South Florida

The time Havana and Miami wouldn’t let a ship dock amid war. It was a deadly decision

In this file photo of June 1, 1939, the German liner St. Louis is denied entrance to the Havana, Cuba harbor. The ship, carrying 917 German Jewish refugees, was later denied entrance to the United States and returned to Hamburg, Germany.
In this file photo of June 1, 1939, the German liner St. Louis is denied entrance to the Havana, Cuba harbor. The ship, carrying 917 German Jewish refugees, was later denied entrance to the United States and returned to Hamburg, Germany. ASSOCIATED PRESS

It became known as the Voyage of the Damned.

A ship carried hundreds of refugees from Germany amid World War II, and it had nowhere to go.

Cuba refused port. Then, as it sailed off the Miami coast, the ship was refused U.S. entry and America turned it away.

In June 1939, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe, putting many of the Jewish refugees back into the hands of the Nazis.

Here is the story of the ship and its people told through the Miami Herald archives.

Members of the extended Heilbrun family on board the SS St. Louis.Photo courtesy UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MUSEUM


Published Jan. 29, 2017

On the day that President Donald Trump signed an executive action limiting immigration and refugees from war-torn nations, one man is trying to humanize the people whose lives are lost or saved by those decisions. Russel Neiss created the @Stl_Manifest twitter account to recount the fate of passengers on the St. Louis, a ship that fled Nazi Germany in 1939 with more than 900 Jews seeking refuge in Cuba and then Miami.

The ship was turned away, returned to Europe, and more than 250 of its passengers died at German hands.

“When we say we remember and when we say ‘never again,’ it’s important to actually remember and mean never again,” Neiss said. “We talk about refugees in the abstract. But these are real people whose lives hang in the balance. When we say no refugees allowed, there are real lives here women, children, men.”

Neiss, a 33-year-old Jewish educator in St. Louis, created a Twitter bot on Thursday night, after a discussion with a rabbi friend, to go live on Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Neiss said all of the data comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The automated program tweets a story every five minutes.

Two of Neiss’ grandparents fled the Holocaust in Europe, eventually gaining citizenship in the United States.

“It’s through the generosity of this country that I’m here today,” he said.

Neiss said he picked the St. Louis and its passengers because of its connection to America.

“We’re the good guys. We’re the ones who are supposed to be protecting people. This story has a lot of resonance to Americans,” Neiss said. “It’s important to learn from the past. A lot of the stories of victims of the Holocaust, Americans couldn’t do anything about. Here’s literally an example where hundreds of people could have been helped. “

As an American, this is one of those stories, to me, that kicks you in the shin a little bit. This is after Kristallnacht, this is after the Nazis have already targeted Jews,” Neiss said.

“Many of the passengers already had visas waiting to be approved. The U.S. government decided they weren’t going to let the refugees in.”

The United States has annual quotas on immigrants. In 1939, the quota for German-Austrian immigration was 27,370, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. A bipartisan bill that would have admitted an additional 20,000 Jewish children from Germany stalled in the Congress earlier that year.

The United States was still dealing with the effects of the Great Depression, and a Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Cuba allowed 29 passengers — 22 Jews with valid U.S. visas, six others with valid entry documents and a passenger who had tried to commit suicide — but the rest remained on board and headed for Miami.


The St. Louis stopped close enough to Florida to see the city’s lights, according to the museum, and it sent a cable to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never responded. Instead, the passengers on the St. Louis were told by a State Department telegram that they must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

The passengers returned to Europe, where they were taken in by several different nations. Of the 532 passengers trapped in Western European countries overrun by German forces, 254 died, many in concentration camps. Neiss’ automated Twitter program highlights those who died — and reminds followers that they were denied entrance to the United States.

“My name is Leopold Klein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at Auschwitz,” reads one entry. Another: “My name is Lilly Frankfurter. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered at Sobibor.”

