MS St. Louis

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"SS St. Louis" redirects here. For other uses, see List of ships named SS St. Louis.
SS St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in its home port of Hamburg
MS St. Louis surrounded by smaller vessels in its homeport of Hamburg.[1]
Name: St. Louis
Owner: Hamburg-America Line
Port of registry:
  • Weimar Republic Hamburg (1928–33)
  • Nazi Germany Hamburg (1933–46)
  • Allied-occupied Germany Hamburg (1946–49)
  • West Germany Hamburg (1949–52)
Builder: Bremer-Vulkan Shipyards in Bremen, Germany
Laid down: June 16, 1925
Launched: August 2, 1928
Maiden voyage: March 28, 1929
Fate: Scrapped in Bremerhaven, Germany, 1952
General characteristics
Tonnage: 16,732 gross register tons (GRT)
Length: 574 ft (175 m)
Beam: 72 ft (22 m)
Propulsion: M.A.N. diesels, twin triple-blade propellers
Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h/18 mph)
Capacity: 973 passengers (270 cabin, 287 tourist, 416 third)

The MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner most notable for a single voyage in 1939, in which her captain, Gustav Schröder, tried to find homes for 908 Jewish refugees from Germany. After they were denied entry to Cuba and the United States, the refugees were finally accepted in various European countries, and historians have estimated that approximately a quarter of them died in death camps during World War II. The event was the subject of a 1974 book, Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. It was adapted for a 1976 US film of the same title.


Built by the Bremer Vulkan shipyards in Bremen for the Hamburg America Line, the St. Louis was a diesel-powered ship and properly referred to with the prefix "MS" or "MV", but she is often known as the "SS St. Louis". The ship was named after the city of St. Louis, Missouri. Her sistership was the Milwaukee. The St. Louis regularly sailed the trans-Atlantic route from Hamburg to Halifax, Nova Scotia and New York and made cruises to the Canary Islands, Madeira and Morocco. The St. Louis was built for both transatlantic liner service and for leisure cruises.[citation needed]

"Voyage of the Damned"[edit]

The 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.[2][3] 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."[4] None of the passengers were aware that the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their landing permits.

The journey to Cuba was a joyous affair. The passengers aboard the St. Louis were "treated with contempt before they boarded, but once on the ship they were treated like privileged tourists."[5] "Crew members treated the passengers well—Captain Schröder insisted on this. Elegantly clad stewards served foods that by 1939 were rationed in Germany; there was a full-time nursemaid to care for small children when their parents sat to eat. There were dances and concerts, and the captain allowed passengers to hold Friday evening religious services in the dining room and even permitted them to throw a tablecloth over a plaster bust of Hitler that sat there. Children were given swimming lessons in the on-deck pool. Passengers felt that they were, in the words of Lothar Molton, a boy traveling with his parents, on "a vacation cruise to freedom".[6]

The ship dropped anchor at 04:00 on May 27 at the far end of the Havana harbor and was denied entry to the usual docking areas. The next six days on the harbor were tumultuous times. It was finally announced that passengers arriving on the ship would only be allowed to enter if they had official Cuban visas.[7] Thus, only 29 passengers were allowed to disembark in Cuba. Twenty-two of them were Jewish and had valid US visas; the remaining six—four Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals—had valid entry documents. Another passenger, after attempting to commit suicide, was evacuated to a hospital in Havana.[8]

Boarding at Hamburg Harbor

Telephone records show the situation was discussed by American officials Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, and Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury. These members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet tried to persuade Cuba to accept the refugees. Their actions, together with efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were not successful.[9]

Prohibited from landing in Cuba, Captain Schröder took the ship and its passengers to Florida. It is not known why Schröder did not proceed to the Dominican Republic, whose officials at the Evian Conference in July 1938 offered to accept 100,000 Jews. Some histories recount that on June 4, 1939, Schröder believed he was being prevented from trying to land the St. Louis on the Florida shore. Reports from that time were conflicting. 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 the St. Louis, but dispatched "out of concern for those on board".[10] Ultimately the United States did not provide for entry of the refugees.[10]

As the St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada tried to persuade the nation's Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to provide sanctuary to the ship's passengers, as it was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia.[11] But Canadian immigration official Frederick Blair, hostile to Jewish immigration, persuaded the Prime Minister on June 9 not to intervene. In 2000, Blair's nephew apologized to the Jewish people for his uncle's action.[12]

Captain Schröder,[13] the commander of the ship, was a non-Jewish German who went to great lengths to ensure dignified treatment for his passengers. He arranged for Jewish religious services and commanded his crew to treat the refugee passengers as they would any other customers on the cruise line. As the situation of the vessel deteriorated, he personally negotiated and schemed to find them a safe haven. (At one point he formulated plans to wreck the ship on the British coast to force the passengers to be taken as refugees.) He refused to return the ship to Germany until all the passengers had been given entry to some other country. US officials worked with Britain and European nations to find refuge for the travelers in Europe.[9] The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939 with 907 passengers.[14][15]

The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers (31.76 percent), who disembarked and traveled to the UK via other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France (24.70 percent), 214 by Belgium (23.59 percent), and 181 by the Netherlands (19.96 percent). Without any passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg. The following year, after the Nazi German invasions of Belgium and France in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were at renewed risk, including the recent refugees.[16][17]

St. Louis Captain Gustav Schröder negotiates landing permits for the passengers with Belgian officials in the Port of Antwerp.

