Jewish refugees were sent back to die; Refused: In 1939, the liner St. Louis, full of immigrants desperate to escape the war in Germany, was denied entry in the United States.

Plans by Clinton administration officials to move 20,000 Kosovo refugees to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay have now been aborted. But their consideration recalls painful memories of the 1939 "Voyage of the Damned," when 930 Jewish refugees aboard the Hamburg-American liner St. Louis were denied entry into the United States.

It's a sad chapter in U.S. history that is recalled in a new exhibit opening Monday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.


What happened to the St. Louis and its human cargo, coupled with the indifference of the Roosevelt administration to act, may have influenced President Clinton's decision in offering help to the Kosovars.

Sherle Schwenninger, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, recently said that the United States bears some responsibility for the refugee crisis and has a "moral responsibility" to open its borders.


That's a very different attitude than the one that met the passengers on the St. Louis. The backdrop to their story began earlier during the winter of 1939, when a bill to admit 20,000 German refugee children was introduced in Congress by Sen. Robert Wagner and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers.

"But they also knew that if the public thought that Jewish children would be those helped -- even though it was Jewish children who were in real need of rescue -- the bill would be defeated," said The Sun.

"Supporters testified that 'children of all faiths' would be included. Wagner declared he would not have introduced the legislation if it had been designed to aid only those of one religion or ethnic group. ... But it was the perception that the bill was designed to help Jews that eventually defeated it."

An impressive collection of supporters, including such noted individuals as Albert Einstein, William Allen White, Helen Hayes, Herbert Hoover, Marshall Field, John Steinbeck and Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, spoke out about the bill.

The opposition was led by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, who "capitalized on deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment" and suggested that children from slums and U.S. sharecroppers should be placed in the homes that would be used for refugees.

A Fortune magazine poll in April 1939 told a deeper and more shocking story. The poll revealed that 85 percent of the American public was against any change in U.S. immigration laws.

In May 1939, the St. Louis, a 16,732-ton German liner, sailed from Hamburg for Cuba with 930 Jews aboard. They had purchased landing permits from the Hamburg-America line and all were on the waiting lists to enter the United States.

But while the ship was en route, Cuban officials suddenly revoked the landing permits and claimed they were invalid. Once the ship docked in Havana, they were refused permission to disembark because they were unable to show Cuban consular visas, passports and Labor Department permits.


Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, meanwhile, demanded a half-million dollar payment to the Cuban treasury by the refugees.

While the refugees waiting for diplomacy to work its course, the ship sat in the harbor.

The St. Louis was under the command of Capt. Gustav Schroeder, who was described as a "diminutive merchant-ship veteran of humble origin with an excellent track record and iron will."

Out of deference to his passengers, Schroeder ordered that a portrait of Adolf Hitler be removed from the salon where Jewish religious services were held. Much to his consternation, however, a Nazi agent on board the vessel continually distributed Nazi propaganda and leaflets.

"Police in launches and aboard ship meanwhile kept close guard at the request of the captain, who said he feared a series of suicide attempts," reported the Associated Press. "One refugee slashed his wrists and jumped overboard Tuesday. He was rescued but Captain Schroeder said he feared that a 'collective suicide' pact was being considered."

The New York Times reported refugees were growing more desperate by the moment, with many "sobbing desperately." One told the newspaper, "If we are returned to Germany, it will mean the concentration camps for most of us."


Capt. Schroeder openly expressed fears that there would be open mutiny once the ship was again on the high seas. Finally the St. Louis weighed anchor and steamed for the Florida coast. When the ship was within three miles of Miami, Coast Guard planes and a patrol boat forced the ship into deeper waters.

"One evening, hordes of passengers ran to the railing to see the lights of Miami and Miami Beach, but it was all that most would ever see of America," reported The Sun.

While the St. Louis slowly steamed in circles, it grew more apparent that President Roosevelt and his Cabinet would do nothing to save the refugees.

"The Roosevelt administration, well aware of Americans' basic anti-immigration and anti-Semitic attitudes, was silent. Only the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke in support," said The Sun.

On June 6, Schroeder turned his ship around and steamed back across the Atlantic to Europe. Appalled at the U.S. refusal to accept the refugees, the British, French, Dutch and Belgian governments offered them asylum.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the incident as a "high crime against civilization," while the New York Times called the St. Louis "the saddest ship afloat."


Hitler capitalized on the situation, saying, "The entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity, but then closes its heart to the poor, tortured people."

Those who landed in England were the most fortunate, as World War II broke out two months later and Hitler's Army overran the other countries. Most passengers eventually died in concentration camps. Only 250 survived.

After returning to its home port of Hamburg, the St. Louis was fire-bombed and later scrapped.

Schroeder, who died in 1959, was remembered as a "man who, in the most crucial year of the 20th century, showed great concern for the destiny of humanity," said The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/10/99