In 2005, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror,” President Donald Trump said in a statement Friday. “In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”

Photos of Edith Babich and her family along with her passport that she used to board the SS St. Louis that was first turned away from Cuba and then Florida and sent back to Nazi Germany.(bottom photo on the right is Edith on board the ship, the two photos on the left in the frame are Edith’s parents and the photo to the right in the frame is Edith on board with her younger sister.)Edith was a passenger on board the St. Louis when she was 16 years old. She and other surviving passengers will meet for a reunion of their fateful voyage. Emily Michot Miami Herald File


Published Nov. 20, 2015

It would become known, with heartbreak and infamy, as the Voyage of the Damned.

In 1939, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany hovered aimlessly for 72 hours just a couple of miles off the Florida coast while Jewish leaders in Washington frantically begged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let the passengers into the United States.

“So near, and yet so far,” one passenger murmured to her husband as they watched traffic darting about Miami Beach. Farther than she even guessed.

Roosevelt said no, and the SS St. Louis sailed back to Europe, where World War II was just weeks away. Many of the passengers would fall back into the hands of the Nazis they were trying to escape. About 250 of them did not survive the war.

The decision to turn away the St. Louis was a grotesquely ugly moment in American history, one for which Congress and the U.S. State Department would eventually apologize.

Now the governors of 26 states are urging President Barack Obama to turn away another group of refugees, 10,000 people fleeing the civil war in Syria.

So: Is this another St. Louis moment?

“Not at all,” declares Herbert Karliner, a retired Aventura baker who was aboard the St. Louis the day the United States sent it packing and lost most of his family as a result.

“You can’t compare this to the St. Louis, not at all. ... No one doubted who we were, people trying to get away from Hitler. But these people from Syria, I’m afraid some of them could be troublemakers.”

A thousand miles miles north, in Neptune, New Jersey, one of Karliner’s former shipmates, retired Defense Department budget analyst Eva Weiner, disagrees, at least a little bit.

“The situations are comparable,” she says. “However, we are living in a different time today. I’m not saying deny them all entry, but we must be cautious. ... A blanket statement either way is totally wrong, I think.”

The St. Louis has become a rhetorical touchstone in the fierce debate over the Syrian refugees, which erupted after last week’s murderous attacks in Paris by radical Muslim terrorists. Critics of Obama’s plan to bring them to the United States say refugee status could easily be used to mask terrorist sleeper cells.

As evidence, they cite the fact that at least one of the Paris terrorists apparently carried a forged Syrian passport used by a refugee to enter Greece in October.

Whether the terrorist is the man who used the passport, or it’s just a false trail left to confuse authorities, is still unknown. But supporters of the Obama policy argue that refusing the refugees is a dumbfounding and unforgivable repetition of the callous decision to send so many of the St. Louis passengers to their graves.

“Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child,” wrote one Washington Post columnist earlier this week. Among survivors of the St. Louis and scholars who have studied the incident, there are differing opinions about drawing parallels between the world of 1939 and the one of 2015.

But even those who see a congruence in the two agree that there are important differences.

“The blood lines are pretty clear in the case of Germany,” says Robert Krakow, executive director of the Boca Raton-based SS St. Louis Legacy Project. “The Nazis are coming for the Jews to kill them or incarcerate them. In the case of the Syrian refugees, it’s more blurred, because we don’t know, person by person, who is aligned to who. ... The factionalism of that area of the world is almost impossible to define.

“So, the lines are blurred. But where they converge is human suffering.”

The St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, bound for Cuba. Many of them had decided to flee Germany after the night of Nazi rioting known as Kristallnacht for all the broken glass in Jewish shops and homes. Thousands of Jewish men — including the fathers of Karliner and Weiner — had been rounded up after Kristallnacht and sent to concentration camps.

They were released only when they promised to leave Germany within six months, not easy in a world where the high unemployment of the Great Depression —- still lingering in 1939 — had triggered almost universal immigration crackdowns.

Cuba, where public officials were making fortunes selling immigration documents, was an exception. But by the time the vessel arrived two weeks later, the country was being rocked by a corruption scandal — stirred up in part, researchers would later discover, by German intelligence agents in Havana — and the government allowed only about two dozen passengers to come ashore, including one who had attempted suicide. The rest stayed aboard for the ill-fated trip to Florida.