By using the survival rates for Jews in various countries, Thomas and Morgan-Witts, the authors of Voyage of the Damned, estimated that 180 of the St. Louis refugees in France, 152 of those in Belgium, and 60 of those in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust. Including the passengers who landed in England, of the original 936 refugees (one man died during the voyage), roughly 709 survived the war and 227 did not.[18][19]

Later research by Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found that fewer had actually survived and estimated 254 deaths:

"Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, we determined that eighty-seven were able to emigrate before Germany invaded western Europe on May 10, 1940. Two hundred fifty-four passengers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands after that date died during the Holocaust. Most of these people were murdered in the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór; the rest died in internment camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis. Three hundred sixty-five of the 620 passengers who returned to continental Europe survived the war."[20]


After the war, Captain Gustav Schröder was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1993, Schröder was posthumously named as one of the Righteous among the Nations at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel. A display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of the voyage of the MS St. Louis. The Hamburg Museum features a display and a video about the St. Louis in its exhibits about the history of shipping in the city. In 2009, a special exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia entitled "Ship of Fate" explored the Canadian connection to the tragic voyage. The display is now a traveling exhibit in Canada.[21]

In 2011, a memorial monument called the Wheel of Conscience, was produced by the Canadian Jewish Congress, designed by Daniel Libeskind with graphic design by David Berman and Trevor Johnston.[22] The memorial is a polished stainless steel wheel. Symbolizing the policies that turned away more than 900 Jewish refugees, the wheel incorporates four inter-meshing gears each showing a word to represent factors of exclusion: antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and hatred. The back of the memorial is inscribed with the passenger list.[23] It was first exhibited in 2011 at Pier 21, Canada's national immigration museum in Halifax. After a display period, the sculpture was shipped to its fabricators, Soheil Mosun Limited, in Toronto for repair and refurbishment.[24]

Later career[edit]

The MS St. Louis was adapted as a German naval accommodation ship from 1940 to 1944. She was heavily damaged by the Allied bombings at Kiel on August 30, 1944, but was repaired and used as a hotel ship in Hamburg in 1946. She was later sold and was scrapped in 1952.[citation needed]

Representation in other media[edit]

See also[edit]

  • SS Patria, sunk by a Haganah bomb on 25 November 1940 in the Port of Haifa.
  • SS Navemar, designed for 28 passengers, in 1941 the vessel carried 1,120 Jewish refugees to New York.
  • MV Struma, a schooner chartered to carry Jewish refugees that was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine on 5 February 1942.
  • MV Mefküre, a schooner carrying Jewish refugees that was torpedoed and sunk by a Soviet submarine on 5 August 1944.
  • Komagata Maru, a merchant ship carrying Asian migrants that was denied entry to Canada in 1914.


  1. ^ Photo Archives United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  2. ^ "United States Holocaust Memorial Museum completes ten-year search to uncover the fates of St. Louis passengers" (Press release). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. October 6, 2006. Retrieved July 17, 2007. 
  3. ^ Rosen, p. 563.
  4. ^ Robert M. Levine, Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993), p. 103.
  5. ^ Levine, p. 105.
  6. ^ Levine, pp. 110–111.
  7. ^ Levine, p. 114.
  8. ^ Holocaust Encyclopedia - Voyage of the St. Louis
  9. ^ a b Robert Rosen, "Carter Library Speech" on "The S.S. St. Louis", Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust; retrieved August 10, 2009.
  10. ^ a b "The St. Louis", US Coast Guard's official FAQ; retrieved August 10, 2009.
  11. ^ "Maritime Museum Exhibit on Tragic Voyage of MS St. Louis", November 5, 2010, Nova Scotia Government Press Release; accessed September 12, 2014.
  12. ^ "Clergy apologize for turning away the St. Louis", CBC website; retrieved 2008-05-08.
  13. ^ "Gustav Schröder", Yad-Vashem, Retrieved Aug 10, 2009
  14. ^ GEORGE AXELSSON, "907 REFUGEES END VOYAGE IN ANTWERP", New York Times, June 18, 1939
  15. ^ Levine, p. 118.
  16. ^ Rosen, pp. 103, 567.
  17. ^ "The Tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis". Retrieved July 17, 2007. 
  18. ^ Rosen, pp. 447, 567 citing Morgan-Witts and Thomas (1994) pp. 8, 238
  19. ^ Rosen, Robert (July 17, 2006). Saving the Jews (Speech). Carter Center (Atlanta, Georgia). Retrieved July 17, 2007. 
  20. ^ Miller and Ogilvie, pp. 174–175.
  21. ^ "Traveling Exhibit MS St. Louis Ship of Fate", Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
  22. ^ Studio Daniel Libeskind,, January 19, 2011; retrieved January 21, 2011.
  23. ^ Taplin, Jennifer. "Perpetual Memorial of Regret", Metro News Halifax, January 21, 2011; retrieved January 21, 2011
  24. ^ "Exhibitions", Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21,; accessed September 12, 2014.


  • Whitaker, Reginald (1991). Canadian Immigration Policy. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association. ISBN 0-88798-120-8. 
  • Miller, Scott; Sarah A. Ogilvie (2006). Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-21980-2. OCLC 64592065. 
  • Rosen, Robert (2006). Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 978-1-56025-778-3. OCLC 64664326. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Levinson, Jay. Jewish Community of Cuba: Golden Years, 1906–1958, Nashville, TN: Westview Publishing, 2005. (See Chapter 10)
  • Morgan-Witts, Max; Gordon Thomas (1994). Voyage of the Damned (2nd, revised (first in 1974) ed.). Stillwater, Minnesota: Motorbooks International. ISBN 978-0-87938-909-3. OCLC 31373409. 
  • Ogilvie, Sarah; Scott Miller. Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
  • Rosen, Robert. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006.

External links[edit]