Journey of the Doomed: Jewish refugees hoped to escape Cuba but were returned to doom in Europe

On November 10, 1938, a series of anti-Semitic pogroms took place throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and the Sudetenland, torn from Czechoslovakia: about 400 Jews were killed, and another 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. Three months later, most of the imprisoned Jews were released on condition that they leave Germany.

That night went down in history as the Crystal Night (Kristallnacht) because of shattered shards of broken glass in Jewish shops lining the streets after pogroms. After the Night of the Crystal, the Jews began to leave Germany en masse.

Photo by Wikipedia.org/Morning after the Crystal Night in Magdeburg

One way to escape the Nazis was for many to become a Cuban visa: Cuba remained almost the only state that agreed to accept Jews. The refugees gave away the last money for permission to enter this country and a liner ticket. There, in a quieter environment, they hoped to get a U.S. visa: American immigration quota numbers allowing them to enter the U.S. in three years had 734 ships. Louis passengers.

Photo from Wikipedia.org / Passengers board the staircase “St.  Louis ’denio Hamburg.

Photo from Wikipedia.org / Passengers board the staircase “St. Louis ’denio Hamburg.

A luxury liner after an unfortunate life in Berlin

Giselai Knepel (married name Feldman) was 15 years old when she and her mother and younger sister embarked on a trip on the ship “St. Louis. Gisela went through the war and the Holocaust, and later told her story in more than one interview.

On the eve of the crystal night, the Essenes arrested her Polish-born father in Berlin. Deportation awaited him.

Gisela remembered shards of glass on the sidewalks after a night of pogrom, torn shops, and burning synagogues. Their apartment was given to a German family, and she, her sister and mother had to move in with her aunt, whose husband was also deported.

Gisela’s mother repeatedly tried to get a visa to any country just to leave Germany. She then learned that the Cuban embassy was selling entry visas, and she was able to obtain them the day before “St. Louis ’departure.

Photo from personal archive / 15-year-old Gisela Knepel on board “St.  Louis

Photo from personal archive / 15-year-old Gisela Knepel on board “St. Louis

“As we boarded the deck of the ship, I began to vibrate with relief. The food was awesome, we were served by waiters! We have never lived in such luxury. There was a festive atmosphere, we enjoyed it, ”said Gisela Knepel in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle.

Only Gisela’s mother was not happy: she left her husband in Germany, despite his supplications not to give him up. In addition, she had only ten German marks with her for three people.

“But we were kids, and there were cinemas, comfortable cabins and a pool in the liner. This contrasted with our unhappy life in Berlin! ”Gisela Knepel recalled.

The captain made every effort to make the voyage enjoyable. He allowed a portrait of Hitler to be hung from the wall in a room where passengers were gathering for Saturday’s religious rites. The women brought their own candlesticks and a really family atmosphere prevailed there on Friday night, Gisela said.

Captain Gustavas Schröderis

For the liner “St. Louis ”was directed by Gustav Schröder. He was the last captain in the transatlantic company Hamburg-America Lines, who did not join the Nazi party NSDAP (ed. – German National Socialist Workers’ Party) and did not wear a tie with a swastika. He understood perfectly what kind of passengers he was carrying and insisted that the team treat them with respect.

Wikipedia.org nuotr./Kapitonas Gustavas Schröderis

Wikipedia.org nuotr./Kapitonas Gustavas Schröderis

Thanks to Gustav Schröder, liner passengers managed to avoid Nazi camps. He became their hero.

On May 23, the captain received a telegram stating that “St. Louis passengers will not be able to disembark in Havana. It turned out that the tourist visas they received with such hardship were invalid.

Even before the liner sailed, it became clear that Cuban Immigration Minister Manuel Benitez Gonzalez had issued visas on his own initiative and had appropriated all the money received for them. Upon learning of the machinations, the Cuban government canceled the documents. But no liner passenger knew before the departure that the visas were invalid.

Wikipedia.org photo /

Wikipedia.org photo / “St. Louis ’passengers look forward to the port of Havana with hope.

