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Jewish refugees trapped between U.S.

immigration laws
and duplicitous Cuban ofcials face a return to Nazi Germany
by Barbara D. Krasner

The refugee ship St. Louis sets sail
from Hamburg, Germany, on May 13,
1939, with 937 Jewish refugees bound
for Cuba. A ship-to-shore radiogram
in German (inset) was sent by Moritz
Schoenberger to family on Long Island,
N.Y., on May 25. Schoenberger reported
he was “physically and spiritually
recovered” from his trek and was “most
confdent about reaching Havana.”
The message is signed “Kisses, papa.”
Two days later the ship was denied
entry to Cuba and was forced to return
to Europe, where Schoenberger
was interned in occupied France; he
eventually made it to the United States
and became an American citizen in 1946.
AUGUST 2014 55

Hull merely replied, “Yes.”
Morgenthau, himself of German-Jewish descent, continued.
“And there have been so many things back and forth as to what
could or couldn’t be done.”
He then suggested possible courses of action to help the
refugees. But in the end, Hull said, “Well, this—you see, this is
a matter primarily between Cuba…and these people…and not
between this Government.”
Since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as chancellor of Germany
in 1933, Jews had been the target of restrictions, boycotts and
attacks. In 1935 he stripped them of their citizenship. By 1938
it became clear that Germany was no place for Jews. In July,
representatives from 32 countries attended a conference in
Evian, France, called by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
to discuss the plight of Germany’s Jews. Holland and Denmark
ofered temporary asylum to a few refugees. Te Dominican
Republic ofered to take 100,000 Jews. No one else spoke up,
just as Hitler expected, not even the United States, which re-
fused to alter the strict quotas that limited immigration to the
country. Ten Hitler ratcheted up the pressure. On November
9-10, 1938, his Brown Shirts enacted the orgy of terror called
Kristallnacht—Night of Broken Glass. Tey desecrated and
burned more than 1,000 synagogues, vandalized tens of thou-
sands of Jewish shops and arrested a quarter of the Jewish male
population, taking them to the concentration camps at Buch-
enwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau.
Lawyer Josef Joseph from Rheydt in western Germany was
one of those arrested, but because he was well known in his
town, authorities detained him in the local jail. Once back
home and stripped of his law practice, Joseph moved to get
his wife and 10-year-old daughter, Liesl, out of Germany. He
applied for a visa to the United States, where immigrants with
close relatives were given preferred status. His wife’s family in
Philadelphia provided an afdavit of sponsorship, but the visa
number was high. A friend in Cuba ofered to sponsor the Jo-
sephs until their number was called. Ten Joseph saw the ad
for the St. Louis luxury liner bound for Cuba. He called the
Hamburg-Amerika shipping line to make a frst-class reserva-
tion for his family and procured the special landing permits
required by the Cuban immigration ofce.
On the morning of November 10, 1938, 10-year-old Hans
Fisher got up for school as usual and lef his apartment build-
ing in Breslau in eastern Germany. “I noticed mounds of bro-
ken glass on the sidewalk,” he remembered later. “I suddenly
saw before me a large crowd, including some of my school
mates, stopped by a police wooden barricade. Before I even
had a chance to talk to anyone, a cry went up from the crowd,
‘Look, look, the synagogue is on fre!’ ” Hans ran home to tell
his parents. Within a few minutes, two Gestapo agents were at
the door. Tey ordered Hans’ father to pack a small bag with
socks and underwear. He was taken to Buchenwald.
Because Mr. Fisher had been decorated with the Iron Cross
for his military service to Germany in World War I, he had an
entry visa to Panama. (Holders of the Iron Cross or other med-
als sometimes received such special dispensation.) Fisher was
released from Buchenwald in January 1939 on the condition
that he leave Germany within two weeks. He complied but fa-
vored Cuba over Panama, so he secured a visa and settled in
Havana in early February. Te family prepared to meet him
there, but Hans contracted scarlet fever and the trip was delayed
for nearly two months. Finally, Hans’ mother bought passage to
Cuba on the St. Louis for herself, Hans and his older sister.
Herbert Karliner, 13, and his family—parents Josef and
Martha, and siblings Ilse, 16, Walter, 14, and Ruth, 12—trav-
eled from Peiskretscham in eastern Germany to board the St.
