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"The St. Louis Is Close to Cuba"

Saint Louis is close to Cuba, Havaner Leben, newspaper article 1939
Havaner Leben, Vida Habanera, Vol. 7, No. 465, Havana, Cuba, June 3, 1939

The Nazi project to reshape Germany to fit Nazi ideas about race and national unity excluded many people from the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"). Jewish people became the Nazi regime's primary targets.1 Many Jewish people chose to flee Nazi persecution.2 In the aftermath of the so-called Anschluss (the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938), the pace of Jewish emigration from the German Reich increased. The Europe-wide refugee crisis that followed this Nazi expansion—with the numbers only increasing over the next two years—prompted President Roosevelt to convene an international conference to deal with the crisis. In July 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort town of Évian, in what became known as the Evian conference. Although the conference presumably gathered with the intention of finding safe havens for Jewish refugees, it failed to create an effective solution. Hardly a single country agreed to admit substantial numbers of Jewish refugees.3

The violence and terror of Kristallnacht in November 1938 made many Jews even more anxious to flee the Reich. Thousands of Austrian and German Jewish parents sent their children abroad in a series of rescue efforts known as the Kindertransport.4 But even if many Jews were ready to leave Germany, they had nowhere to go. It was extremely difficult for a German Jew to obtain a visa or other permission to enter another country.5

The fate of the St. Louis, recounted in this June 1939 article from Havana's local Jewish newspaper,6 is an illustration of the hopeless situation of many Jews trying to leave Germany in this period. On May 13, 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis departed Hamburg, via Cherbourg, with close to a thousand passengers. Most of them were Jewish refugees who were in the process of securing US visas. The ship was bound for Havana, and the majority of passengers had not yet received their US visas and were planning on waiting for them in Cuba.

The featured article appeared in a Yiddish-language newspaper published in Havana on June 3, 1939. The St. Louis had reached the Havana harbor on May 27, but the Cuban authorities refused to admit anyone without a permit to land in the United States. Only 22 Jews with US visas were permited to disembark. The article describes the growing despair of the passengers and the frustration of their loved ones waiting for them in the Havana port.

After the US government also refused to admit the refugees, American Jewish organizations managed to negotiate with four governments to take the ship's passengers. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe in June. Great Britain took 288 passengers; the Netherlands 181; Belgium 214; and France 224. Of these passengers who returned to Europe, 254 were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust.

To learn more about policies targeting Jews during the first several years of Nazi rule, see the Experiencing History collection, Exclusion of Jews in Nazi Germany.

For more primary sources related to Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany, see the Experiencing History items, Dominican Republic Settlement Association, "Sosua: Haven in the Caribbean," and "As an Emigrant in Shanghai."

For an in depth assessment of America's response under Roosevelt to the interwar Jewish refugee crisis and, subsequently, the Holocaust, see Richard Breitman and Alan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). 

For a history of the Kindertransport, see Vera K. Fast, Children's Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011).

To learn more about German Jewish life and the trials of emigration, see Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). While it was extremely difficult for Jews in Germany to obtain immigrant visas to the United States, the flow of Jewish immigrants kept coming. Between 1938 and 1941, more than 71,000 self-identified Jewish refugees arrived in New York. The Nazi regime officially closed the borders for emigration in October 1941. 

Havana lebn, or "The Havana Life," in Yiddish. 

Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru (1936-1940).

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the U.S.-based Jewish relief agency.

An attorney representing the Joint Distribution Committee and the Honorary Counsel for the National Coordinating Committee for Aid to Refugees and Migrants Coming from Germany (NCC).  Berenson was also a former president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce. He had connections to Fulgencio Batista, then chief of the Cuban armed forces with significant influence over the President (Batista would be elected as President of Cuba himself in 1940).

