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Recalling the Lessons of the Voyage of the MS St. Louis



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On November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth killed at least 91 Jews, destroyed 267 Jewish synagogues and at least 7,500 Jewish businesses throughout Germany, Austria and Sudetenland in an attack known as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” They also damaged Jewish cemeteries, schools and community centers and arrested about 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps.  The regime released most of the individuals they arrested within three months, but they did so only if the men promised to begin the process of emigrating from Germany with their families.[1] While in the camps, those arrested were routinely starved, beaten, tortured, forced to labor under inhuman conditions and otherwise treated despicably.

Kristallnacht signaled a violent turn by Hitler’s Reich against a share of Germany’s own citizenry and yielded the sad lesson that most Germans were willing to stand by as the regime undertook the Holocaust. Taking its cue, the government did so thereafter and with increasing ferocity, brutality and cruelty.  Nations throughout the world commemorated the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht last month with solemn ceremonies. The principal aim of nearly all of those events was to remind those attending or learning of them of the empty and ignorant hatred and scapegoating that animated Kristallnacht’s systematic assault on human rights and dignity, so as to ensure that nothing like that pogrom would ever occur again.

A share of the men arrested during the Night of Broken Glass learned early in 1939 that the Cuban government was willing to offer tourist landing visas to German Jews who applied and paid the equivalent of $300 per family member. A group of families applied, received visas and booked passage on the M.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner slated to depart Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, with the German government’s surprising support. Most of the families who purchased tickets for the St. Louis had also received quota numbers for later (certain) emigration to the United States. The cruise ship sailed from Germany for Havana on its departure date with 937 Jewish men, women and children aboard.[2] All of them were fleeing the deepening crisis and persecution occurring in their native nation. Indeed, as noted, many of the men on board had already been brutalized in Nazi concentration camps following Kristallnacht.

The ship, sympathetically captained by Gustav Schröder, arrived safely in Cuba on May 28, but, was not allowed to dock for several days. As matters evolved, the passengers were caught in a power struggle between the head of that nation’s military, Fulgencio Batista (later the authoritarian leader of the country), and its president, Laredo Bru, regarding the corruption occurring in the nation’s immigration agency, which had, perversely, resulted in issuance of the visas. In addition, anti-semitism and concerns about refugees “taking jobs” was at a fever pitch among the population at the time as Cuba struggled to emerge from the Depression. Even as Captain Schröder personally sought an audience with Bru to ask that he allow the passengers entry, the president ordered the ship to leave Cuban waters on June 2, 1939, “pending further negotiations.”[3] Without other options, Schröder sailed for Miami, Florida, but U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats and aircraft prevented even an illegal landing in the United States. While the passengers personally appealed to President and Mrs. Roosevelt as well as to relevant American government officials, the United States did not accede to their repeated entreaties to enter the country. Thereafter, the Canadian government, led by its privately racist Prime Minister, William Mackenzie King, and officially through its hardline Deputy Immigration Minister, Frederick Blair, publicly denied the refugees asylum. Blair glibly opined as he did so that, “the line must be drawn somewhere.”[4]

With limited supplies and fuel, Schröder had no choice but to return to Europe. He noted in his diary, “It is as if the St. Louis had vanished from the world, and now had to leave this hostile planet.”[5] As the Captain turned his ship about, the U.S.-based representatives of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were negotiating furiously with several European governments to accept some share of the passengers aboard. Eventually, four countries granted at least temporary asylum to nearly all of the group, which was allowed to dock in Antwerp. England took in 288; France, 224; Belgium, 214, and the Netherlands accepted 181. Twenty-eight of the passengers were allowed to remain in Cuba; one sought to commit suicide while the ship was anchored off Cuba and he remained in the hospital in Havana when the St. Louis departed (he later joined his family in Great Britain), and one passenger died en route from Hamburg. However, the Nazi invasion of western Europe in May of 1940 saw Belgium, France and the Netherlands fall under Nazi control. As a result, the United States Holocaust Museum has reported that 27 percent, or 254 of the St. Louis passengers were murdered in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.[6]  This total constituted a moral and ethical travesty created first by the German government and then permitted, indeed ensured, by the Cuban, American and Canadian governments, respectively.

