Jewish refugee ships: Troubled waters

One boat was called a floating concentration camp. Another vessel, crowded with Jewish men, women and children, disappeared in the Black Sea after it was struck by submarine torpedoes. Survivors were raked by machine-gun fire as they struggled to escape. Both ships were part of a rushed, poorly-executed maritime operation to remove European Jews from Nazi persecution in the late 1930s.

Jews aboard the SS St. Louis arrive in Belgium after being refused entry into the United States. A third of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

This exodus did not start or end well. Unscrupulous promoters sold Jews invalid visas and booked them on unseaworthy vessels, promising them refuge in the West. Many of the ships were denied entry at ports in North, Central and South America and forced back to sea. The drama was largely ignored by politicians and journalists. Even the church remained silent.

The most publicized voyage was the SS St. Louis with its 937 Jewish passengers. The German luxury liner was turned away by Cuba, the United States and Canada. It was intercepted by a U.S. Coast Guard gunboat as it lingered off Florida in June 1939. “We were so close we could see hotels on the beach,” said Liesl Loeb, who was a 10-year-old passenger. “The mood was grim. The captain thought maybe we could land illegally at night. But America sent military planes and the shore patrol to make sure we kept moving.”

Running low on fuel and supplies the St. Louis was left with one option: Return to its homeport in Hamburg, Germany. When it was announced the passengers panicked. Having already witnessed Nazi brutality, a Hebrew teacher named Aaron Pozner led several Jewish young men in a failed mutiny attempt on the bridge. The passenger committee tried to maintain calm but many families were planning to commit suicide rather than face the gestapo back home. “That to me was a shocker,” says Jules Wallerstein, a surviving passenger. “I was 12 years old and realized it was the end of my life. My parents knew if we went back the trains would be waiting for us.” Meanwhile, the ship’s German captain, Gustav Schroeder, was planning to scuttle the St. Louis off the English coast to provoke a rescue. But those plans were scrapped when the ship received a cable with good news: England, France, Holland and Belgium had granted temporary asylum to the Jews after weeks of intense negotiations.

But relief was short-lived as World War II broke out and trapped some refugees in Nazi-occupied Europe. A third of the St. Louis Jews perished in the Holocaust, including Pozner. The ship was immortalized in the 1976 movie Voyage of the Damned, starring Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow and Orson Welles. It received Oscar attention but one surviving passenger dismissed it as a bad, Hollywood-hyped film.

The fate of the other refugee ships remained hidden for more than half a century. Information leaked in 2001 as Christians were preparing to host an international prayer gathering and banquet to honor St. Louis survivors in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

One of the organizers, Rosemary Schindler of Oakland, wanted to present evidence to representatives from Central and South America that their governments had also rejected the St. Louis. She sent a Jewish representative, Ella Verhoglas, to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in New York, an organization that helped relocate European Jews in World War II. Searching the archives for information on the St. Louis she discovered the refugee snub was worse than imagined: many Jewish ships had been denied asylum by the West.

Verhoglas copied the files, which the JDC had filed chillingly under the number 666. The information was introduced at the 2001 St. Louis reunion. In 2002 Schindler took the documents to a Washington, D.C., synagogue on Yom ha-Sho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. A cantor sang Kaddish (prayers for the dead) and the records were placed before a Torah scroll as a memorial to the Jews who had suffered and died at sea.

“We felt we were presenting something holy before the Lord in the nation’s capital,” said Schindler, who married into the family of Oscar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame. “Every life is important and eternal. Because they are remembered by God, they need to be remembered by us.” Schindler believes it is critical that the nations acknowledge their sin and repent so God can respond in mercy. She points to an often overlooked Old Testament passage, Obadiah 1:15 – For the day of the LORD upon all the nations is near; as you have done, it shall be done to you.

The luxury liner SS St. Louis (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

Other Christian leaders and intercessors in 2001 also were feeling led to repent for Jewish apathy during World War II. In November that year Canadian Christians gathered at the Chateau Lauier Hotel in Ottawa to welcome 25 Jewish survivors of the St. Louis and seek their forgiveness. Baptist pastor Doug Blair, great nephew of the Canadian immigration director who rejected the St. Louis, offered an apology so tender the survivors rose spontaneously to embrace him. Four months earlier, 40 St. Louis survivors attended the International prayer gathering in Fort Lauderdale. Christians and Jews laid a wreath off the Florida coastline.

