Many of Germany's Jews sought refuge abroad in 1939 as Nazi anti-Jewish measures dramatically intensified. Throughout the Reich, tens of thousands lined up at foreign consulates desperate for visas. Despite worldwide sympathy for their plight, few countries, even the United States with its restrictive quota system, were willing to open their doors any wider.
In April 1939, Germany's Hamburg-America Line announced a special voyage to Havana on the luxury liner St. Louis, departing May 13. The 937 tickets were quickly sold out, with more than 900 of them purchased by Jews. Most had purchased landing permits for Cuba, where they hoped to wait for the United States to call their quota number. Unknown to them, their landing permits, issued by the corrupt Cuban director of immigration, had already been invalidated by the Cuban government.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, but Cuban officials denied entry to all but 28 passengers. For a week, while the ship sat at anchor in sweltering heat, representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) negotiated with Cuban president Federico Laredo Brú. The Cuban government rejected the JDC's proposals and forced the ship to leave the harbor.
The ship's captain, Gustav Schröder, piloted the St. Louis to the Florida coast in hopes that the U.S. would accept the passengers or that Brú would reverse his decision. The State Department, however, refused to intervene in Cuban affairs, and the Coast Guard denied the ship entrance into American waters. The St. Louis turned back to Europe.
Fearful of returning to Germany, the passengers pleaded with world leaders to offer them refuge. Through the efforts of the JDC and other agencies, the governments of France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium granted the refugees temporary haven. After being at sea for over a month, the St. Louis docked in Antwerp on June 17, 1939.
The St. Louis passengers greeted with great jubilation the news that France, Great Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands had agreed to provide them with temporary refuge away from Nazi Germany. For many, however, it marked not the end but the beginning of an even more tragic journey.
After disembarking in Antwerp, the passengers traveled to their assigned countries: 214 remained in Belgium, 287 went to Great Britain, 224 to France, and 181 to the Netherlands. Like other refugees from the Reich, the former St. Louis passengers faced immense challenges and uncertainties. Dispossessed of their assets by the Nazis and prohibited from working by their host nations, they depended on Jewish relief agencies and relatives for aid. Of the more than 700 former passengers on quota lists to enter the United States, only a small number surmounted the bureaucratic regulations to emigrate across the Atlantic legally by 1945.
After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, local authorities in threatened countries viewed all German nationals, including Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees, as potential saboteurs or Nazi agents. Thousands were arrested as "enemy aliens" and transported to internment camps along with native fascists and Nazi sympathizers. With the German occupation of western Europe, most of the former passengers once again fell under Nazi rule and were subject to anti-Jewish legislation. A fortunate few succeeded in emigrating or escaping, but by the end of 1941 it became virtually impossible for Jews to flee the continent. Starting in 1942, the Nazis began deportations from western Europe to the killing centers in the east.
The Seligmann Family
Siegfried, Alma, and daughters Else and Ursula Seligmann lived in Ronnenberg, Germany, where Siegfried was a respected cattle dealer. Realizing the danger that the Nazis posed, the Seligmanns applied to emigrate to the United States and were placed on the quota lists at the American consulate in Hamburg. During Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), Nazi storm troopers arrested Siegfried and transported him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following his release, Siegfried, Alma, and Ursula purchased tickets for the St. Louis.
When the ship returned to Europe in June 1939, the Seligmanns were assigned to Belgium; they settled in Brussels. Following the German invasion of western Europe in May 1940, the Belgian police arrested Siegfried as an "enemy alien." He was transported to France and detained in Les Milles, a ceramic tile factory converted to an internment camp for German and Austrian nationals. In an effort to find him, Alma and Ursula fled to France, were arrested in Paris, and transported to the Gurs internment camp.
To emigrate from France to the United States, refugees had to procure entry permits from the American Consul in Marseilles, a French exit visa, as well as transit visas for both Portugal and Spain. The Seligmanns were among the lucky ones to receive all the approvals and stamps to reach and sail from Lisbon.
During the summer and fall of 1941, the family obtained the necessary visas to leave France, cross Spain, and depart Lisbon for the United States. They arrived in America just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Settling in Washington, they rejoined Else, who had succeeded in leaving Germany on her own.
The Blumenstein Family
Franz Blumenstein operated a successful business in Vienna before his family's voyage on the St. Louis. When the Nazis unleashed the violent pogroms on Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"), he was arrested along with more than 3,000 other Viennese Jews and taken to the Dachau concentration camp. His wife Else obtained his release with a sizeable bribe and on the condition that he soon emigrate. Franz left shortly thereafter for Venezuela and eventually made his way to Cuba. There he purchased landing certificates for his wife, their 3-year-old son Heinz Georg, and his mother Regina.
