Refugee Ship St. Louis Arrives Back in Belgium
Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis try to communicate with friends on small boats off the coast of Cuba on June 3, 1939. (credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

June 17, 1939

The German refugee ship MS St. Louis reaches port in Antwerp, Belgium, after an odyssey that lasted more than a month and featured two crossings of the Atlantic Ocean.

On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, with 938 passengers on board, almost all of whom were Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The ship was bound for Havana, Cuba. Most of the passengers had landing permits for Havana that they had purchased in Germany. They planned to remain in Cuba and wait for an opportunity to be admitted into the United States.

When the St. Louis arrived in Havana on May 27, Cuban officials denied entry to all but 28 passengers. Unbeknownst to the passengers on the St. Louis, Cuba in early May had changed the requirements for entry in response to antisemitic pressure. Thus, the transit visas held by the Jewish refugees were no longer valid. Despite efforts by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to negotiate with the Cuban government, the ship was forced to leave Havana on June 2 with 910 passengers still on board. One refugee on the ship committed suicide.

The ship did not immediately return to Hamburg. It anchored 12 miles from the coast of Havana as the JDC and other American Jewish organizations tried to negotiate admission of the refugees to the United States. A telegram from the ship’s passengers to President Roosevelt was not answered. Immigration quotas established in 1924 permitted only 27,370 immigrants in total from Austria-Germany in 1939, and the State Department refused to alter this policy. The story of the St. Louis attracted a lot of attention in the American press. A Washington Post editorial on June 3, 1939, questioned, “Clearly there should be some place where these victims of twentieth century persecution can find at least a temporary haven?”

After lingering off the coast of Florida for several days, the ship began its return to Europe on June 6.  While the ship was en route, the JDC successfully negotiated with the governments of Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France for the admission of the refugees. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 254 of the passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has an interactive exhibit about the voyage of the St. Louis.