The MS St. Louis - A Story of Human Betrayal
Voyage of the Damned
“Where are we going, Papa,” questioned the small boy as they boarded the ship. “We are going to the other side of the world,” came his father’s reply. There was a strange tone in his father’s voice, one of uncertainty, not joy. “Why are we going there?” the young boy asked. “To start a new life,” said his father. But, the little boy could tell that his father was not excited, not happy. There was a forlorn look in his father’s face as they looked out over the dock that was soon to be receding into dark, unspeakable memories. Only his father knew that they were saying good-bye to family members for the last time. The year was 1939. Europe was in a state of anticipation, a mood of uncertainty had gripped the population as more and more Europeans began to feel an ominous and very dark cloud of impending doom, a veil of sorrow and unspeakable hate that was being created by an evil monster. Hitler was gaining power, and no one knew where it would all end, but news had been coming out of Germany in amounts sufficient for anyone with Jewish relatives to know that Jews were being systematically eliminated. Yet, many non-Jews turned their backs to this nightmare, assuming wrongly that it was just a Jewish problem, not something that would ever come to haunt them. Hitler had built one concentration camp after another as part of his “Final Solution” scapegoating Jews for the problems of Germany. All of the problems that Germany faced, Hitler was certain would disappear...once he got rid of all the Jews. Through false propaganda, playing to the uneducated and bigoted, Hitler was able to create a distorted view of Jews as the most despicable of all human beings, making them worthy of the utmost contempt, even death. He had successfully changed the face of Germany, turning ordinary citizens into hate mongers, bigots of the worst kind, people who would turn all of their animalistic hate and wrath onto innocent fellow human beings, all because the man they now idolized said it was necessary. And Hitler said that the Jews had to be removed from Germany...one way or the other. Forced emigration was not swift enough. The concentration camps came all too quickly. In March of 1933, Hitler had the first concentration camp built at Dachau, Konzentrationslager Dachau, as it was named. That was swiftly followed in1936 with the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 1937, Buchenwald concentration camp opened. 1938 brought the Neuengamme concentration camp. May of 1939, Ravensbruck opened. September 1939, Stutthof opened. April 1940, the infamous Auschwitz. May 1940, Mauthausen. June 1940, Theresienstadt. Any Jew who was able to escape was fleeing the horrific nightmare that Germany had become. There was no need for explanation, then, when, on May 13, 1939, 908 extremely anxious Jews boarded the German ocean liner MS St. Louis at Hamburg for a journey some later called, the Voyage of the Damned.
We Are Going Away
Like fleeing an angry, hungry lion that is set on devouring you, as the site line of the German coast drifted into invisibility, the Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis slowly began to feel relief. When the view of Germany’s coastline was no longer in sight, the open sea gave a sense of security, as if Hitler could not find them here, not now. They were lost in a cocoon of vastness, and hope sprang anew as each mile of sea took them further away from Hitler and closer to America and the welcoming symbol they had all seen pictures of - the Statue of Liberty. Some could even proudly recite the verse that was famously inscribed at her feet about sending her the tired and worn. Such hope began to transform each new day. The passengers became more relaxed, swam in the pool, attended the cinema, even danced to the music of the ship’s band as they played in the evenings. The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, compassionately allowed for the temporary removal of Hitler’s portrait from the dining hall. He further allowed for Friday evening prayers, and ordered his crew to treat the Jews with respect, something that they had not felt in such a long time back in Germany. Many of the children would hear their parents tell them, “We are going away. We are safe. We will never have to look over our shoulders anymore.”
Sailing For Cuba
The St. Louis was sailing for Cuba. The plan was that the passengers would then apply for permission to enter the United States where they all hoped to begin new lives free from the terror of Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, even before the St. Louis set sail, conditions were evolving in Cuba that were setting the stage for another crisis that would confront the Jews of this ship - antisemitism was growing in Cuba. The passengers held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, but a week before the St. Louis set sail, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru issued a decree that invalidated all recently issued landing certificates. Entry into Cuba would now require authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor. It would also now require the posting of a $500 bond, although this same bond was waived for American tourists. That amount of money was virtually insurmountable for most of the passengers, and its immediate effect and intent was obvious. In the days leading up to the arrival of the St. Louis, right-wing Cuban newspapers were having a field day fueling anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant animosity. Secretly, the Director-General of the Cuban immigration office had been selling landing certificates to the desperate immigrants at exorbitant prices. Although he would later be driven from office for the scandal that surfaced, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez amassed a personal fortune that made him a millionaire, all on the backs of those who faced the alternative of death at the hands of the Nazis.
