We left off in my last post with the family of Gerda Hoxter and Adolph Goldschmidt about to board the SS St. Louis to go to Cuba and escape from Germany. As described on the US Holocaust Museum website:
On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially “stateless.”The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States.
Gerda’s daughter Jane provided this more personal account in her speech to middle school students in early 2020:1
May 13, 1939, was a Saturday and the ship sailed in the afternoon. We stood at the railing of the ship to wave good-bye to relatives with a heavy heart. The possibility certainly existed that we were never going to see them again. One of the things we remember was that upon boarding the band was playing Strauss waltzes. In the captain’s daily log, he noted that the mood of the passengers was very solemn, but he was assured that good food and sea air for two weeks will lift the pain that was emanating from the passengers.
We settled into our new routine of shipboard life and day by day the moods lifted. My sister and I made friends with other young people on board. One of these people became my best friend. She lived in upstate NY with her husband who also was a passenger on the St. Louis.
Peter, Jane’s son, shared with me this remarkable photograph of his grandfather Adolf Goldschmidt boarding the St. Louis; he is the man on the far right in the light colored coat, holding a book:
Jane’s story continued:
After a two week voyage, we arrived in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. We were informed that we could not lay anchor at the pier because our credentials had to be checked. Even after they were checked, there were more excuses for not letting us land and disembark. A day before arrival in Cuba the Captain was informed that he cannot lay anchor at a pier, he had to stay in the middle of the harbor. We stayed in the harbor for one week.
We did not want to return to Germany, nothing was left there, no housing, no money – all the savings people had accumulated had to be left to the German government – so we would all be taken to a concentration camp, an impossible thought. We had people on board who were released from concentration camps under the condition never to return to Germany. These men considered mutiny or committing suicide. The captain was very diligent and did not want this to happen.
During that time one man slashed his wrist and jumped overboard. He was saved and taken to a hospital in Havana. His wife was not allowed to visit him, but after his recuperation he was returned to his wife.
Small boats came to the side of the St. Louis with relatives who lived in Cuba to shout encouragements to us. Meanwhile, organizations, Jewish and government, were at work to see what can be done to have us disembark. Also contact was made with almost every country to see if one of them would take us in.
The German propaganda had a field day. No one wanted Jews, Hitler was right in ridding his country of them.
The Captain tried everything to enable us to land. He even went so far and visited the President of Cuba to plead for us. Nothing helped.
The Holocaust Museum article describes the purported reasons for Cuba’s refusal to admit the refugees—not just anti-Semitism, but economic conditions and anti-immigration sentiment.
So the refugees and others tried to find help in places besides Cuba. As Jane described it:2
From the ship, telegrams were sent to heads of states and Jewish organizations. The children pleaded by telegram with Mrs. Roosevelt for shelter, but no reply came from her or the President. After 10 days in limbo, the captain was told to leave Cuban waters. Very slowly the Captain steered the ship toward the US, toward Miami, hoping that the President would relent and let us land. There were 935 people on board who were seeking refuge. Instead the Coast Guard was on watch to see that no one jumped overboard and swam ashore. We went up the coast to New York and then the captain was informed to hurry home. He was such a decent man that he really did not want to take us back, but he had no alternative. In his log, he wrote that he would scuttle his ship on the English shore if no result was forthcoming, to prevent us returning to Germany. This action cost him his job.
The Holocaust Museum article also described the US indifference to the needs of the refugees:
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” US diplomats in Havana intervened once more with the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis, but without success.
Having nowhere to disembark, the passengers on the St. Louis were forced to return to Europe, where Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France responded more humanely than the US or Cuba had to the needs of these refugees.
Jane described what happened next to her family and to others:3
Meanwhile, negotiations went on to find some country that had mercy on us. The passengers were becoming more desperate. Long face and worried looks were on everyone’s faces. We were close to the English Channel when we were informed that four countries were willing to take the passengers. Morris Troper of the European Joint Distribution Committee was responsible for securing that haven. The grateful passengers cabled him that their gratitude was as immense as the ocean on which they have been traveling. It was England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. You could have heard the biggest sigh when the news was broadcast. Again people made plans and their outlook was improving.
On June 17, we landed in Antwerp, Belgium, and disembarked to immediately go on to a freighter that was provided by the Germans for those who went to France and England.
Our captain really tried his best and risked his life and career for us. Many years later, the surviving passengers signed a petition to recommend him as a righteous gentile, which afforded him a place at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Our family was sent to France, where my sister, I, and other children were taken in by an orphanage. Our parents and other adults were placed in Le Mans, a city west of Paris. Because no one had money, we were only allowed 10 German Marks (Approximately $80 today) to take out of Germany. We all lived on charity provided by Jewish organizations. During those six months my parents lived in Le Mans, they were supported by the HIAS, a Jewish relief organization that helps immigrants. They lived in a house that was shared with three other couples, one bedroom each, communal kitchen and living room.
When the War broke out, September 1, 1939, all the men were interned as foreigners and the women had to double up. My sister and I and all other children under 18 years were sent by train to OSE homes near Paris. The OSE is a Russian organization that is involved with the care of orphans. These homes were led by a Viennese educator and his wife, a physician. Personally, I enjoyed my stay there, although once the War broke out it got a little scary, especially when the air raid sirens sounded and we had to go to the shelters. The older children took care of the young ones.
But ultimately, after the Nazis took over France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the spring of 1940, 254 of the over 900 passengers who had been on the St. Louis and had been forced back to Europe in May, 1939, were murdered by the Nazis.
Gerda and her family were among the lucky ones who were able to immigrate successfully to the US. They arrived in New York on January 8, 1940. I don’t know when this photograph of Gerda and Adolf was taken, but from their ages, I assume it was sometime during this era, either before or after they came to the US.
This is one of the most shameful examples of the way the US acted during the 1930s and 1940s, knowing the dangers that Jews were facing in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but cold-heartedly turning the other way, refusing to help those in need. I do wonder, however, whether we’ve learned our lesson. Money and jobs (not to mention xenophobia and prejudice) still seem to trump the needs of those who are suffering when it comes to US immigration policy.