St. Louis Refugee Ship Forced to Return to Europe: June 6, 1939

St. Louis Refugee Ship Forced to Return to Europe: June 6, 1939

On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, was forced to sail back to Europe after more than 900 of its passengers [] (primarily German-Jewish refugees) were refused entry by Cuba; over 200 of these refugees would later die in the Holocaust.

St/ Louis Steams AwayThe St. Louis departed Germany for Cuba on May 13. The majority of the 937 passengers were German Jews fleeing the increasing discrimination and violence against Jews under Hitler, and many planned to stay in Cuba only until they received U.S. visas. However, unbeknownst to most of the passengers, a week before the ship sailed, the Cuban government invalidated one of the types of travel documents held by the refugees.

When the ship arrived in Cuba on May 27, fewer than 30 passengers—those who had the proper papers—were allowed to disembark. Despite days of negotiations, the Cuban government could not be persuaded to allow the refugees to enter. Leaving Cuban waters on June 2, the ship sailed near the Florida coast. Passengers petitioned President Roosevelt for refuge but received no answer. The St. Louis was finally forced to return to Europe on June 6.

Throughout May and June, newspapers across the United States covered the plight of the refugees on board the St. Louis. However, reactions and opinions varied on the question of the refugees and on the related topic of immigration from Europe. For example, one letter to the editor, featured in Iowa’s Des Moines Register on June 11, was passionate in its support of the refugees: “As a human being, as a Christian, and as an American, I object to the treatment of 900 Jews aboard the ship ‘St. Louis.’ Surely […] we could shelter these tortured people until some permanent settlement could be made.”

In sharp contrast, another letter to the editor, this time from the De Kalb, Illinois, Daily Chronicle on June 20, took an isolationist stance regarding people fleeing Europe: “Until we [the United States] prove that we can handle our own political affairs intelligently, the proper thing for us to do is stay in our own back yard, lock the gate, and take care of our own troubles, which are plenty. Let Europe take care of their own destitute.”

Upon returning to Europe, the St. Louis was allowed to dock in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17. The United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands agreed to divide the passengers among them, but safety for many of the refugees was short lived. Except for the refugees accepted by the United Kingdom, many of the former passengers were subject to Germany’s destructive sweep across Europe during World War II; 254 of the St. Louis‘s refugees would die during the Holocaust.

Interested in the St. Louis or other subjects related to the Holocaust? invites you to participate in the History Unfolded project run by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As part of an effort to learn more about what Americans knew about the Holocaust as it was happening, the History Unfolded project asks people like you to search newspapers (on, for example) for Holocaust-related news and opinions and submit them online to the museum. Not only will your findings be made available to scholars, curators, and the public, but you’ll also be helping to shape our understanding of this important period of history. For more information on the project, visit the History Unfolded website.

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51 thoughts on “St. Louis Refugee Ship Forced to Return to Europe: June 6, 1939

  1. Is there a list of those who were on board and is there a list of those who were onboard who later died in the Holocust?

    1. There is an excellent book on the Tragedy of the St-Louis and the role that all countries from Germany, Cuba, the US and Britain played in denying entry to these Jewish refugees who knew that returning to Europe was a death sentence. Only Britain allowed a certain number of them entry. Unfortunately, the US never planned in allowing them entry. It is well documented.