When the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, the Blumensteins disembarked in the Netherlands. In November 1940, Else and Heinz received entry visas for the Dominican Republic, where her husband Franz had joined an agricultural colony. But they could not obtain exit visas from the Netherlands, by now under German occupation.
During the height of the deportations from Holland, Regina hid young Heinz from the police who arrested her. Else and Heinz fled to northern Holland, where the Dutch resistance provided them with separate safe hiding. Else was nevertheless arrested and, on September 24, 1943, deported to Auschwitz.
Heinz survived the war in hiding and later rejoined his father in the United States.
March 12, 1941
My Dearest Feryle,
As you wrote me that you have not yet received Heinzile's photo, I am sending it once again and also enclosing passport photos of both of us. Perhaps they will arrive in time for your birthday. . . . It won't be long and then we will, with G-d's help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive. It is worth carrying the heavy burden in order to fight for a new, healthy future for him. Our Golden Boy is in every respect, mentally and physically, a splendid fellow. From 7 in the morning when he wakes up, he starts chatting; from 9-12 he is in school; and then he comes home and the house is alive again. He always has something to tell: what they have done in school, with whom he has had a fight, and where I have to take him after school. Now the latest is that in the afternoons, I must give him 1 or 2 cents, and then, all by himself, he buys either chewing gum or candy. . . . I am lucky that I have put a few gulden away to help with our daily expenses. Everything has become expensive and scarce, and each week I need an additional 2½-3 gulden for fruit, butter, and chocolate. I also am looking better now and also feel very well. I will, however, only be fully healthy and content when I am again with you, my darling. Then my body and soul will again blossom. From you I expect also a detailed report on how you spend your time, without discussing departures.
I and your dear child kiss you in longing and deep love. Your faithful companion for life. A thousand kisses.
Else and Heinzile
The Blechner Family
Polish-born Mordechai (Markus) and Mina Blechner raised their four sons Oskar, Salo, Jakob, and Leo in Munich during the interwar period. After the Nazis came to power, Oskar and Salo moved to Berlin and worked in a trouser factory. In October 1938 the Blechners were among the 17,000 Polish Jews the Gestapo forcibly expelled from the Reich into Poland.
The Blechners soon returned to Germany but realized the need to emigrate as Nazi persecution of the Jews increased. Leo left for the United States; Jakob emigrated to Switzerland. Oskar boarded the St. Louis for Cuba to await his number on the Polish quota for America.
When the ship returned to Europe, Oskar went to England and survived the war in relative safety. Through Jakob, Oskar learned the fate of his family. In late August 1939, Swiss border officials turned his parents and brother Salo back to Nazi Germany. Only days later, Mordechai was taken to Buchenwald, where he was killed. Salo was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Their mother Mina was deported in November 1941 to Kovno, Lithuania, where she was killed.
Salo withstood slave labor in the concentration camps of Neuengamme, Auschwitz-Monowitz, and Dora-Mittelbau. He was liberated at the Bergen-Belsen camp by British troops on April 15, 1945.
The Hermanns Family
During the 1920s and '30s, Julius Hermanns was a respected textile merchant in Mönchen-Gladbach, Germany. He was arrested in September 1938, transported to Dachau, then transferred to Buchenwald. In mid-April 1939, having agreed to emigrate immediately or face re-arrest, he was released. His brother-in-law in New York arranged the purchase of a Cuban landing certificate for $190. Julius, unable to pay for additional tickets and permits, was forced to leave his wife Grete and teenage daughter Hilde behind.
Middle of the Harbor
Havana, 30 May 39
My dear New Yorkers,
You can imagine the excitement on board because we have not yet heard of any results from the negotiations. Since 5 PM the committees are again sitting down at the negotiating table, but the Cubans have a lot of time. An English ship, also with Jewish émigrés on board, also could not land and is on its way to Mexico and will try to drop them off here on the return trip.
An attorney, Loewy, from Breslau, who is traveling with his wife, 19-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son, slashed his wrists and with lightning speed jumped over the railing into the water. The sailor who jumped in immediately after him had to exert all his strength to hold the resisting, life weary (nerve shattered) passenger until a boat, which just picked up garbage, could haul him on board. Even there he resisted and tore further at his wrist. Hopefully, a solution will be found soon, where we can land, it doesn't matter in which country. One already has to have nerves like a horse to be able to get through everything.
Paul Salmon came out 4-5 times with the boats and sends you his greetings. The many boat passengers come to reassure without being able to bring any news. Goodwill and tension shorten the time.
With 1000 greetings and kisses and stay healthy as will I.
Till we meet again.
Just now another boat comes, a man with a megaphone is speaking, everyone should remain calm, as soon as it is possible we will be able to enter Havana. Sedatives.