Included in the documents that Verhoglas uncovered in New York was a letter written by John Henry Richter of Ann Arbor, Mich., to the JDC in 1981, lamenting the rejection of the St. Louis: “America could not find a single town or refuge for those unwanted people. It was one of the many instances where this country failed miserably to live up to the great ideals we hear about. A shame beyond excuse.”

But the United States and Canada were not the only nations to harden their hearts toward European Jews. Refugees faced rejection and persecution on many fronts as readers will see in the examples below from the JDC and other sources:


The SS Struma in Istanbul harbor (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of David Stoliar).


SS STRUMA: The 180-ton cattle boat left Constanta, Romania on Dec. 12, 1941, with 767 Jews bound for Haifa. Despite engine problems the ship reached Istanbul, Turkey, where passengers hoped to obtain visas for British-controlled Palestine. But the British ambassador informed the Turkish foreign ministry that visas would be denied and insisted the voyage be stopped. Landing privileges were refused and the Struma was quarantined in the harbor for 10 weeks. Conditions on board became intolerable despite $10,000 forwarded by the JDC for food and medicine. The refugees huddled together for warmth at night as temperatures dropped below freezing. The smell of urine and feces permeated the ship. On Feb. 23, 1942, the Turkish police cut the Struma’s anchor and towed it into the Black Sea, where it was set adrift without a working engine. People ashore could make out a large banner that read “Save us.” A torpedo from a Russian submarine sank the Struma six miles from shore early the next morning.

The sole survivor, 19-year-old David Stoliar (left in the photo), was pulled from the sea by a Turkish lighthouse crew from the village of Sile. It was the largest maritime loss of civilian life during World War II. More than 100 children perished. In 1978 the Soviet navy admitted to sinking the Struma. It praised the submarine crew that “demonstrated exemplary courage in the action.” After his rescue Stoliar was moved to a hospital in Istanbul, then arrested and imprisoned on March 6, 1942, for being in Turkey illegally without a visa. Fifteen days later the British granted permission for Stoliar and another Struma refugee, a woman who had been hospitalized in Istanbul when the ship was towed to sea, to travel to Palestine based on “humanitarian grounds as an act of clemency.” Stoliar was released from prison April 22 and departed for Palestine the next day. In 1943 he joined the British army.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins wrote this haunting passage about the Struma in their book Death on the Black Sea:

Standing on the polished deck of a British Royal Navy cruiser in January 1942, Olivia Manning experienced a moment of utter confusion. She and her husband, a British journalist, had joined a party of diplomats and officials for an evening’s pleasure cruise along the Bosporus and around Istanbul harbor. The city lights sparkled in the chill air, and the ship’s forward searchlight played across the night water. The guests danced and sipped martinis and gin and tonics. The festivities stopped abruptly when the searchlight paused on what appeared to be a derelict ship, illuminating rows of faces, white and unsmiling, as they stared back at the partygoers. “Who are they?” asked one of the shocked guests. “What are they doing there?” asked another. Someone suggested it was a prison ship. “The light shifted and the party forgot its grim audience hidden in the dark,” Manning, a novelist who had lived in Romania briefly before the war, later wrote in a newspaper article. “The ship was the Struma.” The images of gaunt, ghostlike men and women from the Nazi death camps were not yet stamped on the world’s consciousness: The hair-raising atrocities were proceeding largely behind closed gates at the end of 1941. In the harbor of one of the world’s largest cities, though, a place teeming with diplomats and journalists, the panorama of Jewish suffering was visible to anyone who cared or dared to look.

SS MEFKURE: The Turkish motor-schooner, transporting about 350 Jewish refugees from Romania to Istanbul in August 1944, was struck by three torpedoes and shell fire from a submarine in the Black Sea. The sub crew opened fire on survivors with machine guns. Five Jews and six crew members survived. 

SS MONTEVIDEO MARU: Fifteen Jews, expelled from Germany and Poland, were denied admission in Haiti, Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States after nearly circling the globe aboard the Japanese liner. The Jews had traveled across Siberia to reach Japan, where they waited several weeks for a steamer.

SS RAKUYO MARU: Eight Jews were denied entry into Chile and Mexico in 1940. Chilean officials claimed their visas were invalid, even though seven Aryan Germans were allowed to disembark with similar credentials. Three Romanians also were permitted because their passports did not indicate they were Jews.

