MS St. Louis- The Voyage of the Damned

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Before I get into the main story there is something I have to say. This is only my opinion based on my observation and it is not a political statement.The events in this story do have stark similarities to what is happening now, where countries are closing their borders for refugees.

The MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner most notable for a single voyage in 1939, in which its captain, Gustav Schröder, tried to find homes for 908 Jewish refugees from Germany.

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After they were denied entry to Cuba, Canada, and the United States, the refugees were finally accepted in various European countries, and historians have estimated that approximately a quarter of them died in death camps during World War II.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that it was time to leave.

Though many German Jews had emigrated in the preceding years, the Jews who remained had a more difficult time leaving the country because emigration policies had been toughened. By 1939, not only were visas needed to be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave Germany. Since many countries, especially the United States, had immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short time spans in which they were needed. For many, the visas were acquired after it was too late.

The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939. The vessel under command of Captain Gustav Schröder was carrying 937 refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.[Captain Schröder,was a non-Jewish German who went to great lengths to ensure dignified treatment for his passengers.

On Saturday, May 13, 1939, the passengers boarded. Women and men; young and old. Each person who boarded had their own story of persecution.

One passenger, Aaron Pozner, had just been released from Dachau. On the night of Kristallnacht, Pozner along with 26,000 other Jews had been arrested and deported to concentration camps. While interned at Dachau, Pozner witnessed brutal murders by hanging, drowning, and crucifixion as well as torture by flogging and castrations by a bayonet.Surprisingly, one day Pozner was released from Dachau on the condition that he leave Germany within fourteen days.

Though his family had very little money, they were able to pool enough money to buy a ticket for him to board the S.S. St. Louis. Pozner said goodbye to his wife and two children, knowing that they would never be able to raise enough money to buy another ticket to freedom. Beaten and forced to sleep amongst bloody animal hides on his journey to reach the ship, Pozner boarded with the knowledge that it was up to him to earn the money to bring his family to freedom.

Many other passengers had either left family members behind while some were also going to be meeting relatives that had traveled earlier. As the passengers boarded they remembered the many years of persecution that they had been living under. Some had come out of hiding to board the ship and none were certain that they would not receive the same kind of treatment once aboard. The Nazi flag flying above the ship and the picture of Hitler hanging in the social hall did not allay their fears. Earlier, Captain Gustav Schroeder had given the 231 member crew stern warnings that these passengers were to be treated just like any others. Many were willing to do this, two stewards even carried Moritz and Recha Weiler’s luggage for them since they were elderly.

The journey to Cuba was a joyous affair. The passengers aboard the St. Louis were treated with contempt before they boarded, but once on the ship they were treated like privileged tourists.

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Crew members treated the passengers well—Captain Schröder insisted on this. Elegantly clad stewards served foods that by 1939 were rationed in Germany; there was a full-time nursemaid to care for small children when their parents sat to eat.

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There were dances and concerts, and the captain allowed passengers to hold Friday evening religious services in the dining room and even permitted them to throw a tablecloth over a plaster bust of Hitler that sat there. Children were given swimming lessons in the on-deck pool. Passengers felt that they were, in the words of Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, on “a vacation cruise to freedom.

The ship dropped anchor at 04:00 on May 27 at the far end of the Havana harbor and was denied entry to the usual docking areas. The next six days on the harbor were tumultuous times. The Cuban government, headed by President Federico Laredo Brú, refused to accept the foreign refugees.

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Although passengers had previously purchased legal visas, they could not enter Cuba either as tourists (laws related to tourist visas had recently been changed) or as refugees seeking political asylum. On May 5, 1939, four months before World War II began, Havana abandoned its former pragmatic immigration policy and instead issued Decree 937, which “restricted entry of all foreigners except U.S. citizens requiring a bond of $500 and authorization by the Cuban secretaries of state and labor. Permits and visas issued before May 5 were invalidated retroactively.”None of the passengers were aware that the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their landing permits.

In the end, only 29 passengers were allowed to disembark in Cuba. Twenty-two of them were Jewish and had valid US visas; the remaining six—four Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals—had valid entry documents. Another passenger, after attempting to commit suicide, was evacuated to a hospital in Havana.

MS St. Louis – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Telephone records show American officials Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, and Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury had made some efforts to persuade Cuba to accept the refugees. Their actions, together with efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were not successful.

