Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba. Photo via WikiCommons.

Haunted by the Voyage of the Damned


“What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare. As the Trump Administration works to bar the admission of individuals from Muslim-majority countries without regard to their individual backgrounds or fears of persecution in their homelands, we should remember the tragic fates of those aboard the St. Louis, as they fled the persecution of Nazi Germany. The willful failure of the United States to offer refuge to those on the St. Louis is an object lesson for us on how a great democracy, founded on the humanitarian principle that all people are created equal, but constrained by a prejudiced public and leaders without fortitude, may turn its back on frightened souls yearning to be free.

On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis departed the port of Bremen, Germany, filled with 937 persons, the overwhelming majority of them Jews. Some were German citizens from Eastern Europe, and others were categorized as stateless. All of the passengers held Cuban entry visas, and most hoped that after landing in Havana they would continue to the United States and settle there. However, unbeknownst to the passengers, the Cuban government had revoked their visas a week earlier, asserting with little evidence that their entry documents had been obtained fraudulently (sound familiar?).   When the ship arrived in Havana, only 29 of the passengers were allowed to disembark. The Captain of the St. Louis, Gustav Schroder, a decent man sympathetic to his charges, steamed his ship toward South Florida. Meanwhile, Jewish organizations lobbied the U.S. government to admit the remaining passengers from the St. Louis as a humanitarian exception to the immigration quotas then in effect under U.S. law. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State refused to lift the quotas, an isolationist Congress rejected the idea of any special legislation, and President Franklin Roosevelt declined to issue an Executive Order allowing the Jews to enter the United States. Passengers on the St. Louis claimed that they could see the lights from Miami as the ship turned back toward Europe, where the ship landed in June 1939. n the end, 288 passengers were allowed entry to the United Kingdom, and 224, 214, and 181 were admitted to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, respectively, where they were soon caught in the Nazi invasion and occupation of those three countries. By the end of World War II, 254 of the Jewish passengers of the St. Louis had been murdered. Their blood stained the conscience of our own country.

The tragedy of the St. Louis and the repressive and mean-spirited policies of the Trump Administration are not identical, but they are chilling enough to give us pause. When the St. Louis was turned away from the U.S., 83% of Americans polled by Fortune magazine opposed the admission of Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution. In March of 2017, the Denver Post reported that 52% of all Americans polled supported greater restrictions on the admission of refugees into the United States. While the recent figures appear to reflect a great improvement in public attitudes, it should be remembered that a majority of Americans are today concerned about a further mass influx of refugees that is unlikely to occur: Germany, for example – yes, Germany, the nation that murdered so many on the St. Louis – has taken more refugees in the past year than we have in the past 10 years. President Trump’s Draconian efforts to stop individuals, including would-be asylum seekers, from entering the United States from blood-soaked, war-torn Syria, Yemen, and other Muslim countries, is an excessive restraint on immigration where there already exists detailed vetting of would-be refugees and visitors, and where there is no evidence that a tidal wave of foreigners is set to besiege the airports of America. Indeed, the fear (or pretense) of the Administration and many in Congress that without a travel ban we are on the verge of an invasion of dangerous Middle Easterners is belied by the fact – the real fact, not a false or alternative fact – that virtually all of the Islamist terrorists who have murdered and injured Westerners, including very recently and tragically in Manchester, England, were homegrown. Furthermore, the demagogic statements from many of our political leaders about the possible invasion of our country by dangerous foreigners sound eerily similar to the rhetoric anti-Semites in and out of government who opposed the post-World War II admission of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust because of the lie the would-be immigrants were criminals and communists.

History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. As we approach the 78th anniversary of the tragic odyssey of the St. Louis, we should be mindful that the presidential and political paranoia about today’s immigration challenges needs to be overcome by common sense and compassion, lest the ghosts of the passengers of the Voyage of the Damned haunt us forever.


Bruce J. Einhorn is a retired federal judge, a law professor, and the Founding Chair of the Committee for the Persecuted and Enslaved, a nonprofit refugee assistance organization.

+