Louis in Hamburg. Josef had spent three weeks in Buchenwald
afer his arrest during Kristallnacht, and Martha bought him a
visa for Shanghai. But he did not want to go to China alone,
and eventually they found that the entire family could enter
Cuba, where Martha’s brother lived and worked as a lawyer.
Fritz Buf, 17, traveled alone. He was attending a trade
school in Munich, away from his parents and sister in another
part of Bavaria. His family, whose ancestors had lived in Ba-
varia since the early 1600s, had already registered with the U.S.
consulate for their visas. Te plan was for Fritz to leave frst
and the rest of the family would soon follow. He noted in his
n the afernoon of June 5, 1939, Sec-
retary of the Treasury Henry Mor-
genthau Jr. placed a call to Secretary
of State Cordell Hull. “Cordell, some
of my good friends in New York have
called me up about this terrible tragedy
on this boat the St. Louis with those 900 refugees on it.” Mor-
genthau was referring to German-Jewish refugees bound for
Cuba who were denied landing in Havana harbor.
“Europe cannot settle down until the Jewish question is cleared up,”
said Adolf Hitler in 1939 in what is now known as the “prophecy speech.”

diary, “It is with mixed feelings that we aboard take our own
personal farewell from Germany by trying to sever all memo-
ries of our lives to date. . . . With tears in our eyes we could not
completely forget what we called our home, our place of birth.”
He and others clung to the telephone at the pier to say their last
goodbyes to family and friends.
aptain Gustav Schroeder, his crew and the 937
passengers on the St. Louis lef Hamburg on May
13, 1939, unaware that on May 5, the Cuban gov-
ernment had enacted Decree 937 rendering the
landing permits worthless. New arrivals had to
have written permission from the Cuban secretary of state
and secretary of labor and post a $500 bond. (American tour-
ists, however, were exempt from the bond.) Although both
Hamburg-Amerika and the American Jewish Joint Distribu-
tion Committee (JDC, a relief organization that helped Jews
worldwide) received warning, neither alerted the St. Louis that
the refugees would be refused admission.
Captain Schroeder learned the truth during the voyage. He
formed a passenger committee and asked Josef Joseph to serve
as its chairman. On May 23, a committee member asked, “Are
we here to prepare for returning to Germany?”
“At this stage, the answer is no,” Schroeder replied. “We will
sail to Havana. But I cannot say what will happen when we
reach there.”
Despite the uncertainty, the passengers enjoyed their cruise.
Said Hans Fisher, “We really felt free, even though it was still
a German boat.” Schroeder agreed to passenger requests to
cover or remove the portraits of Hitler displayed in the public
rooms. Afer two weeks at sea, the ship prepared for its fnal
approach to Havana. Passengers reported to the purser’s ofce
to collect their landing cards for disembarkation. Tey packed
and placed their luggage outside their cabin doors.
Te St. Louis pulled into Havana’s harbor in the predawn
hours of Saturday, May 27. A trumpet played “Freut Euch des
Lebens”—“Be Joyful About Life.” Fritz Buf wrote, “We came
aboard this ship in Hamburg as individuals with a common
destiny, and we will leave this ship like a community that has
had the good fortune to travel together.” But he wondered,
“When can we ever again experience such joyful days?”
Joseph brought Liesl on deck. “It was like a paradise,” she
remembered later. “Tere were palm trees and pastel-colored
houses and fowers. Te day that we were supposed to get of,
the luggage had been brought up, there was a lot of excitement
and activity going on. A few people had gotten of already
when everything stopped. Everybody got a little bit upset and
they asked the shore patrol that had come aboard what was
going on. ‘When can we get of?’ And the answer was always
‘Mañana,’ with a smile.”
Twenty-two passengers with the required documentation
were allowed to disembark. Fify members of the Cuban police
patrolled the decks and secured the gangways. Hans Fisher’s
father was waiting for him: “Little rowboats appeared that
circled the ship, and my father was on one of them, but you
could barely see one another, you couldn’t speak. First of all
there was so much noise because there were so many, but also
we were so high up, you couldn’t talk.”
An anti-Semitic poster linking Jews and communism was placed on
the window of a Jewish-owned shop in San Francisco in 1938, the year a
Gallup poll found that half of all Americans had a “low opinion” of Jews.
