On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938, the increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") pogrom in November, and the subsequent seizure of Jewish-owned property had caused a flood of visa applications. The plight of German-Jewish refugees, persecuted at home and unwanted abroad, is illustrated by the voyage of the St. Louis.
With Hitler's rise to power, the Nazis began the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.
Nazi violence and the destruction of Jewish-owned property spread throughout many cities during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938.
Many Jews decided to leave Germany in the face of this growing threat.
Their preferred destinations were the British Mandate of Palestine, and the United States.
However, both imposed quotas strictly limiting the number of emigrants.
Desperate to escape Nazi Germany, 937 passengers, almost all of them Jewish refugees, boarded the ship St. Louis and departed Hamburg for Havana, Cuba, on May 13, 1939.
About two weeks later, they arrived in Havana.
Cuban officials refused to allow the refugees to land, claiming that the passengers' landing certificates, purchased from a corrupt consular official in Germany, were invalid.
Only 28 passengers – among them 22 Jews who had secured valid Cuban visas – were allowed to disembark in Havana.
The rest lingered on the ship for five days as a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with the Cuban government.
Negotiations failed. The ship was ordered out of Cuban waters, and sailed slowly toward Miami.
Telegrams requesting refuge were sent to the White House and U.S. State Department, but entry was denied. The St. Louis turned back toward Europe.
During the return voyage, four western European countries agreed to take the refugees. The passengers disembarked in Antwerp on June 17, 1939, after more than a month at sea.
With the German invasion of western Europe in 1940, many of the St. Louis passengers were again trapped under Nazi rule.
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