This week in Jewish history | MS St. Louis denied access to disembark in Florida - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | MS St. Louis denied access to disembark in Florida

This week in Jewish history | MS St. Louis denied access to disembark in Florida

The St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, waits in the port of Hamburg. The Cuban government denied the passengers entry. Hamburg, Germany, 1939 (c) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On 4 June 1939, the MS. St. Louis, a boat carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, was refused access to disembark in Florida, United States.  

The German transatlantic liner left Hamburg, Germany, on 13 May 1939, shortly after the Nazis’ annexation of Austria in March 1938, which had led to increased personal assaults against Jews during the spring and summer, followed by the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom in November, and the seizure of Jewish-owned property.  

The refugees first attempted to enter Havana, Cuba, but the overwhelming number were denied access despite most passengers having Cuban visas. Even before the ship sailed to Cuba, antisemitic demonstrations had broken out in Havana, on 8 May, with right-wing newspapers claiming that the immigrants were Communists. Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú signed a decree invalidating the passengers’ visas. 

When it became clear that the vast majority of refugees would be unable to enter Cuba, the ship sailed to Florida, in hopes that the passengers could disembark there. However, American authorities refused their request, writing in an official telegraph that they “must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” 

The refugees then attempted to disembark in Canada, but were again refused access. Explaining Canada’s decision to deny the refugees, then-director of immigration Frederick Blair said, “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.” 

As the saga continued, Nazi Germany exploited the unfortunate situation as propaganda to support its antisemitic policies. 

 With no other choice, the refugees were forced to return to Europe on 6 June 1939, where the ship docked in Antwerp, Belgium. While the governments of Belgium, Holland, France and the United Kingdom agreed to accept the refugees, the failure of Cuba, the United States and Canada to allow the refugees enter Cuba or the United States would amount to a death sentence for over 250 of the passengers of the ship. By 1940, all the passengers, except those who escaped to England, were under Nazi rule. 

In 2012, then-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns apologized to the survivors of the ship, saying “our government did not live up to its responsibility.” In 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also apologized, saying, “We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. We failed them. And for that, we are sorry.”