The Voyage of the St. Louis

On May 13, 1939 a ship carrying 937 passengers left Germany. The goal was to arrive in Cuba where they had landing certificates and so sure were they that some had already sent messages to relatives stating their safe arrival. Yet this was not to be. The Cuban government refused to honor the landing permits and had, in fact, invalidated them the week before the ship left Germany. The shipping line was privy to this knowledge but not the ship’s captain who tried in vain to negotiate with the island country. Cuba asked for a bribe of $500 per person to allow the landing and eventually that price went up to $1 million to accept the ship full of people.  

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was an organization set up to aid relief to Jews in Europe. They were in a bind since paying the bribe would leave future refugees also open to the same situation. While the radio and newspaper gave daily updates on the event, appeals were made to the State Department. They opted not to intervene. A telegram to President Roosevelt was also left unanswered; nothing came from the White House. Finally, a negotiated price of $453,000 was obtained but required within 24 hours. It was impossible to do and so the St. Louis set sail. It sailed along the Florida coast and moved past Miami. U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom. It had to return to Europe.

There was some compassion for the frustrated passengers. Once they arrived at the continent four countries agreed to divide up the passengers into four groups who were invited to stay in the country. These were France, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. Though this saved the Jews for a time from German oppression, the Nazi army eventually conquered all but England. While 288 passengers were safe in their country the remainder faced threatening circumstances. Of the 937 on the ship, 250 died in the Holocaust (Berenbaum 53-54).

Certain questions arise when working through this issue.  Why did this happen?  What circumstances drove such policies that led to the return of refugees fleeing pre-Holocaust Europe?  And since much of this took place off the shores of Florida, what impact did I have on the state and our relationship with its Jewish population?