The SS St. Louis


The Voyage of the SS St. Louis and the History leading up to its Departure


Many Holocaust survivors consider November 9-10, 1938, the night of Kristallnacht, to be the true beginning of the Holocaust. Kristallnacht was a two day rampage led by Nazi troops that destroyed 7,000 Jewish homes and businesses and hundreds of synagogues in Germany. Nazi troops arrested 30,000 people in Germany and killed 91 German Jews. Anti-Semitism in Germany had been prevalent for the first five years of Nazi rule, from 1933-1938. While living under religious persecution was not how any Jewish citizen of Germany wanted to live, leaving Germany during that period was not a common or affordable option. However, after Kristallnacht it became clear that anti-Semitism in Germany was not going to dissipate, it was only going to increase. Tens of thousands of German Jews began searching for ways to flee Germany. During this period, many countries had implemented immigration quotas which made leaving Germany, as a Jewish citizen, extremely difficult. The United States had shut its gates, claiming that their immigration quota for Eastern Europeans had long been filled. The Jewish people of Germany had nowhere to escape,even Israel (formerly Palestine) which was under British rule in 1938 would not allow any German Jews in.

Obtaining visas in Germany was not only extremely challenging due to the large amounts of people who crowded the foreign consulates but the cost was extensive. Only the wealthy could afford to leave Germany at this point, which was a very small number because most German-Jews had lost their jobs or gone out of business. Six months after Kristallnacht a steam ship, which was part of the Hamburg-American Line, waited for its’ next trip to depart from Hamburg Germany to Cuba. The eight decked ship had accommodations for four hundred first-class passengers at $800 Reichsmarks each, and five hundred tourist-class passengers at $600 Reichsmarks each. In addition there was a $230 fee which would cover the cost if anything were to happen, such as a return trip. The SS St. Louis provided hope for fewer than 1,000 German Jews to seek refuge in a new country. Families searched for enough money to send at least one family member aboard the ship, while others had outside relatives send money.

On May 13, 1939, 937 people boarded the SS St. Louis and 900 of them were German Jews. All of the passengers aboard the ship were under the impression that their tourist visas, which they had purchased from the Hamburg-American Line, would allow them to find refuge in Cuba until their American Visas were granted. There they would reunite with their families or start a new life.  Little did they know that just eight days before the ship set sailed, a new law was passed by Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru which altered the Cuban government's immigration law. Decree 937 altered the law requiring that all non-Cuban citizens must receive a written approval of the Cuban secretary of State and Labor and in addition make a payment of 500 peso bonds. When approaching Cuban waters, the captain of the ship, Gustav Schroeder, received the notice and was denied entry into Cuba. At this point the international community was aware of the SS St. Louis's situation; however the ship was alone with nowhere to dock. Although the U.S. State department and the American consulate in Havana as well as many Jewish organizations were aware of the situation no action was taken to find the 937 passengers a place to find refuge. Captain Schroeder took it upon himself to find his passengers a safe new home. He formed a passenger committee and they brainstormed every possibility together.



St. Louis

Boarding Pass




The SS St. Louis’ final Destination

After being at sea for over a month with nowhere to go, the ship finally found refuge. Captain Schroeder, the passenger committee on board and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) negotiated with world political leaders to temporarily accept passenger’s aboard the SS St. Louis. France, Great Britain, The Netherlands and Belgium allowed the passengers to temporarily seek refuge. On June 17, 1939 the ship was finally allowed to reach a destination and set down it’s anchor permanently in Antwerp. Sadly, as the Nazi regime began to expand into Western Europe in 1940, many of the passengers were again faced with the fears they were trying to escape. It is estimated that about 250 of the St. Louis passengers lost their lives during Nazi rule after they sought refuge in Western Europe.



Anti Semitism In Cuba during the arrival of the St. Louis

Due to the internal strife that plagued Cuba during this time the citizens did not support any effort by the Cuban government to allow those aboard the SS. St. Louis to land in Cuba. Cuba had been facing an economic depression and the 2,500 other Jewish refugees that resided in Cuba were seen as competitors in the job market. Cuba also faced its own anti-Semitism. There was a growing Cuban Nazi party which targeted Jews as the scapegoats for the growing conflicts inside of Cuba. During the time the SS St. Louis was scheduled to dock in Cuba, 40,000 people protested. The rally was led by former Cuban president Grau San Martin. He and his supporters protested the Jewish immigrants and shouted protests filled with animosity.

