The story of the St. Louis started in Hamburg, Germany but it soon became known around the world as it sparked a discussion about the response – of lack of it – of the international community to the fate of Jewish refugees. It demonstrated that refugees were not welcomed with open arms; rather they had to overcome many barriers that were placed in front of them as they tried to escape Nazism.

The St. Louis

The St. Louis was a German transatlantic liner that sailed from Hamburg to America. The company who owner the ship, the Hamburg-America Line, had financial difficulties, so in 1934 the company sold its majority shares to the Reich. The ship’s role changed from leisure liner to a ship that would transport refugees out of Germany. The voyage that the ship is most known for is its journey to Havana, Cuba, from Hamburg, Germany on 13th May 1939.


As a result of the increasing discrimination against and violence towards Jews in the Third Reich – especially the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 – many Jewish people were desperate to find ways to emigrate to safety. Some Jews found refuge in Britain and Palestine, while others gathered enough money together to purchase a ticket for a voyage on the St. Louis which would transport them to Cuba, where they hoped to then gain entry to the United States. There were 937 people who boarded the St. Louis on 13th May 1939. The majority of them were Jewish people who came from Germany, Eastern Europe, though some were stateless. Many of the refugees would not see their homes again. They had experienced years of persecution and although they began their voyage full of hope, that hope soon turned to fear and despair.

The Voyage

The scenes of departure resembled any other scenes of people about to travel to far-off shores, as people said goodbye to their loved ones, the passengers’ belongings were loaded on to the ship, the crew boarded, and flags were flown. However, these passengers were refugees leaving their homelands, and they did not know if they would return. Nor did they know what to expect when they reached Cuba. The captain of the ship was called Gustav Schröder, and he insisted that the crew should treat the refugees, who were paying for their voyage, like any other paying passenger. He also removed Hitler’s portrait from the ballroom and made sure that there was a place on the ship for Jewish worship.

‘My mother Chaja (third left), my sister Sonja (first right) and myself Gisela Knepel (first left) on the St. Louis, 1939.’

Political unrest

The Jewish refugees on board the ship had applied for US visas and hoped to gain entry to America after a short stay in Cuba. However, this was not to be. Before the ship even set sail, the political conditions in Cuba suggested that the refugees would not be received positively. The President of Cuba, Federico Laredo Bru, had decreed that the landing certificates held by the refugees were invalid. If the refugees wanted to disembark in Cuba, they would have to pay a $500 bond and obtain written authority from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor. The US State Department in Washington and the US consulate in Havana knew about the political conditions in Cuba, and that the arrival of Jewish refugees would be problematic. There was internal political unrest in Cuba at the time. Many people in Cuba were anxious about the threat posed to their jobs by immigration, a not untypical fear as many other countries around the world were concerned about competition for jobs. Their fears were stoked by right-wing and anti-Semitic groups in Cuba. Five days before the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, 40,000 Cubans gathered to protest against the plan to admit Jewish refugees. This rally was sponsored by a former Cuban president, Grau San Martin. There was also unrest in America, as some were fearful about the influx of refugees. In the summer of 1939, the Wagner-Rogers Bill which would have permitted the immigration of 20,000 Jewish refugee children was rejected by Congress. The American rescue efforts to save Jewish refugees were mainly organised by individuals or groups.

Arrival in Cuba

The St. Louis reached Cuba on 27th May 1939. Only 28 passengers disembarked from the shop, 22 were Jewish refugees, 4 were from Spain, and 2 were Cubans. The 22 Jewish refugees had valid US visas. But the other Jewish refugees remained on the ship. Another refugee disembarked after attempting to commit suicide and another refugee had died of natural causes on the journey to Cuba. The refugees were confined to the ship. Cuba denied them entry.

News travels

The passengers were stranded on the ship and this was soon picked up by newspapers in both America and Europe. However, even with this display of empathy towards the refugees many still did not want to admit them into their country. The Joint Distribution Committee, an American organisation, sent a representative called Lawrence Berenson to Cuba to help negotiate for the refugees to disembark in Havana. But his efforts came to nothing. On the 2nd of June 1939, the Cuban President ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuba.

What happened to the refugees?

When the ship left Cuban waters and sailed close to the American coast, some refugees sent cables to President Roosevelt pleading for him to intervene. But he never responded to the refugees’ pleas. The St. Louis was forced to sail back to Europe. With the help of the Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organisations, the refugees eventually obtained entry visas, but they would not find refuge in Cuba or America. Rather they would find refuge back in Europe.

Britain helped 288 refugees from the St. Louis, the Netherlands gave entry visas to 181 refugees, Belgium rescued 214 refugees, and France gave shelter to 224 refugees.

This event happened before the outbreak of the Second World War – did the refugees think that they would be safe in these host nations? 287 refugees who found refuge in Britain survived the war, but one died in 1940 in an air raid.

532 passengers took refuge in countries that were subsequently invaded by the Nazis during the Second World War. 278 survived the Holocaust, while 254 were murdered. However, 87 escaped before the Nazis invaded their host nation. Of the 254 who were murdered in the Holocaust, 84 had been admitted to Holland, 86 to France, and 84 to Belgium. 


Ogilvie, Sarah A. and Miller, Scott, Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust (The University of Wisconsin Press: London, 2006).

Goldsmith, Martin, Alex's Wake: The Tragic Voyage of the St. Louis to Flee Nazi Germany and a Grandson's Journey of Love and Remembrance (Da Capo Press: Boston, 2014). 

Thomas,  Gordon, and Morgan- Witts, MaxVoyage of the Damned: Voyage of the St.Louis (Hodder & Stoughton: New York, 2010).