Weird History The Saga Of The St. Louis Reveals How The US Sent Jewish Refugees To Their Death  

Ryleigh Nucilli
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The saga of the MS St. Louis – a German ocean liner that set sail in 1939, filled with persecuted Jews seeking political asylum – is one that indicts the US in a way few other stories from the war years can. How? It clearly and heartbreakingly illustrates what it looked like when the US refused to accept Jewish immigrants – who were desperately fleeing the Holocaust – in fear they might actually be German spies. Also known as the "Voyage of the Damned," the journey of the St. Louis is one that took its passengers from joy to despair – and their eventual deaths in concentration camps – as it made its way first to Cuba (where it was turned away), then to the United States (where it was turned away), and finally to Canada (where it was turned away).

Eventually, the ship docked in Antwerp, Belgium, and the passengers dispersed throughout the continent. However, many ended up in places the Nazis soon controlled, and found themselves in death camps – after their tenure on a boat meant for freedom. In total, more than a quarter of the passengers who sought political asylum on the St. Louis were murdered by Hitler's regime.

Despite this heart-wrenching (and completely unnecessary) turn of events, the US continued to maintain a federal stance of xenophobia when it came to Jewish refugees for much of the war. And it's worth noting that, at the same time, Japanese-Americans were being interned in camps inside the US as a consequence of these same forces. In fact, it wasn't until January of 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB), which was tasked with rescuing endangered refugees. And, though this did result in the safe haven of many of those in peril, it didn't erase the stance that came before – nor did it make the sad story of the MS St. Louis and its 927 hopeful passengers disappear.

At First, The MS St. Louis Was A Jubilant Affair With Delicious Meals, Swimming, And A Covered-Over Bust Of Hitler


Those who survived the saga of the St. Louis fondly remember the beginning of the ill-fated journey. For many, though it was scary to leave all they knew behind, the luxuriousness of the ship, the kindness of its captain, Gustav Schröder, and the hope represented by their destination combined to make their anxieties fade away. There was a pool on board, a cinema, delicious food, time to pray, and even – thanks to Captain Schröder – the opportunity to cover over an image of Hitler in the main dining cabin. Though Cuba, their destination, represented a place of alien language, customs, and climate, it had to be better than the increasingly violent religious persecution they had been facing in Germany.

Then Cuba, The US, And Canada All Turned The Refugees Away – Turning Their Journey Into 'The Voyage Of The Damned'


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As they prepared to dock in Havana Harbor on May 27, 1939, those aboard remember their new-found optimism turning into something else entirely – a feeling of dread. Smiling Cuban officials boarded the ship, but they kept saying the same thing: "mañana, mañana, mañana," tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. But tomorrow would never come for the majority of passengers aboard the St. Louis. Though the passengers had already purchased legal visas, the Cuban government had decided only three weeks before to invalidate those same visas, meaning they were no longer considered legal documents. In total, 29 passengers were able to disembark in Cuba.

The rest sailed on to Florida where they were denied entry by President Roosevelt on the advice of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Then, though clergy vehemently protested in their favor, the passengers were turned away in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Its Return To The European Continent Meant Death For Many Of The Passengers


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On June 17, 1931, the MS St. Louis officially docked in Antwerp, Belgium. For their part, France, Holland, and England all agreed to take on a number of the refugees, but it wouldn't be enough for all those aboard. In total, 227 of the original 927 were killed during the Holocaust.  

This Wasn't The Only Time The US Turned Away Refugees During The War


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Before creating the War Refugee Board in January 1944, Roosevelt's government sent rejected scores of Jews seeking political asylum out of fear that spies could be among their ranks.