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"We knew what was waiting for us there": 80 years ago, Jews tried to escape from Nazism, but the US refused to accept them

13 May 1939, the ship St. Louis with 937 passengers on board sailed from German Hamburg to Havana. Most of his passengers were Jews who had fled from Germany, from pogroms, violence, discrimination and camps. But neither in Cuba, nor in the USA, nor in Canada were refugees allowed to get off the ship. They were sent back to Europe. A third of St. Louis passengers did not survive the Holocaust.

Фото: Depositphotos

The story of this tragic voyage told the publication “Currently,".

On the night of November 10, 1938, throughout Germany, in the annexed Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, wave of anti-Jewish riots: about 400 Jews were killed, 30 thousands more were sent to camps. Three months later, most of the prisoners were released on the condition that they leave Germany.

That night went down in history as the Crystal, or the Night of Broken Storefronts. After it, the Jews began to leave Germany en masse. One of the ways to escape the Nazis was a Cuban visa for many: Cuba was almost the only country that accepted Jews. For permission to enter and a ticket on the liner, the refugees gave the last money. There, in a more relaxed atmosphere, they hoped to wait for a US visa: US immigration quota numbers allowing entry into the country after three years were at St. Louis's 734 passengers.

Luxury liner after a miserable life in Berlin

Gisele Kniepel (in Feldman marriage) was 15 years old when she and her mother and younger sister set sail for St. Louis. Gisela survived the war and the Holocaust, later in an interview she repeatedly told her story.

On the eve of the Crystal Night in Berlin, the SS men arrested her father, a native of Poland. He was waiting for the deportation.

Gisela remembered the broken glass on the sidewalks after the pogrom of the night, looted shops and burning synagogues. Their apartment was given to a German family, and she, her sister, and mother had to move in with her aunt, whose husband was also deported.

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Gisela's mother repeatedly tried to get a visa anywhere, just to leave the country. So she found out that the Cuban embassy was selling entry visas, and she managed to get them - the day before the sailing of St. Louis.

“When we boarded the ship, I felt a mixture of relief and awe. The food was great, we were served by the waiters! We have never lived in such luxury. The holiday atmosphere reigned, we enjoyed the fun ”, - told Gisela Knepel in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle.

Only Gisela's mother was not happy: she left her husband in Germany, despite his pleas not to leave him. In addition, with them for three they had only ten German marks.

“But we were children, and on the ship there were cinemas, comfortable cabins and a pool. It was such a contrast to our miserable life in Berlin! ”, Recalled Gisela Knepel.

The captain of the ship did his best to make the trip enjoyable. He allowed the portrait of Hitler to be removed from the wall in the room where the passengers held Saturday services, the women brought their candlesticks, and on Friday evening there was a very family atmosphere, Knepel recalled.

Фото: Depositphotos

Captain Gustav Schroeder

Liner "St. Louis" commanded by Gustav Schroeder. He remained the last captain in the Hamburg-America shipping company who did not join the Nazi party of the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers' Party) and did not wear a swastika. He was well aware of the passengers aboard the ship, and insisted that the crew treat them with all respect.

It was thanks to Gustav Schroeder that the passengers of the liner managed to escape the Nazi camps. He became a hero to them.

On May 23, the captain received a telegram stating that St. Louis passengers would not be able to go ashore in Havana. Tourist visas, which are so hard to get people proved to be invalid.

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Even before the ship’s departure, it turned out that the Minister of Internal Affairs of Cuba, Manuel Benitez, had issued visas on his own initiative and had appropriated all the money received for them. The Cuban government, upon learning of fraud, canceled documents. But none of the passengers before the departure of the liner knew that their visas were invalid.

"St. Louis" arrived in Havana on May 27. Only 22 passengers with US visas were able to get ashore. The rest were refused entry.

Fred Buff, who sailed the liner (in 1939, he was 17 years old), in an interview with Jewish Standard in 2009 I toldthat the mood of the passengers has changed dramatically and quickly.

“There was despair. The ship hospital was full of depressed people. We hoped that we would not return to Germany - it would have been a disaster: we knew that we would be waiting there, ”he said.

One of the passengers tried to commit suicide. It was Max Lev, previously a successful lawyer. At the age of 14 years he managed to participate in the First World War and get a reward for heroism. Having been in the Nazi concentration camp at the end of the 1930-s, Lev always saw the surveillance of the SS and Gestapo agents. In Havana, he lost his nerve: a man cut his veins and rushed into the water. The sailor saved him, from the ship Lev was taken to the hospital. So Max Löw was the first refugee to hit the Cuban land. His wife and children not allowed leave the ship. (Later, having recovered, he was able to return to the family, which at that time lived in France).

"St. Louis" stood on the roadstead off the coast of Havana for four days. On June 1, 1939, Captain Schroeder received an order to leave the territorial waters of Cuba. For almost five days the ship was near the Cuban coast in the hope that the authorities would cancel the decision.

At this time, a refusal came from the United States: Secretary of State Cordell Hull advised Roosevelt not to accept Jews.

Captain Schröder circled off the coast of Florida: he thought that you could run aground off the coast and allow the refugees to escape. But the US Coast Guard did not allow this to happen: when the ship approached Miami, American boats blocked his way to the port of the city.

Canada could become another rescue option. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, receiving a request for asylum from St. Louis passengers, passed it on to Immigration Director Frederick Blair, who is known for his hostility towards Jewish immigration. He convinced the prime minister not to interfere.

6 June 1939, St. Louis was forced to return to Europe.

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The ship panicked, the passengers almost staged a revolt. However, Captain Schroeder assured everyone that the ship would not return to Germany until all the passengers received asylum. Moreover, he developed a plan for an emergency, according to which the airliner was to crash off the coast of England in order to force the British authorities to take measures to rescue passengers.

Fortunately, as a result of the negotiations of the “Joint” charitable organization (“American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee”) with the authorities of some European countries, refugees from St. Louis agreed to accept Holland - 181 man, France - 224, United Kingdom - 228 and Belgium - 214.

How it all ended

Passengers were able to leave St. Louis 17 on June 1939 of the year. They went ashore in Antwerp and dispersed to the countries that agreed to receive them. By 1940, all the passengers of the liner, except for those who fled to England, were again in the hands of the Nazis. Of the 288 passengers sent to England, all but one survived the war and the Holocaust. 254 people in other European countries were killed in concentration camps.

Gisela Knepel, her mother and sister were in the UK. Her father died during the Holocaust.

Captain Gustav Schroeder, after 1940, never went to sea again. Thanks to the testimony of some of his surviving refugee passengers, he was freed from the denazification process. In 1949, he published a memoir on the voyage of the St. Louis.

Gustav Schröder died in 1959, at the age of 73. In Germany, Schroeder was awarded the Order of Merit, in Hamburg one of the streets was named after him. In 1993, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial awarded Schröder posthumously Righteous Among the Nations.

Apologies later xnumx years

In 2000, the nephew of the Director of the Immigration Service of Canada, Frederick Blair apologized before the Jewish people for the actions of their uncle.

U.S. Department of State apologized passengers of St. Louis in 2012 year. The official ceremony was attended by Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and 14 surviving passenger ships.

In May, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter, that the Canadian government will soon apologize for its role in the fate of the ship’s passengers. Official apology followed in November of the same year.

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