Roosevelt and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau on the eve of
the 1940 election. Critics charged FDR with showing undue deference
to Jewish advisers and vilifed the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.”

In retaliation for the murder
of a German embassy ofcial
in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish
Jew, Jewish communities
throughout Germany were
violently attacked in November
1938. Propaganda minister
Joseph Goebbels announced
that, in response to the murder,
the Nazi Party would hold
no ofcial “demonstrations…
but insofar as they erupt
spontaneously, they are not
to be hampered.” Thousands
of synagogues and Jewish
businesses were destroyed, 91
Jews were killed and 30,000
Jewish men were arrested.
Among the scenes in Berlin
(clockwise from top): a smashed
storefront in the Judengasse
(“Jews Alley”); cleanup at the
Jewish-owned Kaliski Bedding
Establishment; and the burned-
out Fasanenstrasse Synagogue,
the remains of which were
destroyed in an Allied bombing
raid in 1943.
Kristallnacht: Night of Broken Glass

Negotiation was the only hope for the passengers of the St.
Louis, and responsibility for it fell to New York City lawyer Law-
rence Berenson, representing the JDC. President of the Cuban
Chamber of Commerce, a personal friend of Cuba’s powerful
military leader Fulgencio Batista and counsel to the Republic
of Cuba, Berenson had credentials and connections. He arrived
by seaplane on May 30, but he cautioned the JDC: “It will take
money more than anything else to buy them their freedom.”
On board the St. Louis, some of the refugees were getting
desperate. Max Loewe locked himself into the men’s room on
A Deck and slit his wrists. Ten he jumped overboard. Te
ship sounded a long blast and crew members raced along
the deck. One sailor dove into the water and grabbed hold of
Loewe, who resisted, shouting, “Let me die, let me die!” But he
was pulled to safety. His family was not allowed to accompany
him to a Havana hospital, where he again attempted suicide.
(Loewe survived and was later reunited with his family.) Cap-
tain Schroeder formed a suicide watch of 15 men to patrol the
decks in two-hour shifs.
Te hulking ship became a tourist attraction as photog-
raphers and newsreel flm crews aimed their cameras at the
passengers. In New York, relatives and friends raced to Times
Square to pick up the latest newspaper reports. Demonstra-
tions broke out in Atlantic City, New York, Chicago and Wash-
ington. Concerned American Jews sent messages to President
Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes—who had
proposed a plan to settle Jewish refugees in Alaska—Roman
Catholic cardinals and Supreme Court justices, urging them
to do whatever they could to get Cuban president Federico
Laredo Brú to repeal Decree 937. On board, the radio ofcer
tapped out innumerable messages pleading for help. Female
passengers pressed for support from the Cuban president’s
wife. Mrs. Brú did not respond. Children wrote to frst lady
Eleanor Roosevelt. She did not respond.
Meanwhile, Berenson received word from Batista that he
had arranged an appointment with Brú for Tursday, June
1. At the president’s palace, Berenson made his plea to allow
the refugees of the ship, but he didn’t get the reaction he ex-
pected. Instead, Brú barked that the St. Louis had to leave Ha-
vana: “Te ship must go out. I won’t permit it to remain in the
harbor. I will talk to you afer that is done.” Berenson pleaded
once more. Brú said, “Tree miles is all that is necessary and
the minute it is out come back with the plan and I will be ready
to go over it with you.” Berenson had no choice but to comply
with the president’s demands, and Captain Schroeder received
a written order to take his ship into international waters im-
mediately. He was only able to negotiate another 24 hours to
take on food and supplies.
Liesl Joseph recalled, “When the day of departure came
[June 2], it probably was one of the darkest days in the lives of
everybody, and the shore patrol followed the ship to make sure
nobody jumped overboard, but in the meantime they were
shouting us farewell and communications would go on. ‘Most
likely you’ll be back here in a few days and everything will be
OK.’ But it didn’t happen.”