Cecilia Razovsky Davidson (1886-1968), an immigration and refugee relief worker. In the 1920s, Razovsky served as Executive Secretary for the National Council of Jewish Women's (NCJW) Department of Immigrant Aid, and spent time in Cuba assisting refugees there. Razovsky Davidson subsequently served as Secretary for the Joint Clearing Bureau, under the auspices of the Joint, and in 1934 she was appointed as Executive Director of a new National Coordinating Committee for Aid to Refugees and Emigrants Coming from Germany (NCC). In June 1939, the NCC merged into the National Refugee Service, or NRS. It was in this capacity that she went to Cuba to negotiate on behalf of the St. Louis passengers. After the war, Razovsky Davidson served as a Resettlement Supervisor for the displaced persons (DP) camps in Europe.

Referring to the government of the Domican Republic. 

HAPAG stands for Hamburg Amerikanische Paketfahrt Aktien-Gesellschaft, also known as the Hamburg-Amerika line: the company that owned the St. Louis.

On May 30, passenger Max Loewe had attempted suicide. He was brought to the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana. After recuperation he was sent to Great Britain to join some of the other St. Louis passengers.

John Lewis (1880-1969), president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and a founder of the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO, later Congress of Industrial Organizations). Lewis supported the Communist line at the onset of World War II and advocated a non-interventionist U.S. policy.

George Mundelein (1872-1939), served as Archbishop of Chicago from 1915 until his death in 1939.

The Orduña and the Flandre were two smaller ships with Jewish refugees that also left for Cuba in May 1939 (the Orduña from Britain and the Flandre from France) and, like the St. Louis, were not admitted.

In the U.S.-controlled zone. Most of these immigrants were later admitted to the United States.

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The Saint Louis is Close to Cuba

And Waits for the Outcome of the Negotiations in Cuba and Santo Domingo

As soon as the ship "St. Louis" left the Havana harbor yesterday after a special order from the President,1 the Joint2 and its American representatives, Mr. Lawrence Berenson3 and Mrs. Razovsky,4 began to negotiate further with the Cuban government on the matter of admitting the refugees into Cuba.

At the same time, it was announced yesterday evening that Santo Domingo5 is prepared to admit the 907 immigrants from the "St. Louis."

Before this issue went to print we received confirmation that the negotiations with the Cuban government are continuing further and there are prospects [for an agreement]. With regards to the proposal from Santo Domingo, it is a question of admitting only those immigrants who can pay five hundred dollars to the government, as the laws of that country demand. The government in Santo Domingo is now seeking to contact the captain of the "SS St Louis" regarding this matter.

In the afternoon we will have a special audience with the Consul in Santo Domingo, and all those who are interested can inquire about the results by calling the editorial offices of "Havana Life."

The "SS St. Louis" is still located very close to Cuban shores because it is waiting for the final result of the negotiations with the governments of Cuba and Santo Domingo. We have been told that the negotiations with Santo Domingo are being led by the United States. 

In the Presidential Palace

In the last issue we reported about the negotiations that were conducted up until Wednesday morning. The "SS St. Louis" was discussed at the session of the Cabinet of Ministers in the morning, but no decision was made. After the meeting, the President’s secretary stated that the President of the Republic maintained the opinion that the law must be executed. The President did not want to receive anyone. Thursday morning the President received the representative of "HAPAG,"6 Herr Klausing, and his attorney, together with Lawrence Berenson, but he remained firm in his opinion that the ship must leave the harbor. At the same time, he promised that as soon as the ship left Cuban waters he would be prepared to continue negotiations regarding the issue. A decree was immediately signed Thursday morning that ordered HAPAG to sail the "St. Louis" out of Cuba, and if the ship line refused to do this immediately, a Cuban warship would escort the "St. Louis" out. This special decree was signed so that public order in the harbor would not be further disturbed by the suicides of despairing immigrants.7

The state of the immigrants on the ship

On Wednesday afternoon the immigrants on the ship waited for the official resolution from the Cabinet of Ministers. But since such a resolution was not passed, a panic broke out among them because they thought they would be expelled [from Cuban waters] in the middle of the night. The editorial offices of "Havana Life" established contact with the [Presidential] palace, where we learned that the negotiations were moving forward and that the President would receive Berenson on Thursday morning. This news was immediately sent out by telegram to the immigrants of the "St. Louis," in the name of the editor of "Havana Life," S.M. Kaplan, and the AP correspondent David Utiansky. These telegrams calmed them a little bit.