    2. Photographs would be good, people not stripped, shaved, emaciated the stories I learnt as a 14 year old girl at school in England, our home with a bombs blast mark in the ceiling. America is about to sell 20 billions of dollars of arms to Saudia Arabia. People who are isolated through difference or envy become targets. The Inca used to sacrifice prisoners every year ( not defining what it took to be a prisoner) and then celebrated a great harvest, presumably because they shared the harvest. However if the prisoners grew the food and the next year their harvest was smaller then everyone loses out. The sale of arms and war and manufacturing methods peaked after WW2 and therefore prosperity seems to be linked to persecution an war and the suffering of others. All good people on the surface, but scratch a little and there it is in many at that’s why Trump has the top job, the antithesis in every way to Obama, the people, the college knew what they were voting for and lined what they saw. The same thing that killed off the American Indians, the aboriginal people was the desire for more land and saying we didn’t have enough, Yet our populations are many times greater now than they were, so we always had the capacity and grateful people work really hard. Ungrateful people don’t share because the assume what they have as a right. I’ve come across this sense of entitlement. The people of the holocaust and their children were frightened, desperate and trapped. I always wondered why they didn’t see it coming, they did and your story tells me why thanks. That other countries would not even give them shelter. Atrocities small and large are happening all over the globe. There is no mention here of Syria or The Yemen. I am English and white. I’d did not ask to be that colour or from that country or choose my parents. Having travelled the globe we all have basic needs to eat and he loved and provide security for our families. That is not incompatible with the security of those around us. We support charities that make the changes and offer our hands and hearts to those who cross our paths. We need to start with compassion not guns against people on a personal level. The vicious despot in Hitler and the people who followed him are still here in different forms . The most moving movie I ever saw was Schindlers list. Every time I get into an elevator with the manufacturer Scindler, I see the stones being dropped in a pile to represent each person who lived because of him. I celebrate his heartfelt duplicity and kindness but also see that his wife did not feel the same way. Not one human being should be subjected to that fear that persecution. The American people are looking at Trump in the mirror and like in 1939 are still liking what they see. Each person and each country has a responsibility not to turn their backs on the persecuted. We ought to give people shelter and not sell them arms. I’m from Manchester, my nephew was near the blast. Manchester responded with “don’t look back in anger” my sister said ” God the security guards must feel terrible” and of course the perpetrators need to be dealt with but not by blasting a whole people out of existence. If Yemeni and Syrian refugees right now pitched up on an Americas door the country and people would react with fear, the same fear and hate that was instilled in the young man who wanted to illustrate that Syrian children are being bombed – medicines sans frontiers hospital was bombed. We need to be working towards peace, war is not the answer and we are all humans. Each one of us with a responsibility not to hate because the likes of Auschwitch comes from a state of mind and a collective behaviour of terrible people. 1939 and that ship that could have saved as many lives but sent many to a terrible fate is what human beings do. The Challenge is the people with a rigid state of mind, that is righteous and superior greedy and lacks capacity to take responsibility for the suffering of others. That needs to change . We had enough resources then we most certainly do now. Maybe the Trump towers could be a sanctuary for refugees.

      1. How many refugees are you, personally going to be taking into your home? There are so many people willing to get up and “talk the talk” but when it comes down to it, will they “walk the walk”? Actions speak louder than words. My response to you is simple; cast not the first stone unless you are without sin. Fill your own home then talk to others about doing the same “Lead by example”.

      2. Your points are well taken, we do have a PEOPLE problem in this WORLD we are living on. I have a problem with POLITICIANS in general, they look out for themselves. It still amazes me about OUR ELECTORAL COLLEGE, that for one it was created for the JQPublic at large is not smart enough to know what is best. We have a flawed system. Billions of dollars are spent on ELECTIONS. My Mother taught me that if one wanted to run for office it was for CIVIC DUTY to SERVE, not to be paid for the rest of your LIFE. You were to put in your term and return to PUBLIC LIFE.
        You are so RIGHT, I have been saying for all my life that HITLER is ALIVE and WELL for his policy’s, Ideas, DREAMS are still living. His thinking and experiments are being carried out each and everyday.
        I pray each and everyday that WE can all live in PEACE and HARMONY. Have the RIGHT and Responsibility to the Pursuit of HAPPINESS for ourselves and to help those in NEED.

    1. Yes, it has already repeated itself in Rowanda, Dafur, Cambodia and Croatia.

      we humans can be despicable.

