Remembering The “S.S. St. Louis”


May 27, 1939, qualifies as a “day that shall live in infamy” in Franklin Roosevelt’s famous phrasing, except that he was deeply involved in this particular infamy, and thus would have been unlikely to so describe it.

On May 13, the S.S. St. Louis had sailed from Hamburg, Germany on a route Havana, Cuba. The ship was carrying 937 passengers, most of them German Jews escaping their escalating persecution under the Third Reich. Kristallnacht had hit the German Jewish community just six months earlier, killing 91 Jews and destroying hundreds of business and homes. The Final Solution was just months away from being aggressively implemented.

The official destination of the St. Louis was Cuba, but the real objective of the desperate refugees was to reach the U.S., Land of the Free and the Brave, as George M. Cohan put it. They had applied for U.S. visas and were only going to stay in Cuba until they could enter the United States legally. Cuba definitely did not want them. There had been a huge anti-Semitic demonstration in Havana before the ship set sail, and rumors were spread in the German press that the Jews on board were Communists.

The St. Louis arrived in Havana on May 27. The 28 pasngers with valid visas were allowed to disembark, but he Cuban government refused to admit the nearly 900 others.The ship’s captain argued with Cuban officials for a week, but to no avail. Finally, the St. Louis sailed to Florida, but was not permitted to dock; passengers attempted to cable FDR begging for refuge, but he did not deem their appeal worthy of a response. Roosevelt’s State Department, now known to be a nest of anti-Semites, stated in a telegram that asylum-seekers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

Finally, the St. Louis tried to dock in Canada, but had no more success. Frederick Blair, Canada’s director of immigration, said, “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.

The Flying Dutchman-like odyssey of the ship continued, as it returned to Europe, arriving in Antwerp, Belgium on June 17. Jewish rescue organizations secured entry visas for the refugees in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, so the majority who had been cruelly rejected by the United States survived the Holocaust, though 254 did not. That the death toll was not higher, however, is just moral luck. The Roosevelt Administration knew that it might have been condemning all 900 to deaths in concentration camps. It just didn’t care.


Source: The Holocaust Encyclopedia

12 thoughts on “Remembering The “S.S. St. Louis”

  1. “The Roosevelt Administration knew that it might have been condemning all 900 to deaths in concentration camps.”

    Did it, though?

    There were concentration camps in Germany at that time, yes. There were also sometimes Jews that were sent there, especially if they were political dissidents. The ante ramped up after Kristallnacht, to be sure, but only enough to try to persuade the Jews to leave Germany (and with laws that made it nearly impossible for them to do so, such as the Law for the Protection of Reich Currency that essentially stripped Jews of any money they had, making them unattractive immigrants to any country during a global economic depression). No, concentration camps were not pleasant places to be before the war and, yes, sometimes inmates died in them.

    However, the systematic destruction of the Jewish population, including women and children, was not German policy until after WWII began. Most certainly, the U.S. government knew by 1942, at the latest, that the Germans were wiping out Jewish populations irrespective of age and gender, but I do question whether FDR or his admittedly-bigoted State Department knew that refusing the St. Louis was tantamount to condemning the passengers to certain death.

    They probably didn’t consider this situation to be the U.S.’s problem, stuck to the rule of the law and were relieved that the passengers ended up in other European countries, never dreaming that Germany would overrun a country like France so easily. Does it excuse turning away the ship? Of course not, but it’s easy for us to look back in hindsight and think we know what anyone knew or should have known about the fate of the Jews.

    • I don’t buy it. The attitude of the Roosevelt administration to the looming Holocaust was willful ignorance. The Jews knew they were going to be targeted with increasing brutality, and that the objective was to make them leave, or stay and be either enslaved or killed. The rhetoric used against Jews in 1939 was pretty menacing.

      This is relevant, from a 2019 EA post:

      1. A great President in many ways, but also a terrible human being. Watch the culture and the news media bury this. “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust,” a new book (published in September) reveals new archival evidence that shows FDR’s callous and bigoted treatment of European Jews prior to and during the Holocaust. I know the author, Dr. Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, as a result of his assisting The American Century Theater with several productions that involved the Jews and Israel.

      The book’s revelations are not shocking to anyone who had looked at the evidence objectively even before this new material, but Roosevelt is a hallowed Democrat Party icon, and it has been, and I assume will continue to be, resistant to any effort to inform the public of this horrific moral and ethical failing, one of many FDR was guilty of inflicting. From a review:

      The question of why Roosevelt dismissed Jews, can be found in FDR’s vision of America as white, Protestant and dismissive of immigrants. That view are evident in columns of FDR published in a Georgia newspaper in the early 1920’s opposing Japanese American immigration, intermarriage and inability to assimilate in the US. That view culminated in FDR’s Executive Order 9066 during WWII interning 120,000 American Japanese citizens. The new book finds parallelism in FDR views of Jews. FDR’s statement following the horrific Nazi Pogrom on November 9, 1938 simply called it “unbelievable”, without identifying the perpetrators and victims, Nazis and German Jews. Between 1933 and 1938, FDR maintained cordial relations with Germany not issuing one public statement critical of Hitler’s Nazi Regime. The book exposes the calumnies of the FDR Administration opposing and undermining the anti-Nazi boycott mounted by Jewish and other groups permitting evasion of labelling of German products to avoid country of origin.

