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 time period can. How? It highlights a time 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 termination 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 again turned away).
Eventually, the ship docked in Antwerp, Belgium, and the passengers dispersed throughout the continent. However, many ended up in places soon controlled by Hitler's rule and found themselves in concentration camps, after coming so close to freedom on the St. Louis. In total, more than a quarter of the passengers who sought political asylum on the ship were felled by Hitler's regime.
Despite this turn of events, the US continued to maintain a federal stance of xenophobia against Jewish refugees for most of WWII. This occurred at the same time that 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 couldn't erase its previous stance or the story of the MS St. Louis and its 927 hopeful passengers disappear.
Those who survived the saga of the St. Louis fondly remember the beginning of the ill-fated journey. Though it was scary for many to leave behind all they had ever known, the luxuriousness of the ship, the kindness of its captain, Gustav Schröder, and the hope represented by their destination eased their anxieties. On board, there was a pool, a cinema, delicious food and time to pray. The bust of Hitler that was found on board was covered with a sheet.
Though their initial destination of Cuba represented a place of alien language, customs, and climate, it was the better alternative to the increasingly violent religious persecution they had been facing in Germany.
As they prepared to dock in Havana Harbor on May 27, 1939, those aboard remember their new-found optimism turning to a feeling of dread. Smiling Cuban officials boarded the ship, but they kept saying the same thing: "mañana, mañana, mañana," or "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 just 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 advocated in their favor, the passengers were turned away in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On June 17, 1931, the MS St. Louis officially docked in Antwerp, Belgium. France, Holland, and England agreed to take in a number of the refugees, but it wasn't enough to include all of the passengers. In total, 227 of the original 927 perished during the Holocaust.
Before creating the War Refugee Board in January 1944, Roosevelt's government rejected scores of Jews seeking political asylum out of fear that spies could be among their ranks.