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May 13: The St. Louis Sets Sail

Lawrence Bush
May 13, 2010

st_louis_2passengersOn this date in 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis embarked from Hamburg, destination Havana, with 937 passengers aboard, nearly all of them German-Jewish refugees from Nazism. Although the Cuban government had sold them visas, it refused to allow them to disembark when they arrived two weeks later. The St. Louis was also denied port in the United States, Canada, and the Dominican Republic, and was forced to return to Europe on June 6th. The governments of Belgium, Holland, France and the United Kingdom agreed to accept the refugees, but by 1940, all except those who were in England were living once again under Nazi rule; 254 died in the Holocaust. The historian and biographer Peter Gay arrived in Cuba with his family on a ship that sailed two weeks before the St. Louis and saw it at anchor, which he wrote about in My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1999).
“We were the human garbage barge.” —Alice Oster, passenger

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.