07 March 2017

Turning back desperate refugees to their probable death: 1939

The conference on German and Austrian Jewish refugees was held in Évian-les-Bains in July 1938. Foreign ministers from 32 countries and from relief organisations met in the southern French spa-town for discussions.

Australia was a large, under-populated country which could have accepted many more refugees at Evian, had the political will been there. It was not. Shame on Australia! Similarly in the USA. In its desire to preserve white racial supremacy and to isolate the country from foreigners, the American Congress had passed legislation (way back in 1924) that limited immigration immediately and exacerbated the refugee crisis in the 1930s. The only nations at Evian who set proper and moral quotas were the poorer nations: Argentina took 50,000, Paraguay 20,000, Chile 14,000, Bolivia 12,000 and Cuba 4,500. Only two countries, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, actually increased their quotas.

Even after the ministers left Evian, there were still some opp­or­t­unities to save German refugees. The SS St Louis sailed from Hamburg in May 1939 for Havana; its 937 refugees had legal Cuban visas. But by the time the boat landed, the Cuban government had changed its approval process for refugees and refused to allow most of them to land. The boat then drifted off into Florida waters where the American authorities also forbade the ship’s docking. 908 desperate refugees were returned to Germany
Desperate refugees not let off the St Louis in Havana
May 1939
Photo credit: Smithsonianmag

I don’t know who was worse. Tiny Cuba who had provided legal visas and changed their mind at the last moment, or the wealthy America who could have held the refugees in a camp until some third country would accept them. Now Prof Barry Trachtenberg has reviewed the experience of the St. Louis crisis.

If President Roosevelt really did cruelly turn the ship away and the passengers were abandoned to their fate, the USA responded to the Nazi Holocaust with neutrality and apathy. Some even argue that the USA positively acquiesced with German plans to exterminate European Jewry.

But, wrote Trachtenberg, the travellers were German Jewish émigrés who held landing permits issued by the Cuban government. Most of them were on a visa waiting list to enter the USA and had arranged to stay in Cuba only until their documents would arrive. Thus in 1938 Cuba would serve as a desperately needed  interim refuge for German Jews.

American law required the number of persons arriving from a country be fixed according to the perceived whiteness of the country’s inhabitants. Under the quota for Germany, which President Roosevelt had combined with Austria’s following the 1938 Anschluss, 27,370 visas were available. By the time of the St. Louis’ departure, the queue for visas under the German quota included 300,000+ names.

Internal Cuban government feuds prompted President Federico Laredo Brú to tighten the rules for new arrivals, requiring additional documents to land in Cuba. Although the shipping officials were notified of the change, the St. Louis left Hamburg on the optimistic assumption that the new rules did not apply to its passengers, because they already held legal visas into Cuba. But on landing in Havana two weeks later on May 27th, only 28 refugees had papers that allowed them to disembark. Captain Schroder failed to persuade the Cubans to allow the other passengers off the ship. Shame on Cuba.

The ship left the port of Havana on 2nd June 1939 while people were still pursuing alternatives for the passengers. Plans to post a $500 bond for each passenger or to allow them to disembark in Santo Domingo failed.

As the ship approached the Florida coast, a USA Coast Guard ship and plane monitored its progress. Did an American ship fire a warning shot across the bow of the St. Louis? Most experts said yes; Trachtenberg said no.

The New York Times described the anxiety of the refugees: Late this afternoon the St Louis was surrounded by boats filled with relatives and friends of those on board. Police patrolled the liner’s docks and forbade any except government officials to approach too closely or to step on the floating dock alongside the ship. The St. Louis’s passengers, many sobbing despairingly, lined the rails. One man cut his wrists and jumped overboard out of desperation.

St Louis trying to dock in Miami's port
Stopped by officials, June 1939
Tampa Bay Times

In Canada, Prime Minister Mackenzie King felt that refugees were not a Canadian problem. No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands Jewish people who wanted to leave Europe: the line had to be drawn somewhere, he said. Shame on Canada.

Trachtenberg also noted other shipping crises. The Orinoco, St. Louis' sister ship, sailed from Cuxhaven Germany for Cuba with 200 German Jewish passengers. It was diverted once it was clear that Havana had cancelled the visas, but the British and French governments wouldn’t accept the Orinoco refugees. The French liner Flandres, with 104 refugees aboard, was prohibited from docking in Havana a few days af­ter the St. Louis. It was also denied entry to Mexico and had to return to France. Shame on Mexico.

A British vessel, Orduña, with 120 Jewish refugees aboard, arr­iv­ed in Cuba alongside the St Louis. The 72 passengers who did not have appropriate landing permits were not allowed to disembark, so the ship made more stops at ports in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Some passengers were successful in finding sanctuary in South America, and 55 pass­eng­ers were eventually able to enter the USA in 1940.

In the meantime, tense debates were occurring in the American Congress over proposed legislation that would allow 20,000 German refugee children to enter the USA outside the normal quota system. But no proposals to identify homes for the passengers in North, Central, or South America was successful.

Back in Europe, Trachtenberg claimed, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Com­mit­t­ee successfully found havens for 532 of the St Louis passengers still on board. The St Louis docked at Antwerp and some refugees were accepted in Britain, Netherlands, Belgium and France, not returned to Germany. Apparently they were delighted to be in a safe country, while they waited to finally settle in the USA. The remaining 254 passengers returned to Hamburg and eventually perished during the Holocaust.

