A Primer in American-Israeli Relations


the Voyage of the St. Louis
A Primer in American-Israeli Relations


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The Voyage of the St. Louis

By Laurence H. Krone

Understanding history, understanding the past is a primer for understanding the future and the current. The voyage of the St. Louis, a luxurious ocean vessel which sailed from Germany in 1939 with 936 Jewish passengers seeking asylum in Cuba is our study case.

Hitler's desire for mass murder was recognized as early as 1933. The New York Times reporting on Hitler's speech before a rally in Nuremberg, noted, "Its (Nazism) corollary is persecution even to extermination - the word is the Nazis' own - of the non-Aryans, if that can be established with out too much world disturbance."

The concentration camp existed in Nazi Germany as early as 1933 and was no secret to the world. Reports from Germany to the United States Government clearly indicated the steadily increasing severity of the decrees and harsh punishments given to the enemies of Nazism, and the Jews were singled out specifically with ultra harsh decrees. By 1939, steady reports of murders and pillage of the Jews had reached the White House and the State Department but the State Department and White House chose not to act.

Cries to admit refugees from Germany into the shores of the "land of the free" were ignored. President Roosevelt felt that admitting these refugees into the USA, then a population of 190 million at a time of high unemployment would be politically incorrect. He was striving to bring the country back from the throes of a depression. He had to fight with Congress over each bill, to try to bring refugees in who "might" take a job from a native American, would alienate his grass roots support.

In 1939, a group of Jews managed to scrape together the money to pay a fare on the luxury liner, the St. Louis, bound for Cuba. Each passenger had an official landing document signed by Colonel Manuel Benites, Cuba's director general of immigration. For 734 of the passengers, Cuba would be only a temporary refuge, they had fulfilled the US immigration requirements and held quota numbers which would permit them to enter the USA from 3 months to 3 years from their arrival in Cuba.

The Hamburg-American Line, who were the owners of the St. Louis, bought the landing documents from the Cubans and resold them at the price of $150 apiece, a large sum in those days. At first the voyage was a taste of Eden. After suffering humiliation and degradation, starvation and beatings, and being victims of State robbery, they were now wined and dined with music, games were played on the deck as the vessel cruised across the Atlantic.

Before the ship reached Havana, telegrams from Cuba indicated that there was serious doubt about the validity of the passengers' documents. On May 27, the St. Louis docked at Havana. No one was allowed ashore. Guards patrolled the pier preventing friends and relatives from meeting each other. Searchlights were lit at night to prevent any passenger from attempting to swim ashore.

The Cuban government held that the landing certificates were sold illegally and the Cuban government demanded strict adherence to the law. The official reason aside, there was a frenzy of action by the Cubans to try to extract millions of dollars to permit the Jews to enter safe haven. The Joint Distribution Committee sent a representative to negotiate with the Cubans. They offered the Cubans $125,000 to "guarantee that the refugees would not become a burden" on the Cuban economy. However Cubans officials demanded millions to "intercede" with the government.

President Bru of Cuba agreed to meet with the Joint representatives on June 1, but he gave orders that the ship must leave Cuban waters on May 31. On that day, one of the passengers, so close to freedom and yet unable to bear the suffering of going back to certain death in Nazi Germany, slashed his wrists and jumped over board. He was pulled out of the water and hospitalized, yet his wife and children were not allowed to join him. They, together with the rest of the passengers were on the boat sailing slowly from Cuba.

President Bru met with the members of the Joint, but refused to allow the refugees into his country. The next day the Joint met with General Batista who offered to help for a mere $450,000 however, due to the rivalry between Batista and Bru, nothing was accomplished.

As the St. Louis slowly sailed past the land of the free and the home of the brave, the US send Coast Guard cutters to make certain that the potential immigrants were not able to swim ashore to take refuge in the USA. During this time, Washington and the State Department ignored the situation of the St. Louis, even though the saga was reported in the local press. It seemed that to admit 900 refugees destined for Hitler's gas ovens would harm the security of the "mighty" USA.

Sanctuary was eventually found for the refugees in Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. Although the story may have a happy ending, at this point, the lesson was not lost on Hitler who saw America's unwillingness to help as a sign of weakness.

However for us, a generation or two after this event, an important and clear lesson should be realized here. It is very clear: America acts on its own interests - solely! If America decides that it is in it's best interest to drop Israel, it will give a reason to justify itself in front of the nations of the world.

We Jews should realize this important lesson: What is different with America - who let Europe suffer the pangs of World War II and would never had entered had it not been for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor?

We must realize that we Jews are alone amongst the nations of the world. Although there are certainly many righteous gentiles that tried to help us during those terrible years of Nazi Germany, and many lost their lives in doing so, we must be strong and defend ourselves against our enemies. Never again should we allow others to be dependent on the "goodness" of others who shall determine our fate. We must be strong and alert in our own interests and be carefull in reliance on others.


from the August 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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