Turned Away on the M.S. St. Louis

Holocaust survivor Sol Messinger describes his experiences attempting to emigrate from Germany to Cuba in 1939 aboard the ship the M.S. St. Louis.

Transcript (Text)

Anyway, we arrived in Havana, Cuba on the 27th of May. I remember it because it was my mother's 34th birthday, the 27th. But there had been—I don't know, there was some disquiet among some of the passengers. Apparently, there had been rumors towards the end of the trip that there were going to be problems. Don't ask me how those rumors started or why they started. I have no idea.

But there was a certain disquiet. And, of course, you know, children feel this. And I realized that it wasn't the way it was at the beginning of the trip. And this was accentuated because we didn't actually dock at a pier in Havana Harbor. But we just stayed in the harbor. And you know, people started saying, well, why aren't we docking?

Well, at first they said, Well, we can't dock until morning. I believe it was a Friday evening. Anyway, the next morning, the 28th of May, we didn't dock again. And then, I don't know exactly when it came out, but we were told that the visas which had been issued to the passengers on the St. Louis had been declared invalid. And there we were in Havana Harbor.

Well, pandemonium broke loose in the ship. I mean, I just remember some scenes vaguely. But I remember my parents being extremely upset. My mother was crying, you can imagine. And of course, because my parents and everybody else was upset, I was upset. I understood. I understood that we might not be able to get off the boat.

Of course, many of these people on the boat had relatives in Cuba already. And so what these relatives started doing was they hired these little fishing boats, and these fishing boats started sailing around the ship, trying to find, you know, get a glimpse of their relatives. And that's where I learned my first Spanish word, which was mañana. Everybody was yelling, mañana, which meant, of course, tomorrow. Tomorrow, you'll disembark, tomorrow. And it was a scene, a real scene, all these fishing boats, you know, just circling around.

One day, my parents and I were standing on deck, and we saw my relatives in this little fishing boat. And I looked down. And I said to my mother, I said, You know, that fishing boat that my aunts and cousins and uncles were on, it looks like it's right next to our cabin. Why don't we run down and see if that's so? So we ran down. We opened the porthole, and they were right there, right there. We don't have to shout to them. We could talk.

And I don't know which day it was after we had arrived, but anyway, my aunts and uncles tried to reassure us. They said, You know, the Jewish organizations are doing everything they can. Don't worry. I can't imagine that you're here, they're not going to let you get off. It'll just take another few days. You know, you don't worry. Everything will work out all right.

It was June 1st, I think. We started sailing out of Havana harbor. I don't know if you can imagine what people felt. I mean, here we were, we had left Germany where it was so terrible, and here we were, a few hundred feet away from safety, and we weren't being allowed to land there.

Well, you know, there was—the mood on the ship was horrible, and people did threaten to commit suicide. And so the captain apparently told this committee, the passengers, that what he would do was not sail directly back to Havana—I'm sorry, back to Hamburg, but that he would sail along the coast of Florida while more negotiations were going on with Cuba, so that maybe Cuba would change its mind and we could just go back there, and also that we could make representations by telegram and so on to the United States government as well as other governments in the Western hemisphere.

Certainly, the Jewish groups in the United States and Europe continued to try to find some place for us to go besides going back to Germany. And indeed, I think it was two days or one day before we were actually supposed to land in Hamburg that we got word that four countries had agreed to split up the passengers on the ship, on the St. Louis, and those four countries were England, France, Belgium, and Holland. We were going to actually land in Antwerp, and then people who were assigned to the various countries would be taken there in one way or another. Now, we ended up in Belgium. How, why we ended up, how they picked people to go where, I have no idea.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.