Once WW2 was declared on 1st Sept 1939, other events quickly overshadowed the St Louis crisis. But Trachtenberg stresses that the St Louis was not turned back because the passengers were Jewish. Rather it was because the authorities in both Cuba and the USA had to act within a monstrous system that prioritised secure borders over saving human lives. Even the Wagner-Rogers bill, presented to save the lives of 20,000 Jewish European children, was not supported by the American Senate in 1939 and 1940. Shame on the USA.

Only recently has the plight of the St Louis featured prominently in the USA Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC.

Once again in 2017 we are facing the probability of sending refugees back to their deaths in their countries of origin. We have learned nothing from 1939.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Perhaps the worst aspect of the Nazi crisis was the anti-Semitically fueled complicit agreement of much of the rest of the world. Only when political safety of the entire world was threatened did other countries make any effort. It is shocking to read stories of the 1920's and 30's when white supremacist policies were actually gaining hold in the U.S., both casually and formally. Books such as Sinclair Lewis' 1922 Babbitt portray this attitude, as do the activities of the KKK and even the official policies of the greatest U.S. colleges, whose admission practices, that developed into today's policies, were originally formulated to keep out Jews, Blacks, gays and anyone not properly "white and WASPy"--the same people targeted by the Nazis.

Andrew said...

Most of this I knew about. They were people, quite rightly, in fear of their lives because of something they could not change or even pretend to not be. Sorry, but I really cannot see the connection to most present day refugees, who unfortunately I agree with forces from the red neck right in that they are mostly economic refugees who use their difference or not for their claim. As far as I can see rohingya muslims in Burma are quite deserving and make a good fit for Australia. Whatever we do, we should not take too many from any one racial group now. Small numbers of very deserving refugees from around the world will make a cohesive and peaceful Australia, and the quota does not have to be reduced, just the mix altered to make it work better.

We are in very different times and circumstances if compared to the 1940s.

Deb said...

If the British had not given visas to 700 Czech children in 1939, Winton could not have succeeded with his Kindertransport project. Without visas, those children would have been returned back to their certain deaths.

Hels said...


The growth of Fascism and racism in the inter-war era was usually seen as a largely German problem. But British Fascism was becoming ever stronger under the leadership of people like Archibald Ramsay and Sir Oswald Mosley. In Spain, Franco and the various right-wing parties were booming from 1931 on. A nasty authoritarian regime was installed in Portugal in 1933. And as you say about the 1920s and 30s in the USA, legislation and policy were moving against marginal populations, especially people deemed not white enough.

In a sense then, by 1939 it was almost too late to save refugees's lives. (Not that too many countries tried). In Australia, for example, it wasn't until Arthur Calwell became Minister for Immigration as soon as WW2 ended that European migrants and citizens from the British Dominions would be warmly welcomed. Too late for the millions who were murdered during the war, but great for those who somehow survived.

Hels said...


no-one would want to leave their country, parents, jobs and friends voluntarily. But if people are daily faced with death in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Libya, seeking asylum in other countries might seem the only way to protect themselves and their children.

I have a proposal. Of the c193 countries in the world, let us estimate that 43 of them can't even feed their own citizens. That leaves 150 countries that must take their fair share of asylum seekers, after security checks have been satisfied. If a nation earns 5% of world GDP, then they should accept 5% of the desperate asylum seekers.

Hels said...


Nicholas Winton was my absolute hero. And hugely successful in saving those 700 children's lives. But why did he have to organise the train trips, find foster parents in Britain, fund the project and beg the government for visas with just a small band of volunteers. Why didn't the British government say, for example, we don't want any foreign adults arriving on our shores, but let us offer safe haven to 250,000 innocent children?

Joseph said...

Hels history has always suggested that all the passengers who had to stay on the ship were returned to Hamburg. None escaped. Yet you write that hundreds of them were saved by countries in Western Europe. I hope the modern version of St Louis history is correct.

Hels said...


I thought the evidence might be spotty, until I found "The St Louis Diary of Fritz Buff". Teenage Fritz Buff ended up in Antwerp (Belgium) after the ship returned to Europe.

“I was there for six months and I was lucky enough to get out of there before the Germans came in. They came in May and I got out in December. Of the ship passengers, who didn’t get out when the Germans overran Holland and Belgium and parts of France, we lost 260.” He eventually ended up in the USA, as he had originally hoped.

Ann ODyne said...

present US political activity is showing me how the NAZI party were able to take over from sensible minds. I had always wondered Why Didn't Somebody Stop It?
Well nobody is stopping it now.
Mentally defective Americans are harming or even shooting randomly encountered people they perceive as the enemy [already too many incidents to list here], and all because they have a president who has made statements that look like permission, approval and encouragement to do this.
We are all on the streets of Germany and it is 1938 again.
Write to your Federal MP about this. See if you can distract them from their real estate procurements.

Hels said...


I usually find modern comparisons to the 1933-45 era difficult. Not because I think the comparisons aren't valid but because we always hope for progress since the lowest point in human history. But examine the prison camps on rocky Pacific Islands (eg Nauru and Manus Island) that enclose asylum seekers as if they were victims of the most brutal Nazis. The apparent reasons for the prison camps were a] to remove the financial incentive for the "people smugglers" to send boats to Australia, b] to secure Australia’s borders and create a fair and orderly migration and c] to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death. Oh really???

The world's wealthiest nations have been accused by Amnesty (and by Helen) of leaving poorer countries bearing the brunt of global refugee crisis. Jordan, which has taken in 2.7 million+ refugees, Turkey with 2.5 million+; Pakistan, 1.6 million; and Lebanon with 1.5 million+. Shame on the wealthy countries :(((