In Germany during the third Reicht the German Foreign Office and Propaganda Ministry, led by Joseph Goebbels used propaganda internationally to further the Nazi anti-Semitism goals. Goebbels hoped that other country’s refusal to absorb German Jews would increase global anti-Semitism. Media and other forms of propaganda were spread to countries such as Cuba, where Nazi parties had been established. 




Where was America during this Voyage?

On June 2, 1938 after a few weeks of failed negotiations with the Cuban Government, President Federico Laredo Bru officially ordered the SS St. Louis to leave Cuban territory. With nowhere to go Captain Schroeder and his small passenger committee decided to sail towards Miami, Florida. When the ship had reached close enough to the shore Schroeder cabled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking the U.S. government to find refuge for the passengers who were aboard the ship. Roosevelt never responded to Schroeder's cable. It had already been decided that the United States was going to observe the 1924 Immigration Act which strictly limited the number of immigrants the U.S. would allow. Due to the Third Reicht in Germany, the yearly quota of 27,370 for German-Austrian immigrants had already been filled. The State department sent the passengers a telegram informing them that in order to be permitted access into America they would have to "wait their turn" on a lengthy waiting list to obtain immigration visas.

The immigration waiting list was well over a several years wait. The SS St. Louis could not possibly wait for the passengers to obtain American Visas as the ship was not supplied not properly set up for long term residence. The U.S. State department explained that allowing 937 German immigrants into the country would deny visas to thousands of German-Jews who had previously applied and were still waiting.

The puzzling piece to this picture is where was President Franklin Roosevelt? Why wasn't he involved in public explanations for these serious decisions that were being made? Roosevelt denying the passenger's access to the United States was ultimately a death sentence to these people. With nowhere to go and a home country that was waiting in Hamburg to send them to concentration camps, Roosevelt lack of response clearly indicated that did not want to get involved in this act of humanity. He could have issued an executive order to admit additional refugees, which would have saved the lives of these passengers. Instead he chose to keep silent about the whole situation.




The Timeline of the SS St. Louis Voyage

extracted from


November 9-10, 1938
Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass")

January 24, 1939
Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering appoints Reinhard Heydrich to head the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. Heydrich is to rid the Reich of as many Jews as possible.

January 25
German Foreign Ministry issues circular "The Jewish Question as a Factor in Foreign Policy." The circular states that one goal of German policy will be to stimulate anti-Semitism worldwide.

March 18
U.S. Consul, in Havana, Cuba, Harold Tewell submits a confidential report entitled "European Refugees in Cuba," to the State Department. The report describes the situation of 2,500 Jewish refugees in Cuba, proposals to settle 25,000 European refugees there, and the growth of anti-Jewish and anti-refugee sentiments.

Fortune Magazine publishes a poll indicating that 83 percent of Americans oppose loosening immigration restrictions.

May 5
President of Cuba Laredo Bru’s Decree 937 invalidates Benitez landing certificates and sets stringent rules for immigration to Cuba.

May 8
A demonstration of 40,000 Cubans in Havana against Jewish immigration is sponsored by former President Grau San Martin.

May 13
St. Louis sails from Hamburg, Germany.

May 15
St. Louis arrives in Cherbourg, France, and departs the same day.

May 19
St. Louis passes the Azores islands.

May 27
St. Louis arrives in Havana harbor.

June 1
Lawrence Berenson, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, meets with President Bru in Havana.

June 2
St. Louis departs Havana, circles off the coast of Cuba.

June 3
St. Louis steams slowly between Havana and Miami.

June 4
St. Louis passes Miami going north, then turns south.

June 5
St. Louis passes Miami going south.

June 6
Between Miami and Havana, the St. Louis heads back toward Europe.

June 10-13
Great Britain agrees to admit 287 passengers, France 224, Belgium 214, and the Netherlands 181.

June 17
St. Louis journey ends at Antwerp, Belgium.