SS NAVEMAR: The Spanish freighter, equipped to carry 28 passengers, crammed 1,000 people into its cargo holds. The conditions were so horrible when it arrived in Cuba in 1941 that Manuel Siegel of the Joint Relief Committee in Havana wrote to the JDC that “everyone seemed to be fighting everyone else for the privilege of living. The relationships seemed more animalistic than human.” Victor Bienstock, writer for the International Jewish Press Bureau, gave this grim report: “It was a nightmare spectacle – Hollywood could have used it for a setting in a new production of Dante’s Inferno. The great, gloomy caverns, the tiers of bunks rising on all sides. Old men and women gasping for breath in the insufferable heat, lying motionless on their bunks, while children tossed and cried. Everyone hungry, everyone thirsty, everyone dirty . . .  The captains on the old slave ships saw that their human cargoes got better treatment than this, and over a half-million dollars in passage money was paid on this ship.”

The overcrowding was so dangerous that the Navemar was labeled “a flowing Gurs,” referring to the Gurs concentration camp in France. Six Jews died on the voyage. Many were stricken by food poisoning. Relief came when the Navemar, nicknamed the Nevermore by passengers, reached New York in 1941.

SS ORINOCO: Mexico refused to admit 23 Jews, even though they held valid visas and had paid a considerable sum of money to Mexican authorities in Germany. The refugees were denied entry because they lacked railroad fare to Mexico City. The JDC found the Jews refuge in Cuba by guaranteeing they would not be a burden to the community.

SS CARIBIA: Eighty-three German Jews aboard the Hamburg American liner were denied entry in Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, Barbados, Honduras and Cuba. After many days of negotiations, Caracas, Venezuela, agreed to take the refugees for 30 days. The local Jewish community campaigned to have the city extend the deadline and attempts were made to secure financial maintenance from relatives.

SS ALSINA, SS CABO DE BUENA ESPERANZA AND SS CABO DE HORNOS: The Dutch granted temporary asylum for 83 Jews aboard the SS Cabo de Hornos on the West Indian island of Curacao on Nov. 19, 1941, ending a 10-month search for refuge that involved three ships. The saga began when German refugees with Brazilian visas sailed from Marseilles, France, to Brazil aboard the SS Alsina. When the ship reached Dakar, West Africa, the Vichy government stopped the voyage. The Alsina remained anchored for four months in tropical heat with the Jews confined to the cargo hold. In June they were shipped to Casablanca, Morocco, and placed in a detention camp. Four months later, Alsina passengers were released and put aboard the SS Cabo de Bueno Esperanza, bound for Brazil. Brazilian officials revalidated the Jews’ expired visas, but the papers were rejected once the ship reached Rio de Janeiro.

Argentina agreed to let the refugees disembark temporarily following emergency negotiations. The JDC had to guarantee maintenance costs while the Jews were confined to an immigrant station in Buenos Aires. But the reprieve was short-lived as Argentina announced it would send the Jews back to Europe aboard the Cabo de Hornos. Passengers held Paraguayan visas but were denied permission to cross Buenos Aires to take the river boat to Paraguay. The captain of the Cabo de Hornos, Jose Lanz Mayro, said he was unsure he would reach Spain with his Jewish passengers “since the majority prefer suicide to the somber future awaiting them.” The Jews got a break when the Dutch admitted them on Curacao until permanent homes could be found.

POSTSCRIPT: The struggle aboard the SS St. Louis continued after its Jewish passengers disembarked in Belgium in 1939. After completing Caribbean summer cruises the ship was at sea without passengers when war was declared on Sept. 3. Captain Gustav Schroeder (pictured) commanded two daring voyages to return the St. Louis to its homeport in Hamburg, Germany. He slipped past the British blockade to reach safety in Murmansk, Russia. Four months later he set out for Hamburg. He arrived on New Year’s Day.

Schroeder never returned to sea again. The St. Louis was heavily damaged by Allied bombs in 1944 and six years later was sold for scrap. After the war Schroeder, struggling to make a living as a writer, was sent food and clothing by the St. Louis Jews. He also was acquitted of Nazi affiliation due largely to the testimony of his Jewish passengers. Schroeder refused to abandon the Jews at sea and his kindness was not forgotten. In 1957 he received a medal from the West German government for saving Jewish lives. In 1993 he was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.


Written by Jeff King

Jeff is a retired newspaper journalist in the United States and follower of Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth

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