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
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.