On the ground floor of the elegant art nouveau Hotel Raquel, at 103 Amargura Street in Old Havana, there is a reproduction of an original oil painting signed by the great Cuban master Victor Manuel Garcia Valdés (1877-1969).
Long unknown and undated, it commands one’s attention from its location between the reception area and the bar. From what diaspora did this painting emerge? Everything about the painter’s existence has long remained an enigma. It is not widely known today, for example, that the original belongs to Isaac Lif, a Dominican national. To the right of the painting a short note evokes the drama of the “Saint Louis in 1939”. *
This unusual picture forms a modest part of a dramatic mosaic of universal history. It stands alongside histories, academic treatises, historical documents and novels, a Hollywood film, a documentary of unpublished archives, the log book of the commander of the Saint-Louis and multiple sites, among other bits of knowledge that document the reprehensible attitude of the United States and their then-vassal state, Cuba.
This episode, the odyssey itself and the reasons for its tragic failure, is relatively unknown and often forgotten, even today. Not by all, of course, not by those, Jewish or not, who spoke and witnessed on behalf of those who disappeared. It is this “forgetfulness”, sustained by those who had their share of responsibility for the Jewish genocide, in this case the Allied governments by their complicit inaction.
On May 13, 1939, the Saint Louis, a German liner normally assigned to the Hamburg-Amerika line, embarked for Havana with 937 German Jewish passengers. Some came directly from the concentration camps, notably Dachau and Buchenwald.
Most of the passengers had either abandoned their personal goods or had managed to sell some in order to purchase, at $150 each, landing certificates issued by the responsible person on the spot and by others who issued visas to enter Cuba. The passengers were also required to pay an additional 230 Reichsmarks in case the boat was obliged to return.
This was, in fact, a propaganda operation organized by the Nazi regime. Its aim was to demonstrate that the Jews were free to emigrate, while knowing full well that most of the host countries would deny them entry. These travellers of a special type “had to buy return tickets at a prohibitive price, even though they were not supposed to return, as well as pay for the authorization to leave Germany …” (Louis-Philippe Dalember).
About half of them were women, children, and elderly men, who were setting off with the dream of rebuilding their lives on the other side of the Atlantic, far from such Nazi persecutions as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, November 10, 1938), (1) which had demonstrated clearly the barbaric nature of the Nazi regime.
On the ship, a certain tension reigned, because in everyone’s mind it was a journey without return, still the atmosphere was quite easy-going. In the 1930s, advertising images of the Hamburg-Amerika Line shipping company presented a luxurious vision of cruises aboard its liners.
The Saint Louis had eight bridges and could accommodate 400 passengers in first class and 500 in tourist. Of course, in reality, this “cruise” was Machiavellian: It was no more than Nazi propaganda endeavoring to prove to the entire world that Hitler’s Germany did not have a monopoly on anti-Semitism.
The journey of the Saint Louis epitomizes the cowardice of some democratic states when faced with the problem of receiving Jewish refugees on the eve of the Second World War and during the Holocaust.
In 2009, a book that –apart from its great success in sales, (translation rights were ceded in a dozen languages)– had already had a resounding influence on the sometimes violent debates it provoked.
This novel, Jan Karski, written in 1942 by the author Yannick Haenel and published in France by Gallimard, documents the abandonment of the Jews of Europe by the international community, although the real witness was Jan Karski, who was Catholic, Polish and a militant in the resistance. Taken prisoner at the beginning of the war, tortured by the Gestapo, Karski managed to escape and quickly joined the Polish resistance.
A clandestine courier for his country’s government in exile, Karski, then under 30 years of age, managed to enter the Warsaw ghetto. In order to inform them of the ongoing extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, Karski was given a secret mission to London in 1942 to meet with Winston Churchill and to Washington on July 28, 1943 to meet with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the meeting, as described in the 1942 novel, Roosevelt yawned, pretending to be interested to better hide his passive disinterest. Karski had been listened to without being heard. In 1944, he recounted these events in his war memoir Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World, published in the United States in 1944. Yet once again no one wanted to face the facts and it was already quite late.
“What interests me in this book,” writes Yannick Haenel, “is not the Shoah, but the Western crime, the deafness of the Allies towards extermination, an organized deafness.”
Everyone at the Hamburg-Amerika Line knew that the St. Louis passengers would not land as expected. Everyone that is, except for the passengers. The commander of the Saint Louis, whose name was Gustav Schröder (a name we need to remember), was ordered to sail at 8:00 PM by the port authorities of Hamburg.
These authorities were very likely hoping to see the Saint Louis arrive at the port of Havana along with two other ships also carrying Jews: the Flanders (with 104 passengers) flying the French flag and the Orduña flying the English flag, with 154 people aboard.
In the summer of 1939, Europe was preparing for war and Adolf Hitler’s Germany was preparing for the extermination of the Jews. The departure of the Saint Louis was “highly publicized and would greatly influence world public opinion.” (Margalit Bejarano).
This tragic cruise would be adapted for the cinema. In 1976, Stuart Rosenberg, known for his 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, directed Voyage of the Damned (2). The script is based on the book by Max Morgan-Witts and Gordon Thomas.
In 1994, Maziar Bahari (3) directed Le Voyage du Saint-Louis (52 min.) for French television. The documentary includes testimonies from the rare survivors, those who tried to help them and members of the German crew.
The film, whose archival sequences, notably shot on the steamer during the Hamburg-Havana crossing, and unpublished still photographs, make it the documentary that best retraces this extraordinary odyssey.