Prohibited from landing in Cuba, Captain Schröder circled off the coast of Florida, hoping for permission to enter the United States. Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, advised Roosevelt not to accept the Jews, however. Captain Schroder considered running aground along the coast to allow the refugees to escape, but, acting on Cordell Hull’s instructions, US Coast Guard vessels shadowed the ship and prevented such a move.

It was today 77 years ago they were denied permission to land in Florida.

After the St. Louis was turned away from the United States,a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade Canada’s Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship’s passengers, as it was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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But Canadian immigration official Frederick Blair, hostile to Jewish immigration, persuaded the Prime Minister on June 9 not to intervene. In 2000, Blair’s nephew apologized to the Jewish people for his uncle’s action.

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The situation of the vessel deteriorated as Captain Schröder negotiated and schemed to find them a safe haven. (At one point he formulated plans to wreck the ship on the British coast to force the passengers to be taken as refugees.) He refused to return the ship to Germany until all the passengers had been given entry to some other country. US officials worked with Britain and European nations to find refuge for the travelers in Europe.[10] The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939 with 907 passengers.

The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers , who disembarked and traveled to the UK via other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp.

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224 were accepted by France , 214 by Belgium , and 181 by the Netherlands  Without any passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg. The following year, after the Nazi German invasions of Belgium and France in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were at renewed risk, including the recent refugees.

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By using the survival rates for Jews in various countries, Thomas and Morgan-Witts, the authors of Voyage of the Damned, estimated that 180 of the St. Louis refugees in France, 152 of those in Belgium, and 60 of those in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust. Including the passengers who landed in England, of the original 936 refugees (one man died during the voyage), roughly 709 survived the war and 227 did not.

Later research by Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found that fewer had actually survived and estimated 254 deaths:.

 

4 thoughts on “MS St. Louis- The Voyage of the Damned

  1. Great article with some excellent photographs. However, like every story about the voyage currently on the Internet, it refers to Aaron Pozner, who does not appear in any list of St. Louis passengers, in any Holocaust database, in any Family History database. It is my belief that the authors of “The Voyage of the Damned”, which is said to be a completely true account, invented not only Aaron Pozner/Posner, but also the alleged half-Jewish steward Leo Jockl, who again cannot be found anywhere outside the pages of the said book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article about a shameful episode of Holocaust history, but marred by the repetition of a fabrication – namely the person named Aaron Pozner. I have looked for this character in vain and even contacted the USHMM with the following query. You can read my query and their response in the next three paragraphs.

    Information seeking: Information about the existence of an alleged passenger aboard the St. Louis in 1938. In the book Voyage of the Damned, the authors cite the case of an AARON POZNER, allegedly released from Dachau, who boards the ship in Hamburg, is assigned a cabin, and during the voyage attempts to hi-jack the ship. Eventually returned to Europe, he is sent to Westerbork and seems to have ended up at Auschwitz. We here at the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida believe this man is a fictional character created for the book. Unfortunately, his name appears in virtually every internet article about the voyage of the St. Louis, effectively perpetuating the fiction. Have you heard of him, does he exist, how can we erase this man from Holocaust history?

    Sources consulted: USHMM database; List of Dachau inmates; Gedenkbuch, Germany; familysearch.org; ancestry.com; D.O.W, Austria; JewishGen; Joods digital monument, Holland; Shoah Memorial, Paris.
    You name it, I’ve searched it, so I wondered if your St. Louis research team had also come across this mythical person?

    Reply from USHMM:
    Your inquiry was forwarded to me, as I have worked for many years on the Museum’s St. Louis research project. The problem you raise is one we’ve run into as well. Each time we receive an inquiry about this person I re-check the sources available to us, without success. Our standard answer is that the original source materials used in our research do not list or mention the name Aaron Posner or Pozner. We don’t go further than that because, though unlikely, it is possible that this is a pseudonym or that the primary source material is not the complete record. But like you, the historians who conducted the research do not believe in the existence of this person (though why anyone would make this up is also baffling). I spoke with one of them about whether there is a remedy; he does not know of one. If you should come across any new clues, we’d certainly be interested.

    Further comment from me: Aaron Pozner is not the only fictional character created by Morgan and DeWitt. Also mentioned in the book is the character of Leo Jockl, Captain Shroeder’s alleged half-Jewish steward. He too, is an invention of the two writers, who have refused to answer queries about their fictional characters.
    I alerted you to this nonsense back in 2016, so why have you not removed the Aaron Pozner references from what is otherwise an excellent article? The USHMM has many instances of real passengers with similar stories to that of the fictional Aaron Pozner, and these are backed up with solid documentary evidence and contemporary photographs.

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