When first the United States and then Canada rejected them and the ship headed back to Europe, a few staged a half-hearted and short-lived attempt at mutiny, and many others forged a mutual suicide pact. They backed down only when the ship’s sympathetic captain, Gustav Schröder, promised them he would scuttle the ship in British waters rather than return them to Germany.

It didn’t come to that. Great Britain finally agreed to take about half the passengers, while France, the Netherlands and Belgium took the rest. Because Hitler never invaded Great Britain, all the passengers who went there survived, but the casualty rate in France was high and in Belgium and the Netherlands it approached 100 percent.

“If we hadn’t gotten lucky and been sent to England, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” says the 76-year-old Weiner. The biggest difference between the St. Louis passengers nearly eight decades ago and the Syrian refugees of today, it would seem obvious, is that the St. Louis passengers were rejected not because anybody suspected them of being secret Nazi spies and saboteurs, but because they were Jews.

“Poll after poll at that time showed that 40 percent of the American public had anti-Semitic attitudes,” says Stuart E. Eizenstat, who held senior policy positions in the Carter and Clinton administrations and is now Obama’s special advisor for Holocaust issues. “It was not the United States of today. Many universities, and many professions, had Jewish quotas to limit their numbers. Jews were not popular, and that was a factor for Roosevelt.”

Adds Weiner: “Nobody on the St. Louis was a threat to anyone else. The passengers were well-educated, they had a lot of money — it was a luxury liner, they had to have money to afford the tickets. They weren’t rejected because they were going to hurt anybody.”

Eizenstat, who has closely studied the U.S. government’s handling of the St. Louis, understands the concern about terrorists posing as refugees. He nonetheless thinks the problem can be overcome, citing two much bigger influxes of refugees from hostile regions: the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who came to the United States after the communist victory in South Vietnam in 1975, and the more than 100,000 Cubans who came during the 1979 Mariel boatlift.

“In both those cases, we set up screening centers and we weeded out the people who might have been spies or government agents,” he said. “In the case of the Vietnamese, in particular, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were serious, hard-core — well, we didn’t use the word terrorists, but that’s what they were. But we kept them out. We can do that with the Syrians, too. I have confidence in the FBI and CIA and Homeland Security.”

“We worried about it, because we were paid to worry about it,” says Raymond Batvinis, a former FBI agent who participated in the Mariel screening, who now teaches at George Washington University and has written two books on the bureau’s counterintelligence operations. “There were some people about whom we for sure had suspicions. But in the end, at least to my knowledge, we never found anyone who was a Castro spy.”

However, Batvinis thinks that worries about spies or terrorists disguised as refugees are quite sensible. And if there weren’t any spies among the St. Louis passengers, he adds, it probably wasn’t for lack of the Nazis trying.

“They certainly used refugees to spy in the United States,” he says. At least four German refugees — two of them Jewish — surrendered to the FBI as soon as they arrived, confessing that they had been coerced into working for the Nazis. A fifth, who didn’t turn himself in, was caught, convicted and sent to prison.

The possibility of terrorist sleeper agents is not the only difference St. Louis survivors see between themselves and the Syrians. While Germany was changing rapidly under Hitler, they say, refugees fleeing the country were fundamentally products of western democracy.

The Syrians are not, and they don’t want to play by the rules of western liberalism, but change them.

“By the time I got here, after the end of the war, I had $5 in my pocket,” says Karliner, 89. “I got a job, learned the language, and more than anything else, I wanted to be a good American citizen. I got drafted and sent to Korea, and I wasn’t very happy about it, but I knew I had to do my duty like everybody else.

“The United States was made by refugees, who came and worked hard. But on these refugees from Muslim countries, I’m not too keen. Everywhere they’ve gone, there’s been trouble. Bombs in Spain, bombs in England, bombs in France. It’s not all of them, I know. But there are some we’re going to have trouble with.”