The Joint representatives on the ship 

Thursday afternoon, as soon as the decree was announced that the ship must leave the harbor that same day, a representative from the Joint went on the ship and clarified the situation for the immigrants: that the President had assured Berenson that if the ship left Cuban waters he would continue to negotiate with him and hear out his plans regarding bringing the immigrants into Cuba, where most had relatives.   The immigrants were calmed only with much effort because the news that the ship must leave the Cuban harbor threw them into a state of great despair. 

But the ship left the harbor on Friday morning because it had to take in water, food, etc. Two representatives from the Joint, Mr. Goldsmith and Mr. Garfinkel, once more boarded the ship and held a meeting with the immigrants. The representatives from the Joint explained the situation to them for more than an hour and tried to convince them that the negotiations with the Cuban government would be continuing. The Joint representatives assured them that the ship would in no case go back to Germany and asked for all to remain calm and not to attempt to commit suicide. This quieted them again to a certain extent.

The ship departs

At 11:30 am the ship began to move. It was encircled with the boats of the port police and navy, which were prepared to rescue all those who attempted to throw themselves into the water. The representatives from the Joint also accompanied the chief of the port police on his boat, and this slightly encouraged the immigrants. As the Joint representatives reported to us, the delegate from Aduana [Sp. Customs], Israel del Rio, and the Sergeant Movilio displayed great sympathy for the immigrants and comforted them.

Heartbreaking scenes

Despite the consolations of the Joint representatives, the immigrants on the ship sobbed with bitter tears and exhibited signs of the greatest despair. Their relatives on shore broke down, too. When they saw the ship leaving the harbor, all of their hopes that they had had these last seven days that the ship was in the harbor were shattered: their hopes to see their most dear and beloved, their wives and children, fathers and mothers. Heartbreaking scenes played out. Men wailed like small children and women completely broke down. It was a sad and tragic moment. The immigrants waited at the harbor until the ship dropped out of view. . .

The "St. Louis" is located 20 miles from Havana

As soon as the "SS St. Louis" left the Havana harbor, negotiations began once again with the Cuban government. The ship did not depart directly to Germany but rather drifted about 15 to 20 miles from the Havana shore. This news was reported by the Joint committee, which is conducting the negotiations with the assistance of Mr. Berenson and Mrs. Razovsky. This report was confirmed yesterday at twelve o'clock at night when the Immigrant Committee received a telegram from the "SS St. Louis," which said that the ship was located 20 miles from the Cuban shore.

Interventions on behalf of the refugees

Over the course of the past several days, all means have been brought to bear so that the immigrants can disembark in Cuba. Important Cuban figures have taken an interest in the matter and also the most important American organizations and figures have intervened on behalf of the unfortunate refugees of the "SS St. Louis." The labor leader John Lewis8 intervened from America, as did Chicago Archbishop Mundelein.9  The Havana Archbishop also spoke with the President of the Republic on behalf of the refugees. It is because of these and a whole set of other reasons that the Joint Committee is so optimistic with regards to the negotiations that are continuing up to this moment with the government, so that the refugees can once again come into Cuba and meet their families and relatives.

The Orduña and Flandre10

It is not yet clear what will happen with the immigrants from the Orduña and Flandre. But as far as we know, some of the immigrants from the Orduña were able to disembark in Panama.11 Work is also being done so that the others can get off in Chile. The immigrants of the "Flandre," who should arrive here Monday from Mexico, requested assistance from local organizations via telegram. The Joint is also doing all that is possible for the refugees from the two ships in question. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Havaner Leben, Vida Habanera, Vol. 7, No. 465, Havana, Cuba, June 3, 1939
Date Created
June 3, 1939
Author / Creator
Vida Habanera
Havana, Cuba
Document Type Newspaper Article
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