turned away from Cuba and forced to return to Nazi Europe, has stood as a symbol for the many ways the world turned its back on plight of the Jews under Nazism.
According to Dr. Diane F. Afoumado, the story remains significant because it contains all the elements that allowed the Holocaust to occur.
“The events surrounding the S.S. St. Louis were not limited to Germany and Cuba,” she said. “Other countries, especially the United States, played pivotal roles.”
Afoumado, chief of the International Tracing Service Research, Holocaust Survivors, and Victims Resource Center at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, presented a two-part lecture on the St. Louis and the Refugee Crisis at Kean University on Feb. 24.
Afoumado, whose publications include Exil Impossible: L’errance des Juifs du paquebot St-Louis (Impossible Exile: The Wanderings of the Jews on Board the Ship St. Louis) researched the events through the diaries of the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, as well as newspaper accounts at the time. Her lecture was illustrated with photographs of shipboard life taken by the passengers as well as identification papers, all part of the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
Afoumado described the atmosphere surrounding the refugee crisis of the late 1930s. “Before World War II, there were 500,000 Jews in Germany, approximately 1 percent of the population. Once the Nuremburg Laws were enacted in 1935 and Jews were stripped of their citizenship, life became harder and harder. By the time of the annexation of Austria in March 1938, many German Jews realized that they had no choice but to leave the country. As a result, more than 50 percent fled between 1938 and 1939.”
Afoumado noted that other countries were aware of the flood of refugees. In July 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt organized (but did not attend) the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees in Evian, France. “Out of the 32 nations that participated, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take refugees without the restrictions of quotas,” Afoumado said. “The Australian representative went so far as to say, ‘As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.’”
Not only did conference-goers fail to lift their quotas in order to help the Jews, Afoumado explained, they also gave the Germans the “green light to do whatever they wanted with their Jews.”
By May 1939, there were few options for German Jews who wanted to emigrate. “You could leave if you were able to obtain landing permits at the destination, but the only destinations left were Havana, Cuba, and Shanghai, China,” Afoumado said. “One family had tickets for Shanghai, but changed their booking to the St. Louis because it was leaving sooner.” All the St. Louis passengers had landing permits for Havana, but only a few had legitimate visas. However, 725 were on the legal quota list for eventual entry into the United States. They planned to wait in Cuba (expecting it could take years) until their numbers came up and then settle in the United States.
After years of deprivation, the families who boarded the St. Louis on May 13 with the few possessions they had left were transported into a luxurious world of ballrooms and swimming pools.
“Some of the children did not know how to swim because due to the anti-Jewish laws, they had never been allowed in a pool,” said Afoumado.
More importantly, for the first time in years, they were treated with respect. Gustav Schroeder, the ship’s captain, said Afoumado, was “profoundly anti-Nazi.” She said he told the 200-man crew there would be “‘no persecution on board. We will serve them just as we would any passengers on a cruise ship.’”
Voyage to nowhere
Unfortunately, as the ship sailed across the Atlantic, Schroeder and his passengers were unaware that earlier in May, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had changed the immigration law, rendering the landing permits worthless. “This decision had nothing to do with the Jews,” explained Afoumado. “Bru was angry that his minister, who was selling landing permits, was sharing the profits with Batista, his political rival, and he wanted to put a stop to it.”
The ship sat in Havana’s harbor for six days. Only passengers with legal visas were permitted to disembark. A representative from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was sent to negotiate with the Cuban government.
“Captain Schroeder tried to talk to the government as well. He knew that if the ship returned to Germany, many passengers would be sent to concentration camps,” said Afoumado. Forced to leave Havana, Schroeder sailed the ship for three days along the east coast of the United States as talks continued.
Afoumado noted that the plight of the St. Louis was covered in all the U.S. newspapers. As a result, Americans were aware of the situation and sent telegrams to Washington pleading to allow the passengers to enter the country.
The passengers sent a telegram directly to Roosevelt, asking him to allow the children in. “They never received a response,” said Afoumado. She attributed Roosevelt’s inaction to two factors: anti-Semitism in the State Department and his fear of risking his reelection in 1940 by stirring up controversy.
On June 6, Schroeder was forced to sail back to Europe. During the voyage, the JDC negotiated with Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain to take the passengers. The journey ended when the ship docked at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17.
Afoumado said it was important to dispel the myth that all the St. Louis passengers perished in the Holocaust. “Our records show that 231 died,” she noted. Those who survived repaid Schroeder for his kindness. “After the war, he was put on trial as a Nazi war criminal. Some of the passengers testified on his behalf, and he was not convicted.” In 1993, he was honored posthumously as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
Afoumado said the story of the St. Louis is “a perfect starting point” for teaching about the Holocaust, because, she told NJJN, “everyone involved is represented: the villains, the victims, the heroes who tried to help, and those who stood by and did nothing.”
The program at Kean was sponsored by the Master’s in Holocaust & Genocide Studies Program and the Human Rights Institute at Kean along with the Campus Outreach Lecture Program of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, supported by Jack and Goldie Wolf Miller.