Voyage of the St. Louis The voyage of the St. Louis, a German ocean liner, dramatically highlights the difficulties faced by many people trying to escape Nazi terror. In May 1939, 937 passengers, most Jewish refugees, left Hamburg, Germany, en route to Cuba. Most of them planned eventually to emigrate to the United States and were on the waiting list for admission. All passengers held landing certificates permitting them entry to Cuba, but when the St. Louis reached the port of Havana, the President of Cuba refused to honor the documents.

After the ship left the Havana harbor, it sailed so close to the Florida coast that the passengers could see the lights of Miami. The captain appealed for help, but in vain. US Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom and did not allow the ship to dock in the US The St. Louis turned back to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and France admitted the passengers. But within months, the Germans overran western Europe. Hundreds of passengers who disembarked in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France eventually fell victim to the Nazi "Final Solution."

Key Dates

Saturday, May 13, 1939
937 Jewish refugees flee Nazi Germany and sail for Havana, Cuba

A German passenger ship, the St. Louis, leaves the port of Hamburg with approximately 900 passengers, mainly Jewish refugees holding Cuban landing permits. On 15 May 1939, the St. Louis stops in Cherbourg, France, to take on more passengers. The total number of passengers reaches 937. The ship sails for Havana, Cuba. What the captain and the passengers do not know, however, is that the Cuban government has invalidated all landing permits.

May 27, 1939
Cuban president denies entry for refugees

The St. Louis arrives in the Havana port, but the passengers are not permitted to leave the ship. The Cuban president, Federico Laredo Bru, refuses to accept their landing permits. Less than 30 passengers meet the new visa requirement and are allowed to enter Cuba. The ship remains anchored in the Havana harbor for six days in the hope that the refugees will eventually be allowed to land. Jewish refugees already in Cuba take boats into the harbor to get a glimpse of family members on the ship. On June 2, 1939, President Bru insists that the St. Louis leave the Havana harbor. The ship sails north, close to the Florida coast. The refugees hope that the United States will permit them to land.

June 6, 1939
Jewish refugees abandon hope of refuge and sail for Europe

After failing to dock in Cuba and the United States, the St. Louis is forced to return to Europe. Other countries agree to take the refugees. Belgium takes 214, the Netherlands 181, Great Britain 287, and France 224. On June 17, 1939, the St. Louis docks in Antwerp, Belgium, and the passengers are taken to their countries of refuge. Hundreds of passengers who disembarked in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France eventually fall victim to the Nazi "Final Solution."