The St. Louis

The German luxury ship, the St. Louis, sailed to Cuba with over 900 passengers on it, only to be turned away and sent back to Europe.

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Occasionally, a name or a phrase such as “Remember the Maine,” or “Watergate” enters the national lexicon. One such name has been burned into the collective memory of American Jewry: the St. Louis, a German luxury cruise ship which on May 27, 1939, steamed into Havana harbor with more than 900 German Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression, each with the letter “J” stamped in red on their passport. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana, its Jewish passengers were forbidden to come ashore. Despite the efforts of the American and Cuban Jewish communities to persuade the Cuban government to let the Jews land, on June 6th the vessel departed to return to Germany–and certain death for the refugees.

Until the late 1930s, Cuba had been a haven for European Jews. Especially since Manuel Benitez Gonzales, Cuba’s director general of immigration, willingly sold visas for a fee, 500 refugee European Jews a month were landing in Cuba in early 1939. Some went on to other destinations, but the Cuban Jewish population rose to 4,000 in 1938 and continued to increase sharply. With the deepening of the worldwide economic Depression, the spread of Nazi propaganda and the association of Eastern European Jews with socialism, Cuban president Laredo Brú felt the public pressure to reduce the number of Jewish immigrants.

Brú also felt the wrath of Benitez Gonzales’s rivals in government, who wanted their share of the visa-selling business. They convinced Brú to curtail Gonzales’s authority, and persuaded Brú to announce that prospective immigrants must post $500 to guarantee that they would not become a public burden. On May 5, 1939, Brú decreed Gonzales’s old visas null and void; starting May 6, immigrants had to post the bond.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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