“St. Louis arrived in Havana on May 27. Only 22 U.S. visa-allowed passengers were allowed to disembark. Others were strictly denied such permission. Fritz Buff, who was a liner (he was 17 in 1939), said in an interview with Jewish Standard in 2009 that passengers’ moods had changed “dramatically and quickly.” “It simply came to our notice then. The ship’s infirmary was full of crowded people. We hoped we would not return to Germany, which would have been a disaster: we knew what would have been waiting for us there. “

One of the passengers tried to commit suicide. It was Max Loewe, a former lawyer from Breslau. At the age of 14, he managed to take part in World War I and earn an award for heroism. In the late 1930s, he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. When released, he felt constantly being tracked by SS and Gestapo agents.

In Havana, his nerves no longer held up: the man pierced his veins and danced into the water. The sailor rescued him and Loewe was taken from the ship to the hospital. Thus Max Loewe became the first refugee to reach Cuban land. His wife and children were not allowed to disembark. Later, recovering, he was able to return to a family that was living in France at the time.

“St. Louis’ raid on the Havana coast stood for four days, and on June 1, 1939, Captain Schröder received an order to leave Cuban territorial waters. For nearly five more days, the liner was off the coast of Cuba, hoping the country’s government would change the decision.

Wikipedia.org photo /

Wikipedia.org photo / “St. Louis off the coast of Cuba

At the time, the answer came from the United States: Secretary of State Cordell Hull advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt not to accept Jews from Europe.

Captain Schröder turned the wheels off the coast of Florida and even considered a plan to float the ship on a shallow shore so that the refugees could disembark and escape. But U.S. Coast Guard ships prevented it from doing so: as the liner approached Miami, American boats blocked his way into the city’s port.

Another option for salvation could have been Canada. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, having received Louis passed the passengers’ asylum application to Frederick Blair, director of the immigration service, who was notorious for his hostility to Jewish emigration. This persuaded the Prime Minister not to interfere in the history of the refugee ship.

1939 June 6, “St. Louis was forced to turn back to Europe.

There was panic on board, and the passengers almost revolted. However, Captain Schröder assured everyone that the ship would not return to Germany until all passengers had been granted asylum. What’s more, he drew up a contingency plan under which the liner was to have an accident off the coast of England to force British officials to start rescuing passengers.

Fortunately, the American Jewish charity Joint was able to reach an agreement with several European countries at the time: refugees from St. Louis (181 people), France (224), Great Britain (288) and Belgium (214) agreed to accept Louis.

How it all ended

Passengers from St. Louis was finally able to disembark on June 17, 1939. They landed on the shores of Antwerp and dispersed among the countries that agreed to receive them.

Wikipedia.org photo / Captain Gustav Schröder is negotiating with Belgian officials in the port of Antwerp to allow refugees to disembark.

Wikipedia.org photo / Captain Gustav Schröder is negotiating with Belgian officials in the port of Antwerp to allow refugees to disembark.

With the outbreak of World War II and the occupation of the Benelux countries by Germany until the beginning of the summer of 1940 and the forced capitulation of France, all “St. Louis’ passengers, other than those who took refuge in England, were again in the hands of the Nazis.

Historians, estimating the survival rates of Jews in various countries during World War II, later estimated that 180 liners sheltered in France, St. Petersburg, were able to survive the Holocaust. Louis, 152 Jews in Belgium and 60 Jews in the Netherlands. Including passengers who took refuge in Britain and escaped the fate of their compatriots in continental Europe, out of 936 refugees returned to Europe (one died on the voyage), some 709 survived and 227 died. it turned out that 254 Jews returned to Europe on a voyage were killed during the war.

Gisela Knepel, her mother and sister found themselves in Britain. Her father was killed during the Holocaust.

Captain Gustav Schröder never sailed again after the 1940s. After the war, the captain was released from the denaciation process after the testimony of several surviving refugees of his former passengers. In 1949, he published memoirs about an unforgettable voyage on the ship “St. Louis.

Gustav Schröder died in 1959 at the age of 73. In West Germany, he was awarded the Order of Merit, and a street in Hamburg is named after him. In 1993, the Holocaust Memorial gave Yad Vashem Schröder the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death.

An apology after many decades

In 2000, a relative of Frederick Blair, director of the Canadian Immigration Service, apologized to the Jewish people for his uncle’s actions.

U.S. Department of State Louis’ passengers apologized in 2012. The official ceremony was attended by Undersecretary of State William Burns and 14 surviving passengers on board.

In May 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter that the country’s government would apologize for its actions that determined the fate of the ship’s passengers. An official apology was issued in November of the same year.


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