A ship full of refugees fleeing the Nazis once begged the U.S. for entry. They were turned back

Amy B Wang writes:

Nine hundred thirty-seven.

That was the number of passengers aboard the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner that set off from Hamburg on May 13, 1939. Almost all of those sailing were Jewish people, desperate to escape the Third Reich. The destination was Havana, more than two weeks away by ship.

So begins a haunting tale, one that would end tragically for hundreds of those on board — so much so that, decades later, it would be the basis for the movie “Voyage of the Damned.”

Before the St. Louis even left Hamburg, there were indications the passengers might have problems disembarking in Cuba. The ship’s owners knew many travelers were likely holding invalidated landing certificates, according to research by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thousands of miles away, anti-Semitic protests and editorials were cropping up all over Cuba.

“Many Cubans resented the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews), whom the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs,” the museum noted. “Hostility toward immigrants fueled both antisemitism and xenophobia. Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations, claiming that incoming Jews were Communists.”

Still, the inhospitable circumstances awaiting them paled in comparison to what the passengers wanted to flee in Europe, and so the ship set sail. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana two weeks later, only 29 passengers were allowed into the country. The other 907 were ordered to remain on the ship. (One person had died en route of natural causes.)

As futile negotiations with the Cuban government ensued, the would-be asylum-seekers redirected their pleas to the American government. They would be in vain.

“Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge,” the Holocaust museum noted. “Roosevelt never responded.”

A State Department telegram stated, simply, that passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” [Continue reading…]

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