The American graphic designer, Art Spiegelman (1948), author of the famous book Maus (Pantheon Books, 1991) paid tribute in the Washington Post to the graphic designers who were among the few citizens of his country to protest the position of the American government in the Saint Louis affair. His unpublished panel from MetaMaus, a 25th anniversary Maus compendium, was published in this national daily.(4)
In May 1939, the Cuban Jewish community (5) awaited the arrival of the Saint Louis with great anticipation. It was an exceptional event in their lives. A German ship had never arrived carrying so many passengers. Some had family on the liner. Others knew that the refugees viewed Cuba as a first step toward arriving in the United States.
From the beginning of May 1939, the port of Havana regularly witnessed the return of Cuban fighters who had survived participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Various testimonies mention crossings aboard the Orduña which, it seems, made weekly crossings. A brigadista [a member of the International Brigades], from Matanzas, Julian Fernandez Garcia, reports that he “returned to Cuba, on May 27, aboard the Orduña“.
This was true as well for Juan Magraner Iglesias and Luis Rubiales Martínez, among others. Oscar Gonzalez Ancheta, had made the trip to Havana from La Rochelle, France on June 14 aboard the same boat). “We were greeted by a large crowd”, says one. “I saw loved ones waiting at the pier,” indicates another. “A large crowd came to greet us.” “
The reception was surprising. It was something that can never be forgotten. The people of Havana rushed to the Malecón where many rented small boats to greet the ship and its passengers.” (Mario Morales Mesa)
According to remarks collected by Cuban historian Alberto Bello in May 1985, Juan Magraner Iglesias recounts: “Yes, we were welcomed. The docks and the Malecon were crowded. Small boats came out to meet us. There was enormous joy. I will never forget that day.”
The Cuban president was a feckless Federico Laredo Bru (December 1936-October 1940). As the sixth tenant of the presidential palace since September 1933, he was unable to free the country of the effects of the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado (1925-1933). On October 10, 1940 he ceded his position to Fulgencio Batista for the latter’s first four-year term.
Cuba, while aligned with Washington’s foreign policy on the Second World War, launched in Europe in September 1939, would maintain its official position of neutrality for more than two years.
Cuba declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy on the 9th, the day after, the United States declared war against Japan (6). On the 11th, Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy declared war against the United States.
On May 23, when the Saint Louis was on its tenth day of the crossing, Captain Schröder received a telegram informing him of probable difficulties in disembarking his passengers in Havana.
Although Schröder was fully aware of what was happening in Germany, he was not pro-Nazi and he knew nothing about the Cuban events of the years 1938 and 1939. He would learn in two words that Decree 55, governing entry into Cuba … through May 5, 1939, was null and void, replaced by Decree 937, signed by President Federico Laredo Bru.
The latter had issued a decree invalidating all landing certificates. Entry to Cuba now required written authorization of the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and the mailing of a $500 security deposit (something not required of American tourists). On Friday, May 26, he received a second telegram (“Anchor at the anchorage, do not attempt to dock”) instructing him not to dock at the main Havana port and direct the Saint Louis towards the Triscornia administrative area.( 7).
On Saturday, May 27th, at 4:00 AM, the luxurious cruise ship Saint Louis arrived on the eastern side of Havana harbor in the Triscornia administrative area. For its passengers, hope was at its zenith.
It was not the immigration office officials who were the first to board, but rather the coastal police.
No one was allowed to disembark, apart from a few crew members. One refugee, Max Lowe, attempted suicide by slashing his veins and throwing himself overboard and was, by force of circumstance, admitted to the Calixto Garcia hospital in Havana.
For ten days, the difficulties were such that the Saint Louis –whose presence in the port had become “a real disturbance to public order”– was ordered on June 2 to leave Cuban territorial waters. Of the 937 passengers, only some 25, the only ones with proper visas upon leaving Hamburg, were allowed to land.
To speed up the departure, the ship was resupplied with food, drinks and fuel. Escorted by navy patrol boats and the police, the Saint Louis moved away from the Cuban coast … Gustav Schröder took it upon himself to set the course for the United States. The boat sailed so close to Florida that passengers could see the lights of Miami. Some refugees sent a cable to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking him to grant them asylum.
Roosevelt never responded. For three days the St Louis sailed along the coast of the United States without ever being allowed to dock. The same thing occurred in Canada where the authorities aligned themselves with U.S. and Cuban policy. In fact, they were aligning themselves with the policy of Cordell Hull, Secretary of State in the Roosevelt government: the pretext being that immigrant quotas had been filled.
“Roosevelt was clearly absent, as was the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, who privately declared that he did not care to have too many Jews in his neighborhood” (Christophe Alix) … On June 6, short of food and only 25 days after its departure from Hamburg, the Saint Louis, with its human cargo, had no alternative but to cross the Atlantic in the other direction toward Europe. But where to? Gustav Schröder sailed the Saint Louis at low speed, as if he were waiting for a last-minute solution in the open seas.
On March 11, 1993, Captain Gustav Schröder was posthumously recognized as Righteous. Later, Jan Karski, who died in 2000, would be granted the same recognition.
The behavior of German Captain Schröder during the course of the voyage surprised the passengers from the start. Despite the presence on board of a small number of Nazi agents, including Otto Shiendick of the Gestapo, he insured that “the journey take place as if it were a normal cruise and that the refugees be treated with the utmost respect.” The 14 days of travel therefore were joyous and festive (Louis-Philippe Dalembert), with benefits well beyond those routinely offered by the liner and the expectations of the asylum seekers.