        • I didn’t know it existed, frankly. I’ve run into Rabbi Wise in my other readings of the period. I’m not sure I agree that FDR would have knowingly sent people to their deaths, but I’m willing to keep an open mind.

          I’ve just put the book on hold at my local library. Your recommendation means a lot and I will read it. Thanks.

      • I finished the book today. Thank you for recommending it. It contained a great deal of helpful information that clarified some of the debates of the past that have never seemed to have a satisfactory answer, such as the practicality of transporting refugees during wartime and bombing near concentration camps.

        I appreciated that Dr. Medoff dealt thoughtfully and honestly with his protagonist, Dr. Wise, as a flawed person entranced by the special relationship he assumed that he had with the President, not accepting that he was simply falling for the same Roosevelt charm that had led many others to believe they had the President’s support when they didn’t. The fact that Rabbi Wise didn’t want to harm the Roosevelt administration by calling out unsatisfactory efforts to help the Jews of Europe because he supported the President’s agenda in so many other areas reminded me briefly of how Gloria Steinem and the other feminists threw Bill Clinton’s accusers under the bus because they got a President who supported abortion.

        The chilling comment by one of Wise’s former students about how he wondered how many Jews were suffering because Wise enjoyed being able to call the President, “Franklin”, really jumped out at me. The man thought access and influence were the same thing and, as you have pointed out often, made the unethical choice to fail to step down when his age and health made it difficult to be the advocate he should have been.

        I also found the Palestinian homeland controversy fascinating as it brought up the belief, even then, that flooding the Mandate with European Jews might provoke the Arabs (as establishing a Jewish state in 1948 most certainly did), despite the fact that not admitting the Jews didn’t seem to bring the Arabs any closer to the Allies (In fact, Albanian Muslims formed a special S.S. unit during the war). We don’t know what would have happened if the Jews had been admitted to Palestine. It could have resulted in violence, death at the hands of resentful Arabs instead of racially-bigoted Nazis, or not. During a time of war, would the Allies have been able to protect Jewish refugees from being murdered by their Palestinian neighbors? Would Israel have eventually been established anyway? Interesting questions.

        However, with regard to your statement in the entry, ” The Roosevelt Administration knew that it might have been condemning all 900 to deaths in concentration camps. It just didn’t care.”, I still disagree. It didn’t care to help the refugees, sure. But I do not believe that it thought it was condemning all of them to be killed in concentration camps. While some Jews were arrested during Kristallnacht, most were released after being encouraged to leave the country. In early 1939, Jews did not have happy lives in Germany, but there was no program or policy that involved arresting every Jewish person, including women and children, putting them in camps and killing them. That such a policy was put in place once the war started and, as Dr. Medoff pointed out, was then made clear to the Roosevelt administration that it was happening does not mean that FDR could have or should have known it would happen eventually when he refused to help the “St. Louis”.

        Perhaps, we can agree to disagree on this point?

        I do thank you again for the recommendation.

  2. Ironic Cuba was purportedly the destination for many, many Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. One of my best Cuban buddies says any Spanish name ending is ‘z’ is Jewish.

    I’m surprised so many survived in France, Holland and Belgium. So many Jews were shipped to Auschwitz from those countries.

  3. I saw “Voyage of the Damned” many years ago which was based on the voyage of the St. Louis. Although inaccurate in many details it was a reasonably good Hollywood blockbuster. I wonder if the captain really planned to beach the ship on the shore of S.E. England to save the passengers.

  4. Just to play Devil’s advocate here, I think what was done should be placed in the context of its time. The United States had become very isolationist after WW1. Just under 117,000 Americans had perished trying to save Europe and, though they won the war, Wilson lost the peace. America had just spent a decade and a half watching tyrants arise in Europe, and they wanted no part of any of it. America specifically refused to give any military aid to the outnumbered (although high-performing) Finns as the Soviets defeated them in human wave attacks, and they did and said not a thing when Soviet bayonets shepherded the Baltic states into the USSR. Oh, and when the USS Panay was attacked by Japanese bombers in China, the first reaction was “what’s a US ship doing over there in the first place?” It would be a year before France would fall, and everyone had faith in the Maginot Line. It would be more than a year before the Battle of Britain would start, and even when it did, FDR would initially refuse P-40 Warhawks to the UK due to restrictions imposed by Congress. The American people were mostly hoping Hitler and Stalin would just destroy each other and that would be that. No one wanted a second war, and no one wanted to get involved in any of the problems the dictators were causing. FDR may have been dismissive of the Jews here, but isn’t it possible “reading the room” figured into it?

  5. Just this week I saw Voyage of the Damned.

    The film’s thesis was that the Reich used the St. Louis as a large-scale propaganda op: while the ship was en route, the Reich released reams of anti-Semitic propaganda in the Americas. The goal of the op, argues the film, was to show the world that no one wanted to take in Jewish refugees – and thus make the world complicit in the Reich’s planned genocide.

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