Camp St. Cyprien by Elne
(Eastern Pyrenees) Barracks 6/24
This is where we now wound up, and at the present time there is no hope for any passage, only via Lisbon, and where am I to take the money, as there is no hope for any help to be expected from any Committee. All the clothing, linens, underwear, and other articles of use that were to come with us to the camp have all been lost. We had to throw them all away because we had to march more than 100 kilometers on foot, in the burning June heat, and we had to wait many weeks to get letter and package connection with Le Mans, to have them send us the most necessary items. Hardly anybody has any money left. You can imagine that the squalor that you see here makes the situation worse. Typhus and malaria as well as lice, fleas, and tremendous hordes of flies give you a sense of it. Sand is a foot deep, and we are dreading the coming storms which will blow the sand into the cracks of our temporary barracks, constructed of boards used for crates. Rats and mice also seek refuge in our housing when the weather gets colder, and you cannot imagine what will happen to us. Try there, at the Joint, to intervene for us. It would help to ask them for help. We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places, without having received one positive answer from anyone up to now. The [indecipherable code word] is probably pushed down from above, and one does not know what to make from the present situation. In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably. I have not heard in months from either of my brothers-in-law or my sister who lives at 56 Ft. Washington Avenue. I beg you to tell them to send me some money. I wrote to my wife and daughter via Switzerland on 3/8, and I am waiting to hear from them any time now. These conditions are almost unbearable. One does not know how and when one will be reunited with one's family. We are 10 from Le Mans and 6 from the Laval group. From the Belgian group there are also 50 men here who are locked up; they were moved before the invasion as enemy aliens.
When one read and heard earlier travel descriptions from prison camps, etc., about the conditions there, one viewed all this as impossible. Now when one has to experience this oneself, the question needs to be posed, how can this happen in the 20th century? We cannot call sufficiently for help, but those who have gone through this and gotten to know the situation, know that the only thing that we can lose is our health, otherwise nothing is left.
Right now we were just told that a discharge is only possible if you have a visa, passage, and transit visas for Spain and Portugal. How is this obtainable if all help fails from the outside, and 98% of us have no means? Besides this they are working very hard to get us out of this pest hole, but up to now nothing has been achieved, because, supposedly, no other camp is available.
Now I hope that these lines will be in your hands very soon, and you will be able to help to ease our lot, for which all of us would be very grateful. Please give my sincere greetings to my relatives and ask why I do not hear from them.
Many sincere regards,
your Julius Hermanns.
When the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, Julius was selected to go to France, where he hoped his wife and daughter could join him. When France declared war on Germany, Julius, like thousands of other German refugees, was arrested as an "enemy alien" and later evacuated to the south of France. He was eventually taken to Saint-Cyprien, a squalid internment camp near the Spanish border, where he found some 50 former St. Louis passengers. Julius pleaded with his relatives in the U.S. to help him emigrate.
After transfers to camps at Gurs and Les Milles, Julius was sent with 235 other prisoners to Drancy, a transit camp in Paris, on August 11, 1942. Three days later, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he perished. His wife, daughter, and other relatives were deported on December 11, 1941, to the Riga ghetto, where they were probably killed.
The Dingfelder Family
The Dingfelder family of Plauen, Germany, owned a kosher meat shop in the 1920s and '30s. When Nazi anti-Jewish measures intensified, eldest son Martin emigrated to America. In 1939 the rest of the family—father Leopold, mother Johanna, and 15—year—old Rudi—boarded the St. Louis for Cuba. With the ship's forced return, the Dingfelders eventually settled in Gouda, Netherlands.
In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from western Europe, including the Netherlands, to the East. Among the victims were Leopold and Johanna Dingfelder, who perished at Auschwitz after their arrest in October 1942. Rudi, arrested by the Gestapo on October 9, was taken to the Westerbork transit camp. Selected for forced labor, he worked in the Dornier aircraft factory in Holland before being transported to the Vught concentration camp and back to Westerbork. He was deported to Auschwitz in March 1944 and assigned to forced labor at the Siemens-Schuckert factory.
In January 1945, as the Red Army advanced, the SS evacuated the Auschwitz prisoners to Germany. Rudi arrived at Buchenwald after a brutal two-week journey. He was sent to the Siemens factory outside Berlin, but the Soviet advance forced another evacuation. Soon thereafter, the inmates were sent on a "death march" by the SS guards. Near Schwerin, Rudi and four other prisoners attempted to escape; three were shot and one died two days later. Rudi was found by Allied troops and subsequently returned to Gouda. In 1946, he emigrated to the United States.
The St. Louis Project was supported by a generous grant from Mrs. Sheila Johnson Robbins.