No one doubted who we were, people trying to get away from Hitler. But these people from Syria, I’m afraid some of them could be troublemakers.

A front page of the Miami Herald at the time.


Published May 27, 2014

Jewish refugees boarded the transatlantic S.S. St. Louis on May 13, 1939 in Hamburg, Germany, to travel to Havana, they thought the voyage would at long last free them of Nazi persecution. But for many, the journey was doomed to fail because of strong anti-immigrant sentiment that prevailed in Cuba.

Most of the refugees crossing the Atlantic never made it to land, and many ended up facing death in a European concentration camp.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ordeal, the Jewish Museum in Miami recently hosted a panel that examined the facts surrounding the St. Louis voyage and shared new information on the issue. The event — organized by Florida International University’s Latin America and Caribbean Center (LACC), Holocaust Studies Initiative and Cuban Research Institute — brought together Scott Miller, head curator of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Herb Karliner, survivor of the St. Louis; Frank Mora, director of LACC and Margalit Bejarano, historian and emeritus professor at the University of Jerusalem.

According to the panel, the boat arrived in Cuba in the middle of a complicated political and economic climate. The official Cuban immigration policy at the time was marked by strong nationalism, and foreigners were perceived as threats to employment.

The Nationalization of Employment Law of 1933 was a big blow to immigration, for it established that 50 percent of workers at every company had to be Cuban nationals. According to the daily newspaper El Mundo of May 23, 1939, while the St. Louis was still crossing the Atlantic, the Cuban Treasury Department planned to add an amendment to the law banning the landing of “individuals who were born in or were from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Germany, Turkey, Romania, Russia, China, Jamaica, Haiti and Japan.”

In that context, the government of then-Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú was under an intense anti-immigration campaign, bordering on anti-Semitism, by the Cuban media. A Diario de la Marina editorial on May 14, 1939, called on the government to stop the “immigration flood that has descended upon our country. If we continue our policy of half-open doors, if not completely open, to the numerous European refugees, we will soon begin to feel the consequences. ... It will not be long before they find what they are seeking: employment. And thus the unemployment problem will intensify. Shortly after, protests will rise. ... We have to look after our own house. ... This is not about xenophobia but about prudence.”

Historian Bejarano said that the media campaign had been sponsored by the Gestapo. The organization went as far as recruiting Juan Prohías, who had founded the Cuban Nazi Party and disseminated anti-Semitism on radio and other media.

Bejarano said the St. Louis voyage, as well as the anti-immigration media campaign, was orchestrated by the German Ministry of Propaganda to sway international opinion and show that Nazi Germany allowed Jews to leave freely — while at the same time fomenting hostile receptions in other countries.

The St. Louis passengers were trapped in a power struggle between President Bru and Col. Fulgencio Batista, who was then the Army’s commander in chief and protector of Col. Manuel Benítez, director of immigration. A fourth player was Secretary of State Juan J. Remos, who opposed Benítez’s corruption.

Cuba was becoming a transit stop for Jewish refugees, most of whom hoped to enter the United States. The U.S. government had established a quota system that regulated the number of immigrants by nationalities and many Jews were to arrive in Cuba to wait for their visas.

On the part of Cuba, the official process to obtain an immigrant’s visa required a $500 bond to be handed to Benítez, who had to sign his approval before the shipping company could sell the fares. The Cuban State Department had to review the permit issued by Benítez and investigate the financial situation of every immigrant before extending their visas.

Facing the possibility of an outburst of refugees escaping Fascism, Benítez saw the opportunity to get rich and decided to sell tourist visas for $150. Official documents show that he issued 5,000 visas for Jewish immigrants between January and April that year.

It is known that a good part of that revenue was earmarked to military schools under Batista. However, on May 5, President Bru handed a big blow to that business when he signed Law Decree 937, which established that all foreigners, including tourists and people in transit, wanting to enter the country — with the exception of U.S. citizens — had to deposit $500 besides obtaining a “personal visa” authorized by the departments of State, Labor and Treasury to be stamped at Cuban consulates abroad.

