Books: Part history, part mystery — the passengers of the S. S. St. Louis

“Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust” by Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller set a difficult task for themselves. Writing their book was easy. So, too, was researching what happened on the voyage of the St. Louis, the Hamburg-American line ship that traveled from Germany to Cuba in May 1939, carrying 937 passengers who were escaping Nazi Germany. The authors’ greater challenge was to uncover the fate of the passengers after the ship had been turned away from numerous ports. Their dogged pursuit of all leads yielded some surprising results.

Some of the passengers had come from concentration camps to the ship’s dock, because in 1939 if Jews could provide evidence that they would leave Germany, they could be freed from the camps.

They were men, women and children of privilege and initiative. Some traveled first class; others had used their last marks to escape. They had secured passage on a luxury liner that would transport them to freedom. When they departed from Germany, they carried what they assumed were valid visas to enter Cuba. Their departure was without melancholy; they knew they had to leave, and they must have felt privileged to escape. Their voyage was actually joyous: For the first time in years they were treated by the German staff — under the leadership of a most decent captain — as guests, not as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, no Jew could feel secure in Germany. None could imagine that things would get better under the current regime, and it took little foresight to leave Germany then. But opportunity was scarce. The British had limited immigration to Palestine because of the White Paper; the United States had instituted quotas, based on the census of 1890, designed to preserve the original racial stock; and immigration from Central and Eastern Europe was tightly restricted, inadequate for the number of German Jews fleeing for their life. Money could buy entry into Cuba; thus, for the well-heeled, Cuba presented an opportunity — or so it seemed.

As many readers know before they even begin the book, the visas were declared invalid before they passengers departed. This fact was known to the shipping company, but not to the passengers, who arrived in Havana and only then learned that they could not disembark. Then the diplomatic game began. Cuban officials were notoriously corrupt, so the question was not whether they would accept a bribe, but what price would be appropriate. The greater the attention paid to the ship’s passengers and the more prominent the voyage, the higher the price.

Would Jewish organizations, most specifically the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), consent to offer a bribe? If so, what precedent would this set regarding Jews who were fleeing by the tens of thousands, not just by the hundreds? Could illicit means accomplish the goal? Would Jewish organizations then be held hostage by corrupt and corruptible regimes? Could they afford the sums requested? Would the American government succumb to public pressure and accept these refugees rather than force the ship to return to Germany?

As anyone who has studied the American response to the Holocaust knows, the ship saw the lights of Miami, but was not permitted to enter its harbor. The U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the waters of the Atlantic — some say to prevent the ship from entering, others say merely to make sure that its whereabouts were known. The German captain Gustav Shroder was a quiet hero, doing all within his power to bring the passengers to safety and to pervert their descent into the abyss. Hopelessness was their companion; each rumor gave them a moment of respite and then was crushed by reality.

In the end, the ship was unable to find a place to discharge its passengers in the New World, but passengers did not have to return to Germany. The “great diplomatic triumph” was that the passengers would disembark in other European countries. France, Belgium and Holland accepted 628 of the passengers. More than 280 were sent to England, 21 had valid entry permits to Cuba, one attempted suicide and was hospitalized in Havana. Within a year, only those passengers who found haven in England were safe, as Nazi Germany invaded the other countries of refuge.

Almost everyone who has written about this sad chapter in history assumed that the fate of the passengers who disembarked in Europe was similar to that of the Jews of Europe — deportation to death, to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec or Sobibor. Ogilvie and Miller painstakingly traced each of the 937 passengers. The fate of some was found in records of the death camps; others in the National Archives, for they had emigrated after the war. The archives of the JDC also yielded important results, since they kept track of the passengers even in the lands of their haven. The authors then began the hard task of tracking the remaining passengers, person by person, story by story.

They received anonymous tips and unsolicited calls, each of which they tracked down. Important conversations followed. The authors divided the work: Ogilvie was the researcher, Miller was the networker. She worked in archives, he by telephone or e-mail.

(Here the reader should know that I mentored the careers of the book’s authors for almost a decade, more than a decade ago. Had they written a bad book, I would have been reticent to criticize them, for we must assume responsibility for those whose careers we have influenced. But since they have written a fascinating book, permit me to reveal my subjective prejudices and let the reader compensate accordingly.)

Visits to people yielded further contacts with other people. The authors employed the vast resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and its worldwide reaches. The list of unknown passengers grew shorter month by month.