On this day June 4, 1939

The German ocean liner MS St. Louis, carrying 963 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution, was denied permission to land in the United States, after already having been turned away from Cuba.

Schröder negotiates landing permits

Schröder negotiates landing permits

St. Louis sailed from Hamburg in May 1939, carrying one non-Jewish and 936 (mainly German) Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.

On the ship’s arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government under Federico Laredo Brú refused the passengers both entry as tourists or political asylum. This prompted a near-mutiny. Two passengers attempted suicide and dozens more threatened to do the same. However, 29 of the refugees did manage to disembark at Havana.

On June 4, 1939, the St. Louis was also refused permission to land her passengers under orders from President Roosevelt as the ship waited between Florida and Cuba.

The St. Louis then tried to enter Canada but was denied permission as well.

Captain Gustav Schröder, the commander of the ship, was a non-Jewish German and an anti-Nazi who went to great lengths to assure dignified treatment for his passengers, arranging for Jewish religious services and commanding his crew to treat his refugee passengers as they would any other customers of the cruise line.

As the situation of the vessel deteriorated, he personally negotiated and even schemed to find them a safe haven (for instance, at one point he formulated plans to intentionally 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 of the passengers had been given entry to some other country.

The ship returned to Europe, first stopping in the United Kingdom, where 288 of the passengers disembarked. After much negotiation and pressure from Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers disembarked at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France, 214 by Belgium, and 181 into the Netherlands. They were thus safe from Hitler’s persecution until the German invasions of these countries in May 1940. Without its passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg and survived the war.

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