The Great Depression had also affected Cuba, and many of Cuba’s citizens were ripe for far-right rhetoric that accused Jewish immigrants of taking their jobs. Cubans came to resent the large number of refugees that had already been permitted entry into their country. Nazi agents and Cuban right-wing movements fomented unrest over the issue by creating the false propaganda that claimed the immigrant Jews were Communists. Two Cuban newspapers, Diario de la Marina, owned by the influential Rivero family, and Avance, owned by the Zayas family, were behind the false propaganda that pushed the anti-Semitic ideology, and their ability to manipulate the ignorance of the uneducated masses was telling. These families had supported General Francisco Franco of Spain, who, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, had just overthrown the Spanish Republic. It was predictable, then, that these families would use their newspaper to foment unrest. Knowing that the ship was to set sail for Cuba, 40,000 Cubans attended a large, anti-Semitic rally in Havana on May 8th, sponsored by former Cuban President Grau San Martin. The slogan was “Fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.” The rally was even broadcast on the radio. The stage was set. The St. Louis arrived in Cuba on May 27th. What should have been a doorway to freedom and hope, was becoming the next stage in a tale of doom.
Fear & Dread
The excitement of completing the two-week journey, facing the door to a new life, one filled with hope, brought extra joy in having their luggage on deck and anxiously awaiting walking down that gangplank and into the arms of a welcoming and better future. But no one was being allowed to disembark. Instead, Cuban officials came aboard, smiling...lots of smiles. It was so easy for them to disengage from what they were doing, because the Jewish problem was not their problem. They were free to get back off that ship, and their lives would be unaffected by what they were about to do. The passengers kept hearing the words “Manana, manana,” “tomorrow, tomorrow.” How easy is it to put people off, to then turn away and hope that they and their problems just go away, as well. But, there would be no “tomorrow” for these passengers who had kept hope alive for two weeks only to now begin to feel the dread and horror that proved Hitler had not forgotten them, and the seas had not removed his satanic grip on their lives. Captain Schroeder announced that they would not be allowed to leave the ship. They would all have to wait. Fear and dread now replaced the joy and relief that had been so prevalent for the past two weeks.
Eventually, only 28 passengers were admitted. Of these, 22 were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas. One passenger attempted suicide and was taken off the ship and admitted to a hospital. The doors to Cuba were closed. The Jewish passengers were barred from entry. What lay behind them was Hitler and his merciless Nazis. They could not go back. What I find appalling is that the press around the world, including the United States, carried the story, and as sympathetic as the articles were worded, seemingly no one stepped forward to save anyone on that ship. On May 28th, Lawrence Berenson, an attorney representing the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization in America, arrived in Cuba with the express assignment of trying to obtain entry for the passengers of the St. Louis. If anyone was qualified to negotiate in Cuba, it was Berenson, since he had once been the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce. But his meetings with President Bru went nowhere. On June 2nd, President Bru order the St. Louis out of Cuban waters. Although the St. Louis had left Cuban waters, the negotiations continued, and Bru finally offered to let the passengers off the ship for a fee of $500 per person, to be paid by the Joint Distribution Committee. In the end, no compromise could be reached, and the “Voyage of the Damned” entered into its next chapter.
A Desperate Cable
Captain Schroeder piloted the ship so close to Florida that everyone could see the lights of Miami. I think he was deliberately buying time, hoping against hope. Some of the passengers aboard cabled President Roosevelt asking for help. At the time, the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly established quotas, and the German-Austrian quota of 27,370 had already been filled. There was a multi-year waiting list. To make matters worse, the Great Depression had so affected the lives of U.S. citizens that they, like the Cubans, feared the loss of jobs to immigrants. Even though Americans were anti-Hitler, the Great Depression had left them isolationist in their views, so it was easy for isolationist Republicans in the Congress to generate hostility toward immigrants. President Roosevelt was considering a third term, and helping the Jewish passengers onboard the St. Louis would have been politically inexpedient. President Roosevelt never responded to the cables from the St. Louis.
“Papa,” the young boy asked, “why are you sad?” “We are going back home. We will see Grandma and Grandpa,” he said with joyful anticipation. “No, my son,” the man sad with deepening sorrow in his voice, “They are not there anymore.” “Where have they gone, Papa,” said the young boy with alarm. “My son, they have gone with many others to a place where we will see them again someday. We will pray for them tonight as we always have, but our prayers now must also turn to us. I am afraid there is great sorrow in store for us, and only God can save us now.” On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis ran out of hope and set sail back to Europe. There was palpable sorrow onboard, many people openly crying. One man, who could no longer contain the fear and sorrow, screamed with anguish, slit his wrists and threw himself overboard to drown. Even this death was preferred to what they felt awaited them at the hands of Hitler once they arrived back in Europe.
While the St. Louis sailed toward Germany, Jewish organizations negotiated feverishly with four European governments to secure entry visas for the passengers. Great Britain took in 288, the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214, and 244 found temporary refuge in France. Sadly, 254 of these Jewish passengers would eventually fall into the hands of the Nazis and meet their deaths prematurely.
As I write this, I remember the first time I heard the story of the St. Louis, and I wondered how so many people could be so heartless to the plight of others. And, now, I live in a time when I completely see how people can behave when they think God is not watching. As butchers murder innocent men, women and children in Syria, we once again have political figures making anti-immigrant speeches, exploiting unfounded fears and ignorance, all for political gain. I am then reminded of the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, words that always make me proud:
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
It well behooves all of us to remember who we are, what we as a country stand for, and remember above all...at one time, we were immigrants, too.