        1. and that has what to do with the Jewish people being forced to return to Germany and then loosing their live during the Holocaust, At that point in time, your so called Palestine did not exist and no one reakky cared. Tell me is your comment so important that you would have the nerve to make a comment like you did, As for the town that never really existed time to face facts the only folk harming them is them, So kindly stop comparing the above with the problems of jealous, uneducated automatons.Don’t think the Jewish people want to do all the work so that the squatters don’t as usual have to do anything

          1. I find it unhelpful to write aggressive polarised replies. It’s taking sides. Saying the other does not belong because they are new. White man invaded Australia and America. Germany killed people of a different coloured skin, others kill for religion and no religion, my back yard not your back yard. In the end it’s when people close their eyes to the plight of another who is not on their team. Rather than bending ourselves we would see the other huma, a person just like us, perish in terrible circumstances as though they somehow deserve it. This absolves the mind of responsibility. Since the West seems to have more resources than just about anyone in the world and they want to keep it, the real reason is fear and greed. Let’s work on those two across nations and use this 1939 example of placing human beings in peril at the stroke of a pen, blessed, silently by the majority of nations.

      1. Don’t forget the African American slavery holocaust and Asian sex slave trade happening right here in the good old USA

    2. Especially of how President Drumpf encourages Americans to discriminate against Mexican migrants, documented or undocumented. What a shame.

      1. I don’t know. Think how nice it would have been if the US had refused re-entry to Frederick Trump when Bavaria decided not to let him return their because he left to dodge the draft.

      2. Surely you are not going to compare the plight of Jews trying to escape anspeakable evil about to engulf entire Europe, extermination of millions with a desire of neighbours, who just lazy enough to get in line, get papers and get to US legally… Oh, but wait… That is exactly what you are trying to do… Shame on you.

      3. You obviously have not lived near the Mexican illegal immigrants like I have, they are the main reason we left California, my birthplace.

      4. What is even more a shame is people like you who choose to act ignorant about a sovereign nation and borders and laws. It is not anyone’s ‘right’ to enter the United States either legally or illegally. We have laws for that. This is about genealogy. Go somewhere else to spew your venom.

  2. During and after WW2 I was a student. There was never any mention of the Holocaust in any of our classes. I didn’t find out about it until I was an adult and studied history. My father was with the US liberation forces that found concentration camps in the woods in Germany and took the officers as prisoners of war and liberated the people in the camps. Then, the local townspeople were forced to take on the job of burying the dead and cleaning up the camps. The reason being, they knew about the camps and did nothing to stop the killing. Even the US troops didn’t know about the camps until after the war was over and Germany was opened up. I’m sure if the world knew of these camps, many prisoners would not have died.

    1. Really Jennette,? And you are how old? About 98 years old. Well, you’re a grand woman is you are still writing items from your protected little world of the 1930’s – 40’s.

      1. Actually, Jeannette could be as young as 75 and still have been a student during and after WW-II. Since you obviously were not alive during the 1940’s and know nothing of our world in that day and age, I suppose it is understandable that you have no respect for your elders’ opinions. It was a great time to grow up and people were nicer to one another. News took longer to reach us but it was news then and not all the celebrity bashing we have today.

        1. I’m 82 years old. Don’t assume anything about how much I know about WW2 and how many relatives I lost to concentration camps.

          1. Actually, I did not mean it as an insult to anybody, and I may not have been born in he 40’s but you should not assume that makes me ignorant of events, Dad by grace of God was born in the east end of London and saw the rise of the Brown shirts and saw local men chase them off whilst the police turned a blind eye, he heard the “rumours” he too lost relatives(as did I, I suppose) he’s 85 now but has a good recollection.

          2. thank you for your reply, I try not to upset anybody, although sometimes we do need to speak up. My respect to you for still highlighting that awful time

      2. Ok Connie, how’s this. I am only 48. I rented a room from a German man many moons ago. He was in the German army. At one point in his “career” they had him guarding the perimeter of one of the camps. He was about 16 y/o at the time. He was told that if he went past a certain spot, he would be shot on site. He said he saw the cattle trains going in, but was too far away to see what was in them. He did say the odor was unbearable at times and he wanted to check it out, but he didn’t want to get shot either. The whole time he told me his story, he cried, he was a good man in an impossible situation. As soon as he could, he moved here and created a good life for himself. Are you going to blame a 16 y/o boy for doing something that he had no knowledge of what he was doing or getting shot?