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian filmmaker and journalist now living in Canada, developed and directed in 1995 what is now regarded as the definitive documentary concerning the ship’s doomed journey.[7] As a part of his effort, he brought together a share of the remaining surviving St. Louis passengers on another cruise ship off Miami to share their recollections of the passage they had taken as children. One of those survivors, Philip Freund, captured thoughtfully and dispassionately why the ship’s passengers were denied asylum in the United States, which few doubt could easily have absorbed them and which did in fact later take in a share of them between June of 1939 and May 1940 under its quota system (for which, ironically, those individuals were already enrolled when denied access when off the Florida coast): 


The Depression was still underway, [there was] fear of economic deprivation for those who were working and [fear of] loss of jobs and competition. We have to realize [too] that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was running for reelection. He did not want to go out of his way to make political enemies out of any group. And therefore, the most expedient thing to do was to turn away 937 innocent people and let them suffer their fate.[8]


In truth, the Republican Party had gained seats in the 1938 congressional election with an anti-immigration platform and there was little support among Southern Democrats in the nation’s legislature too to change the extant 1924 quota-driven immigration law to allow additional newcomers into the United States.  Freund was surely correct about the role of fear among many Americans at the time, both of economic change and of the “other,” that had been exploited in the dark years since the crash of 1929 by many would-be leaders, including infamously, the anti-Semitic demagogue Father Charles Coughlin.[9]

I share this deeply sad historical account not only to commemorate it and remind readers of the costs for freedom and human rights of demagogic othering, but also because what happened to those aboard what one newspaper labeled, “The Ship of the Walking Dead,” clearly arose from the same attitudes with which too many in the United States today are treating refugees and immigrants. Those U.S. citizens have been led to their ill-placed animus by President Donald Trump, who, like many demagogues before him, has mendaciously and continually scapegoated immigrants and refugees as architects of a non-existent crime wave and as acting repeatedly to undermine Americans by “taking” their jobs. More broadly, He has persistently told citizens they should fear others of all sorts, including Jews, and in recent days he has deployed military troops to the U.S. border with Mexico, “to protect our national security” against the “threat” constituted by the 900 or so unarmed men, women and children fleeing persecution and violence occurring in their Central American home nations.[10]

In fact, Trump’s action was a partisan stunt and misuse of the military designed to elicit fear and anger among his supporters as the U.S. mid-term election drew near. As a matter of operating reality, the United States has well established processes by which to evaluate claims for asylum. Rather than work to ensure that those institutions and structures could function appropriately, however, the President chose instead to scapegoat an innocent population to fan fears among a share of Americans. In lieu of seeking to assist the affected nations with overcoming the conditions driving a share of their citizens to such desperate action, Trump has elected to lie to Americans about those seeking refuge and to contend they should be treated as animals, criminals or worse.

Such fearmongering, lies and scapegoating are eerily reminiscent of the actions that occasioned the journey of the M.S. St. Louis.  Americans might do well to remember, before succumbing to claims that rob would-be Central American refugees of their dignity, human rights and democratic due process of law, that the United States labor force now exceeds 160 million individuals. U.S. citizens might consider, too, whether that system could absorb 1,000 refugees, who represent .000625 percent of that total labor force, assuming, in the first instance, that those seeking entry were found to meet the strict criteria associated with asylum status. 

The Jews aboard the St. Louis took refuge on that ship to flee the ignorant hatred and

 cruelty afoot in their home nation. They were met with little better by the United States’ population and regime, which abandoned them to a brutal fate, as did Cuba and Canada. As a result, Americans, Canadians and Cubans all bear responsibility for the deaths that befell a share of those this nation pitilessly denied asylum.

History teaches that freedom can only be assured when underpinned by a robust preservation and defense of human rights and a continuing willingness to ensure the dignity of all. Fear can constitute a cancer on a democratic body politic, and only prudence and deliberation can prevent the depravity it may otherwise wreak. The question confronting the United States today is whether its citizenry is prepared to heed history’s lessons. We know well what happens to freedom and human rights when fear mongering, rather than reason, rule. Can we summon the collective will as a nation to prevent the rule of fear so as to ensure we shall never again be responsible for the like of the tragedy of the St. Louis?


[1] United States Holocaust Museum, Kristallnacht,  Accessed November 30, 2018.

[2] The Voyage of the St. Louis. Directed by Maziar Bahari. Canada/France: Galafilms, Les Films d’Ici, National Film Board of Canada, 1995.  Accessed November 30, 2018.

[3] The Voyage of the St. Louis.

[4] The Voyage of the St. Louis.

[5] The Voyage of the St. Louis.

[6] United States Holocaust Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Voyage of the St. Louis,”  Accessed November 30, 2018. I have so far been unable to determine the fates of the 30 individuals not accounted for in these figures. The documentary, The Voyage of the St. Louis, reports the higher figure for concentration camp deaths.

[7] The Voyage of the St. Louis.

[8] The Voyage of the St. Louis.

[9] Koch, Cynthia M. “Demagogues and Democracy,” The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation@ Adams House, Harvard College,  Accessed December 1, 2018.

[10] Shear, Michael and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018,  Accessed October 30, 2018.

Publication Date

December 3, 2018