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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

70 years ago: The boats of unwanted Jews

On the eve of World War II, the Holocaust was already happening. Jews were being herded into concentration camps and the lucky ones managed to find ships on which they sailed to get out of the hellhole of Europe.

Only to be rebuffed everywhere they went.

Exactly 70 years ago, in April 1939, the SS Assimi and another ship tried to bring hundreds of refugees to Palestine, only to be stopped by the British and sent back out to sea.

After another 68 days at sea, the passengers managed to make it to Palestine to be arrested by the British (click to enlarge).

And they were the lucky ones.

Time magazine described the ships that were left without any ports:
The liner St. Louis left Hamburg one Sunday last month. Out into the grey waste of the Atlantic it carried its dismal cargo: 937 German-Jewish refugees bound for Cuba. The ten-year-old, oil-burning, 16,732-ton ship was scheduled to discharge its miserable company at Havana, proceed to New York to pick up passengers for a gay June cruise to the West Indies. The refugees were to remain in Cuba until they could enter the U. S. They were a typical group of the world's newest homeless wanderers: men in sports clothes who had paid as much as $480 for their passage; distraught women; doctors and lawyers who had lost their practices; men who had been in concentration camps. There were 500 women on board. There was Max Loewe, a lawyer, with his wife and two children. There were 150 other children, 106 of them under ten. In the strange, fear-ridden, hope-ridden atmosphere of refugee ships, compounded of anxiety, relief, tension, they waited, living until their voyage's end under the terrible shadow of the red & black swastika ensign that flew from the stern.

For 13 days the ship plowed south and west. In glistening Havana Harbor on a sweltering Saturday the engines stopped. Across the water the refugees could see Morro Castle and the heat-softened outlines of Havana, where many of them had relatives among Havana's 25,000 Jews. Ninety miles to the north lay the U. S. But the ship did not dock. The launches that approached it were ordered back by harbor police. To the refugees the stretch of water between ship and shore was as wide as the 4,600 miles the St. Louis had crossed.

Sunday passed and Monday. The ship lay motionless and silent in the sluggish swell. Twenty-nine passengers whose papers were in order were permitted to land. Remaining were 908 who had only provisional permits of the Cuban Immigration Department to land as passengers en route to the U. S.—and on May 5, nine days before the St. Louis sailed, hard-faced President Federico Laredo Bru had decreed that Cuba required specific permission of the Departments of State, Labor and the Treasury. Rumors spread as Tuesday passed without change, as New York representatives of Jewish relief agencies flew to Havana. The rumors whispered of a longstanding dispute between the Hamburg-American Line and the Cuban Government, of a growth of Cuban anti-Semitism due to the landing of 5,000 refugees in Havana during the past year. Lawyer Loewe slashed his wrists, leaped overboard. Another passenger took poison, was saved when crew members smashed in his stateroom door.

Thursday, President Laredo Bru gave his decision: Cuba did not want the St. Louis' Jews. The St. Louis had to leave promptly, or it would be towed out of the harbor by a gunboat. Her captain announced the ship would sail for Germany by way of Lisbon at 10 a. m. next morning. And as he had said that he feared mutiny or a wave of suicides if the refugees were returned, the St. Louis was followed out to sea by 26 police boats to pick up any other passengers who might fling themselves into the waters. Slowly the ship cruised off the coast of Florida, barely making way, sometimes steaming in aimless circles, until President Laredo Bru relented, 22 days after the St. Louis left Hamburg. He announced that they would be permitted to land temporarily on the Isle of Pines, ancient pirate hideout 50 miles south of Cuba. Next day, the refugees having failed to get the financial guarantees that President Laredo Bru had demanded, he changed his mind, again prohibited them from landing.

Meanwhile, in half-a-dozen harbors in the Western Hemisphere, off ports in the Mediterranean, the St. Louis drama was repeated. At Veracruz 327 refugees from Loyalist Spain were landed from the Flandre, 104 German Jews turned back. On the Taurus at Veracruz an exiled Jewish chemist, learning that he could not land, took poison, told the captain he would be dead in two minutes, died. In Buenos Aires, 200 Jewish refugees on the Caporte, the Monte Olivia, the Mendoza, were sent back to Germany.

Off the coast of Palestine the weirdest and most wretched drama of the homeless was taking place. There, outside the three-mile limit, a collection of jampacked, unseaworthy little tubs lay waiting for a chance to run cargoes of permitless refugees ashore. There were Greek sailing schooners like the Panagiya Correstrio, usually carrying three fishermen, with 180 below decks; tramps like the grimy, 320-ton Assimi, flying the flag of Panama, which hauled 270 German and Central European Jews for 36 days before British officials arrested its captain; cargo boats like those which, unable to run refugees into Palestine, abandoned 424 Danzig Jews on the Island of Crete, tried unsuccessfully to dump 1,100 on the small Greek Island of Dia.


The St. Louis was part of Hitler's justification for the Holocaust. From Wikipedia (uncited):
Hitler's propaganda ministry and the Nazi Party conceived a propaganda exercise which would demonstrate that Germany was not alone in its territorial exclusionary hostility towards Jews as a permanent minority within the political economy of their nation. The Nazis wanted to prove the “civilized world” agreed with their assertion that Jews constituted a “hidden hand” of influence on national and economic affairs. They meant to show that no other Western country would receive Jews as refugees.

On the surface, it would appear that the Nazis were allowing the Jewish refugees a new life in Havana. However, the Nazis were aware of rising Western anti-Semitism, and correctly surmised that Jews traveling on tourist visas (not immigrant visas, which none of the potential host countries would likely have issued them) would not be able to enter Cuba, since they were clearly political and social refugees. Furthermore, once they had been refused entry by Cuba and other Atlantic nations, the world would be forced to admit that there was, as the Nazis claimed, a “Jewish problem,” which Germany was trying to resolve “humanely.”

Since not one of the countries of the North Atlantic basin would allow the Jewish refugees entry, these countries could not morally object when Nazi Germany dealt with its own Jewish population as it saw fit.
Indeed, the US refused to allow passengers to disembark, just as Cuba had. The heroic captain of the St. Louis managed to find refuge for his passengers in Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

254 of them ended up being murdered by the Nazis; the rest were saved.