    2. And it was the Commanding Officer of those Liberation Forces that ordered pictures to be taken so that the world would know and remember what happened in those camps.
      The Japanese Prison camps were just about as bad in their own way. I know because my brother was in one from March of 1942 till it was liberated in August of 1945. He had just turned 18 when he was captured. He lived to come home, no thanks to his captors.

      1. My uncle, Ricard (Dick) Aust was an 18 yr old brand new Marine aboard the U.S. Houston when it was sunk by the Japanese, not far from New Guinea. He was not released from a POW camp until 1945.

    3. Jeannette, I’m French and I can confirm that American headquarter chef of Army, at this period knowed what happened in the german camps. They took photography by plane of those prisoners camps, and they know. If you search on internet I ‘m sure you’ll find something about what I say.

  3. All sorts of people including army staff knew, but it was the priority to win the war, for the ordinary people it could have meant there own family being sent to a camp if they stood up and was counted. There was some amazingly brave people, just not enough

    1. The german people were afraid to assist the people in the camps; because by doing so meant certsin death to them and their entire family. The germans get a bad rap for what one austrian and his lot did the germans did not want to be involved in what was going on..much like the crap our governments do to us today
      And yes I am a full german and i lived through it and lost my grandfather with a bullet to the head for helping his fellow human beings some of which he personally knew before the war…so just remember this not everything you read in the paper or history books is 100 % factual

      1. Your reply is important to remember. My maternal grandfather was born in Germany and became U.S. citizen. He spoke out against Hitler. My mother told me that during the war, people would harass the family.

  4. The God of US “Jews” Roosevelt did not let my people in. Yet today the same US “Jews” soeak of the constitution not allowing to stop Islamic terror from entering the USA. To be fair they speak of Muslims ignoring that this includes Isloamic terror while no terror was involved with Jews fleeing the Shoa including some of my family that thanks to Roosevelt went up in smoke having been refused a visa.

  5. When I was about 6 years old my father invited a refugee that escaped one of those camps to our home for dinner, he made it to America, and became a model citizen. He would never tell how he escaped, because he feared he might have to do it again! We used to have limits on how many immigrants from other nations could come to the USA. When the quota was reached, none could come in until the next year! There were exceptions for some cases.

  6. My husband’s grandfather escaped as a baby. I found his paperwork. All it says is that he came from Russia, with nuns, with a bunch of other babies. The paperwork just says “saved”. They ended up in Canada.There are no more records of him before that. Canada keeps the best records and with everything going on, I believe they may be the most humane country.

  7. Does it seem to anyone else that this article, while having historical significance , may have been timed to stir up the anti Trump crowd? hope not! Can we please leave politics out of this!

    1. The article was timed by the date of occurrence; the anniversary of the event, if you will. You should understand why politics are interjected. The article reference 3 political forces: Cuban political leadership, American political leadership (Roosevelt), German, and oh, the other countries that tried to help the Jews. So why would you not understand how people see similarities in the current political climate (Trump)?

      1. But this is a blog post about an event that happened in June 1939. It’s not the original newspaper article. That’s comparable to this being an editorial or opinion piece.

  8. Have you done or thought about an article on the ORPHAN TRAINS from New York to the mid-west during the 1890’s to 1930’s.

    1. I would be interested in learning more about the ORPHAN TRAINS too. I did stumble upon an interesting article about such trains from New York and Vermont going to Carroll County, Illinois in 1864.

  9. The title of the movie and the book upon which it was based was Voyage of the Damned.

  10. It seems here that again history repeats itself when desperate, impoverished, threatened and abused people can find no room in the inns of the world including America.

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