The Voyage of the St. Louis | Facing History & Ourselves

The Voyage of the St. Louis

Consider why countries including the United States refused to accept Jewish refugees aboard the M.S. St. Louis who sought escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.
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At a Glance

reading copy


English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

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.

A previous version of this newly revised reading was titled “The Failure to Help.”

By 1939, nearly half of the 1933 Jewish population of Germany had left the country. Now, after Kristallnacht, the remaining Jews were desperate to get out. To do so, they needed visas to enter another country. Among those who had the “right papers” were the 937 men, women, and children who boarded a ship, the St. Louis, in Hamburg, Germany, on May 14. Each had paid $150—a significant sum of money in 1939—for written permission to enter Cuba. But only a few people on the ship wanted to stay in Cuba. Most were on a very long waiting list to immigrate to the United States.

As the St. Louis neared Cuba, the Cuban government, in response to pressure from Cubans opposed to increased Jewish immigration, suddenly canceled the landing permits of all Jewish passengers. When the ship docked in Havana, only about 30 passengers were allowed ashore (all were non-Jews or Jews with special visas). The rest were forbidden to enter the country. While the ship remained in the harbor, two passengers attempted suicide, and one of them succeeded. To prevent other attempts, the crew lowered lifeboats and shone lights on the waters around the ship. Special patrols were added after the captain heard rumors of a mass suicide pact among the passengers.

Refugees Aboard the St. Louis

Refugees Aboard the St. Louis

Passengers aboard the St. Louis, seeking refuge from Nazi-occupied Europe, wait to find out if they will be allowed entry into Cuba in June 1939.

National Archives and Record Administration, courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

When news of the first suicide attempt reached the United States, many Americans demanded that their government accept the passengers immediately. Others sent the Cuban government telegrams of protest, but neither nation was willing to reconsider its refusal to admit the St. Louis’s passengers. As a result, the ship was forced to leave Cuban waters on June 2 with all but 30 passengers still on board. Unsure of where to take the remaining passengers, the captain marked time while Jewish organizations tried desperately to find a country willing to accept the refugees. Within two days, every country in Latin America had refused to do so.

As the ship slowly headed north, a number of prominent Canadian citizens asked Prime Minister Mackenzie King to help the St. Louis passengers. He quickly made it clear that he was “emphatically opposed” to allowing them to enter Canada. Immigration Minister Frederick Blair agreed. He pointed out that “if these Jews were to find a home [in Canada] they would likely be followed by other shiploads.” The line, he insisted, “must be drawn somewhere.” 1

On June 7, the captain had no choice but to return to Germany with most of his passengers still on board. The Nazis turned the incident into propaganda. They claimed that it demonstrated that Jews were universally disliked and distrusted. On June 10, Belgium accepted 200 passengers from the St. Louis. Two days later, the Netherlands promised to take in 194. Britain and France admitted the rest. 

Furious at the role the US government had played in the crisis, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, wrote:

[The] press reported that the ship came close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city. The press also reported that the U.S. Coast Guard, under instructions from Washington, followed the ship . . . to prevent any people landing on our shores. And during the days when this horrible tragedy was being enacted right at our doors, our government in Washington made no effort to relieve the desperate situation of these people, but on the contrary gave orders that they be kept out of the country. . . . The failure to take any steps whatsoever to assist these distressed, persecuted Jews in their hour of extremity was one of the most disgraceful things which has happened in American history and leaves a stain and brand of shame upon the record of our nation. 2


Connection Questions

  1. What was the reason given by each country that refused to receive the refugees on the St. Louis? What were some consequences of their refusals?
  2. From the story of the St. Louis and the controversy over the children’s immigration bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (see reading, World Responses to Kristallnacht), what conclusions can you draw about the universe of obligation of the United States in 1939? How do the words included in this reading from the resident of Virginia add to or complicate your answer?
  3. In 2015, millions of refugees from a civil war in Syria tried to flee to safety in Europe. The government of Iceland initially agreed to accept 50 refugees. One Icelandic citizen posted the following statement to Facebook:
    Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we'll never be able to say to: “Your life is worth less than mine.”

    Compare this response to the one from the person in Richmond, Virginia. How are they similar and different? What ways are available to individuals today to help others in need in far-away places?

  • 1Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 63–64.
  • 2Quoted in Arthur Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Overlook Press, 1985), 280.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "The Voyage of the St. Louis," last updated August 2, 2016.

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