St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939. The vessel under command of Captain Gustav Schröder was carrying 937 refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. Upon the ship's arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government, headed by President Federico Laredo Brú, refused to accept the foreign refugees. Although passengers had previously purchased legal visas, they could not enter Cuba either as tourists (laws related to tourist visas had recently been changed) or as refugees seeking political asylum. On May 5, 1939, four months before World War II began, Havana abandoned its former pragmatic immigration policy and instead issued Decree 937, which "restricted entry of all foreigners except U.S. citizens requiring a bond of $500 and authorization by the Cuban secretaries of state and labor. Permits and visas issued before May 5 were invalidated retroactively. None of the passengers were aware that the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their landing permits.
Prohibited from landing in Cuba, Captain Schröder took the ship and its passengers to Florida. Some histories recount that on June 4, 1939, Schröder believed he was being prevented from trying to land St. Louis on the Florida shore. America not only refused their entry but even fired a warning shot to keep them away from Florida's shores". Legally the refugees could not enter the US on tourist visas, as they had no return addresses. The US had passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted numbers of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.
Schröder said he circled off the coast of Florida after leaving Cuba, hoping for permission to enter the United States. At one point, he considered running aground along the coast to allow the refugees to escape. He was shadowed by US Coast Guard vessels that prevented such a move. US Coast Guard historians maintain the two cutters involved were not ordered to turn away St. Louis, but dispatched "out of concern for those on board". Ultimately the United States did not provide for entry of the refugees.
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, many Jews within Germany decided that it was time to leave. Though many German Jews had emigrated in the preceding years, the Jews who remained had a more difficult time leaving the country because emigration policies had been toughened. By 1939, not only were visas needed to be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave Germany. Since many countries, especially the United States, had immigration quotas, visas were near impossible to acquire within the short time spans in which they were needed. For many, the visas were acquired after it was too late.
The opportunity that the S.S. St. Louis presented seemed like a last hope to escape.
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. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially "stateless."
The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and
had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United
States. But by the time the St. Louis sailed, there were signs that political conditions in Cuba
might keep the passengers from landing there. The US State Department
in Washington, the US consulate in Havana, some Jewish organizations,
and refugee agencies were all aware of the situation. The passengers
themselves were not informed; most were compelled to return to Europe.
The puzzling piece to this picture is where was President Franklin
Roosevelt? Why wasn't he involved in public explanations for these
serious decisions that were being made? Roosevelt denying the
passenger's access to the United States was ultimately a death sentence
to these people. With nowhere to go and a home country that was
waiting in Hamburg to send them to concentration camps, Roosevelt lack
of response clearly indicated that did not want to get involved in this
act of humanity. He could have issued an executive order to admit
additional refugees, which would have saved the lives of these
passengers. Instead he chose to keep silent about the whole situation.
When the usual suspects denounce Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American people, the American Jewish community, and Jewish leaders for their “deafening silence,” their “indifference” and for being “bystanders” to Nazi persecution, it is important to recall that our fellow Americans – Jews and Gentiles alike – actually did the right thing within the legal and political parameters that existed in May of 1939. None of the passengers on the S.S. St. Louis went back to Germany.