This Week in History: ´St. Louis´ forced to Europe (JERUSALEM POST) By TAMARA ZIEVE 06/03/12)
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On June 6 1939, a German transatlantic liner carrying over 900 Jewish
refugees fleeing the Third Reich was forced to turn back to Europe
after having been turned away from the shores of Cuba, the United
States and Canada. 936 people had set off on the SS St. Louis from
Hamburg, Germany on May 15 of that year, holding permits to enter
Havana. Most were Jews seeking to escape the clutches of Nazi
Germany, however, their fate seemed ominous as ever as they were sent
back where they came from.
Captain Gustav Schroeder described high hopes and spirits despite
evident nerves, as they headed toward Central America in the luxury
boat. He had instructed his crew that all aboard the ship were paying
passengers and must be treated as such. According to Sarah Ogilvie
and Scott Miller´s Refuge denied: the St. Louis passengers and the
Holocaust, Schroeder even instructed the removal of a large picture
of Adolf Hitler that usually hung in the ballroom, in order for his
Jewish passengers to use the hall for prayer.
The passengers were soon to discover, however, that their permits
were now worthless. In a money-making scheme, Cuban Director General
of Immigration Manuel Benitez Gonzalez had manipulated a loophole in
policy and sold the usually-free certificates at high rates. But
angered by his actions, the Cuban government passed decree 937,
closing the loophole, invalidating the St. Louis passengers´ tickets,
and establishing rigid immigration laws. The Yad Vashem center also
attributes the government´s decision to fascist tendencies and public
aversion to immigrants.
Upon arrival in Cuba, only 29 of the passengers were permitted to
disembark. "We found out that we could not land, and the nightmare
started again," survivor Herbert Karliner recalls.
After six days hopefully waiting at the Havana harbor, Cuban
President Federico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave. Spirits
plunged, panic and desperation rose, and two passenger attempted
suicide. "No more fun on board: panic, telegrams etc. were the
current events of the day," Karliner relates.
The American Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish agencies
appealed to other Latin American countries to accept the refugees,
but all refused. The US and Canada were their final hope. The boat
sailed toward Miami, and the captain pleaded with the authorities.
Passengers sent telegrams to then-US president Franklin D Roosevelt,
but to no avail. "We sent a plea to Mrs. Roosevelt to allow only the
children to enter the US, but it came to dead ears," says Karliner.
The US Immigration Act of 1924 placed strict limits on immigration,
and while dramatic headlines splashed across newspapers, such
as "Fear Suicide Wave on Refugees´ Ship," in the New York Times, the
majority of the US public was averse to immigrants and refugees
landing on their shores; unemployment was at a high and Americans
were unwilling to lose out on job spots to foreigners. In a Fortune
Magazine poll carried out a couple of months earlier, 83 percent of
Americans answered "no" to "open[ing] the doors of the United States
to a large number of European refugees."
Meanwhile, Canadian President Mackenzie King dismissed the plea as a
non-Canadian problem, and Immigration Director Frederick Charles
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."
"We had to return to Europe knowing fully well what it meant,"
Following multiple rejections, Captain Schroeder was forced to return
to Europe, however he did not give up on his efforts to avoid
returning to Germany, even devising a contingency plan to shipwreck
the St. Louis near the English coast, thus making it a problem the
British government would have to deal with.
Finally, after heavy negotiating led by the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee, the United Kingdom agreed to admit 287 of the
passengers, Belgium 214, France 224 and Holland 181. One man died
during the voyage.
Schroeder has been hailed as the St. Louis hero, for his
determination to find a safe haven for his passengers. While the
solution that he found was far less desirable than America which lay
far from the grips of Nazism, Schroeder´s actions saved lives by
preventing his passengers from heading straight to Germany´s death
camps. After World War II, Schroder was awarded the Order of Merit of
the Federal Republic of Germany and on March 11, 1993, Yad Vashem
recognized Schroeder as Righteous Among the Nations.
Unaware of how events would unravel, news that other European
countries had accepted them was gratefully received. "At the end,
finally the happy news came that Belgium, France, Holland and England
would accept us. We disembarked in Antwerp to change ships," Karliner
However, for a significant portion of passengers aboard that ship,
the seemingly happy news led them to their tragic destinies, as Nazi
Germany began eating its way into Europe, Jews were deported to
concentration camps and France, Belgium and Holland were invaded.
According to research conducted by Miller and Ogilvie of the United
States Holocaust Memorial museum, of the 620 passengers that returned
to Belgium, France and the Netherlands, a total of 254 died during
the Holocaust. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 06/03/12)
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