When the boat sailed on May 13, most of the refugees aboard the St. Louis had permits acquired for $150 from Benítez, who had assured the German shipping company Hapag that the new decree would not affect its passengers.

But the fate of the St. Louis had been sealed on May 5.

Upon the boat’s arrival at the Port of Havana in the early hours of May 27, Bru had issued a special order prohibiting its entrance to the port and a police patrol boat escorted it to a roadstead. Only 22 refugees could change their permits for regular visas after paying $500 and were able to land. Another passenger attempted suicide by cutting his veins and jumping into the water, while another six obtained last-minute visas thanks to arrangements made by the Cuban ambassador to the United States. Karliner, the St. Louis survivor on the panel, talked about the anguish among the passengers after their entrance was denied.

“There were rumors of a possible wave of suicides,” he said.

But the St. Louis was not the only boat carrying Jewish refugees to Havana. The Orduña left Liverpool, England, on May 11 and arrived in Havana also on the May 27. It carried 68 refugees whose documents were accepted by the Cuban authorities, but another 72 could not disembark.

The next day, on May 28, authorities also denied another boat, the Flandre, permission to dock. Only six Jewish passengers who had legal visas were allowed to come ashore. On May 30, Lawrence Berenson, an envoy from the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, arrived in Havana to convince the Cuban government to allow the refugees from all three boats to enter the country. However, on June 2, the St. Louis was forced to abandon Cuban waters with 907 refugees remaining aboard. Many had relatives already in Havana who came near the ship on a small boat to say goodbye, shouting, “You will not be returned to Germany!”


As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s webpage explains, the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the waters to prevent anyone from jumping overboard or the captain from docking. But the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office has denied that version, saying that there were no orders to intercept the boat.

The Coast Guard was there only to protect the passengers’ lives, it said. Many of the refugees had already applied for visas in U.S. consulates in Europe. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government insisted that they had to wait until the visas were granted before being allowed into the country. Mora, LACC’s director, pointed at some facts that could help to provide a context to the United States’ refusal to accept the refugees. Among them, he mentioned the unfavorable political climate for immigration, the 1938 economic recession and the fact that Roosevelt did not want to upset voters, as he was considering an unprecedented political move: a third term. Unable to dock in Florida, Schröder headed again to Cuba, where he hoped that Berenson’s continuing efforts with the Cuban government had produced positive results.

Officials asked Berenson for $150,000 as a guarantee, which also included the passengers of the other two boats. Then they demanded payment of the official visa ($500 per person), which raised the figure to close to a half-million dollars.

Berenson was committed to pay more than half of that amount immediately, and a hopeful moment emerged when President Bru announced that he was willing to grant temporary asylum to the passengers in a transit camp on the Isle of Pines, south of Havana province.

Berenson made an appeal to the media, published also by the Diario de la Marina: “Gentlemen, have mercy on these poor people. They have already received enough punishment and you should look at them with compassion. They will not break any law in this country and we, in the Committee, assure you that they will not be a public burden.”

However, after a closed-door meeting between Bru, Col. Batista and other officers on June 6, the Cuban government blamed Berenson for not complying with an alleged 48-hour ultimatum to deliver the cash bond and therefore declared the St. Louis case closed. Thanks to efforts made by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the boat did not return to Germany but to Belgium.

The Dutch government, as well as those of Holland, France and England, accepted the Jews. But by 1940, the passengers, except those who found shelter in the United Kingdom, found themselves again under the Nazis’ control.

Miller and Sarah Ogilvie, of the Holocaust Museum, were able to track down many of the passengers. About 80 made it to the United States before 1941 after they received their immigrant visas. Others, less fortunate, were sent to concentration camps.

More than 200 died in the Holocaust. Miller and Ogilvie estimate that of the 620 passengers who returned to the European continent, 365 survived the war, among them Karliner, who arrived in France and was able to fool the Nazis pretending to be a French Catholic.

Many years later, he returned to Miami Beach as a master baker.