The Voyage of the Damned

Fleeing persecution in Germany, hundreds of Jews flee Hitler's Germany and arrive in the Americas to start a new, safer life – or so they thought.

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The rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party made life for Jewish people in Germany treacherous.

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Legal rights were stripped and property confiscated, while anti-Semitic propaganda stirred many to violence – nearly 100 died and thousands were incarcerated during the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom of late 1938. Fearful of worse to come, many Jews looked to flee.

HOPE TO DESPAIR

On 13 May 1939, luxury ocean liner the SS St Louis sailed from Hamburg, carrying 937 Jewish men, women and children on their way to Cuba and then, hopefully, America.

They all held valid visas, which were expensive and rare due to restrictive quotas on refugees. Several on board had either left family behind in Germany or had been held in German concentration camps. They were offered freedom if they promised to leave and never return.

Passengers stare out from St Louis, unsure of the future © Getty Images
Passengers stare out from St Louis, unsure of the future © Getty Images
 

Still, the two-week voyage was comfortable, even cheerful. Captain Gustav Schröder ordered his crew to treat passengers with dignity (a far cry from what they were used to), and allowed Friday-night prayers, during which he let Hitler’s portrait be taken down.

So it was with optimism that the emigrants glimpsed Havana on 27 May. Yet in Cuba, anti-Jewish feeling had spread – coupled with a reluctance to accept more refugees – leading the government to invalidate visas and prohibit all but a handful to disembark.

The refugees are ordered back onto the St Louis in Havana, while armed Cuban soldiers supervise from the shore © Getty Images
The refugees are ordered back onto the St Louis in Havana, while armed Cuban soldiers supervise from the shore © Getty Images
 

For a week, more than 900 were trapped on board, scared, tense, emotional and desperate.

One man slit his wrists and jumped into the harbour just so he would be taken to a Havana hospital.

When negotiations between Schröder, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Cubans failed, the St Louis was told to leave. Schröder turned the ship to the Florida coast, only to be met with further refusals from American and Canadian authorities. With a heavy heart, he ordered a return to Europe in early June.

An indiscernible drama of human concern played on us as we sailed into the twilight of uncertainty.
Josef Joseph, Passenger Committee Chairman of the St Louis

Weeping passengers stalked the deck, believing they were destined to return to Germany. “What started as a voyage of freedom,” read one diary entry, “is now a voyage of doom”. Rather than take the 900 Jews in his charge back to Germany, Captain Gustav Schröder planned to wreck the St Louis off the British coast to force a rescue mission.

But ongoing negotiations finally bore results, and refuge was offered by Britain, Holland, France and Belgium. The ship docked at Antwerp with everyone safe – for now.

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World War II broke out later that year, extending Hitler’s reach over Europe. During the horrors of the Holocaust, 254 St Louis passengers would perish, but that number could have been so much higher.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of History Revealed.