Josef Joseph wrote in his diary, “From here on in, what had
started as a voyage to freedom became a voyage of doom.”
he Cuban government stipulated payment of $500
per person—almost half a million dollars total—
to ensure that the refugees would not become
public charges. Te JDC authorized Berenson to
ofer $125,000 for all the refugees, and increased
that fgure over the next several days. Te U.S. State Depart-
ment believed the Cubans were blufng and advised Berenson
not to put up the money, but Berenson and the JDC forged
ahead. Teir plan now included landing at the Isle of Pines,
a small island of the Cuban coast that Brú mentioned as a
possible disembarkation site. Berenson reviewed the proposal
with high-ranking Cuban ofcials and expected everything to
proceed smoothly in his next meeting.
While the negotiations were under way, Schroeder ordered
the St. Louis to cross between Cuba and Florida. Passengers
sighted Miami’s palm trees and beaches along with U.S. Coast
Guard cutters, which were under the jurisdiction of Treasury
Secretary Morgenthau. Te New York Times reported the
Coast Guard was instructed to trail the ship, and a patrol boat
accompanied the liner to prevent attempts by passengers to
jump overboard and swim to American shores. Secretly, Mor-
genthau, a JDC supporter, had arranged for the Coast Guard
to confdentially keep him apprised of the ship’s location. Te
passengers knew none of this, however, and Captain Schroed-
er wrote in his diary, “To me, it was as if the world had thrown
away the entire St. Louis.”
DESPITE the growing crisis for
European Jews, Americans in the
late 1930s were reluctant to ease the
most restrictive immigration policy in
the nation’s history. Immigration was
limited to 150,000 entrants a year,
with strict quotas based on the country
of origin. In 1939, the year the St.
Louis was forced to return to Europe,
Congress rejected a bill to waive the
quotas and allow 20,000 Jewish
children under the age of 14 to seek
refuge in the United States. Between
1933 and 1945, fewer than 200,000
Jews were admitted. In January 1944,
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau
charged the State Department with
the “wilful [sic] failure to act” and
“wilful attempts to prevent action
from being taken to rescue Jews
from Hitler.” In response, President
Franklin Roosevelt established the War
Refugee Board and ordered the State,
Treasury and War departments to
coordinate their eforts “to rescue the
victims of enemy oppression who are
in imminent danger of death.” By the
end of the war in 1945, the board had
assisted some 200,000 Jewish and
other war refugees.

Clockwise from top right: A refugee waves a tearful
goodbye as the St. Louis is forced to leave Havana.
Oskar, Salo, Jakob and Leo Blechner pose for a happy
family photo before Oskar sails for Cuba. Oskar survived
the war in England; Leo made it to the U.S.; Jakob went to
Switzerland. Salo survived Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and
Bergen-Belsen. Their parents both died in the camps.
Rudi Dingfelder (far right) and his parents, Leopold
and Johanna, aboard ship. The family ended up in the
Netherlands before the Nazi occupation. Rudi’s parents
died at Auschwitz; Rudi survived several camps and a
forced march. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1947.
Ruth Karliner and her brother Herbert sailed on the St.
Louis with the rest of their family. They found refuge in
France after their return to Europe. Herbert survived the
war and came to the U.S. in 1946; Ruth died at Auschwitz.
Forgetting Is Not an Option

On June 2, the day the ship lef Havana, Berenson inspected
the Isle of Pines and also received a visit from the consul of the
Dominican Republic, who ofered the refugees asylum at $500
per person, although the amount appeared to be negotiable.
But Berenson kept his hopes pinned on Cuba, and three days
later a breakthrough seemed imminent. A Miami radio station
broadcast the news that Brú had granted permission for the St.
Louis to land at the Isle of Pines. Te ship’s radio room picked
up the message, and the St. Louis turned toward Cuba.
Te next morning, however, the radio room received another
cable: “Isle of Pines not confrmed.” Brú had issued a shocking
statement: “Yesterday Señor Berenson made an alternative pro-
posal ofering $443,000 [$500 per person excluding children
under 16] for the St. Louis passengers. . . . Te Cuban govern-
ment could not accept the proposal, and having passed exces-
sively the time allowed, the government terminates the matter.”
Te JDC was taken by surprise and believed Berenson had
been misled deliberately “so as to prevent an acceptance in
precise terms of the ofer that the President had made.” In an-
nouncing that a deadline had passed, Brú would appear to have
“done all he could.” Still, the organization deposited the money
Brú wanted with the Chase Bank. But
Brú refused to negotiate further.
Shortly before midnight, June 6,
Schroe der received instructions to re-
turn to Hamburg immediately. Pan-
icked passengers confded in him:
Tey’d prefer the North Sea over the
KZ (Konzentrationslager, or concen-
tration camp), which “will be our end.”
Te captain hatched a plan to scuttle
the ship of the coast of Britain.
In New York, the JDC cabled the
heads of major relief organizations,
leaving “no stone unturned in attempt-
ing to aid the St. Louis passengers.” But
the Dominican Republic ofer came
to nothing. Colombia, Argentina and
Chile declined to assist. Venezuela, Ec-
uador and Paraguay did not respond.
Te JDC began to explore options in
Europe, including Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg and Portugal.
Te committee’s European chairman, Morris Troper, worked
the phones and fred of telegrams day and night from his Paris
ofce. Of the 937 passengers, 743 had afdavits and visas for
the United States that would admit them from within six
months to two years. By June 10, Troper learned Belgium would
accept 250 of those passengers, Great Britain another 250.
Troper worked against the clock. Finally on June 12, he
cabled Josef Joseph on board ship: “Final arrangements for
disembarkation all passengers completed stop Happy inform
you governments of Belgium Holland France and England
cooperated magnifcently with American Joint Distribution
Committee to efect this possibility.”
Fritz Buf wrote, “Our jubilation was fantastic, indescrib-
able, and spontaneous. Te horizons have opened up. We were
not forgotten afer fve weeks at sea.”
When the St. Louis reached the Netherlands port of Flushing
on the foggy morning of June 17, a tugboat carrying Troper and
18 committee members pulled along the ship’s port side. Pas-
sengers crowded the rails, waving and shouting, “God bless
you!” as Troper boarded their ship. Liesl Joseph, who turned 11
that day, stepped forward and read a letter in German, thanking
Troper and the JDC for having saved them from great misery.
Her father, Josef, also gave a speech. As the ship steamed toward
its Antwerp disembarkation point, a delegation representing
Belgium, the Netherlands, France and England met with the
passenger committee in the frst-class lounge to complete the
complicated process of distributing landing documents.
Crowds of cheering people and newspaper photographers
met the St. Louis in Antwerp. Buf and 213 others destined for
Belgium disembarked immediately. Te 181 refugees assigned
to the Netherlands boarded a steamer for Rotterdam. Te Jo-
sephs were bound by freighter for England and the Fishers and
Karliners for France. With mixed emotions, the freighter pas-
sengers watched as the St. Louis, the ship that had been both
home and prison, pulled out of the pier for Hamburg.
For many, freedom was short-lived. In May 1940, Belgium,
the Netherlands and France fell under
Nazi occupation, trapping the 620 refu-
gees sent to those countries. Of these,
254 died at the hands of the Nazis, in-
cluding Karliner’s parents and sisters.
Tose fortunate enough to be sent to
England survived Hitler’s Final Solu-
tion. About half of the 937 passengers
eventually immigrated to America.
Critics have since lambasted Beren-
son for his inability to make a success-
ful deal. And despite moves by Cabinet
members, diplomats and other ofcials
to assist European Jews, U.S. immigra-
tion remained tightly restricted. Te
gov ernment’s concern that admitting
the St. Louis refugees would open a
food gate for “undesirable” immigrants
has cast long shadows over the legacy
of the Roosevelt administration.
On the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the St. Louis,
June 6, 2009, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 111, which
acknowledged “the sufering of those refugees caused by the
refusal of the United States, Cuban, and Canadian govern-
ments to provide political asylum.” With this resolution,
Ameri ca ofcially recognized its role in turning away 937
German-Jewish refugees in their hour of need. Survivors of
the St. Louis were invited to a special event in Miami Beach
to sign copies of the resolution and accept this national apol-
ogy. Liesl Joseph Loeb, Herbert Karliner and Fritz (now Fred)
Buf—who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II—
were among those who attended. n
Barbara D. Krasner teaches writing at William Paterson Univer-
sity. She is the author of Discovering Your Jewish Heritage and
Images of America: Kearny’s Immigrant Heritage.
Captain Gustav Schroeder, a lifelong sailor,
was a fervent opponent of the Nazi Party.