BY ARTHUR D. MORSE
ON MAY 13, 1939, the Hamburg-American Line's luxurious St. Louis sailed from Germany with 936 passengers — 930 of them Jewish refugees, among the last to escape from the Nazis' narrowing vise. Inscribed on each passport was a red "J," and in each mind, the memory of six years of ever-increasing terror.
All of the refugees had managed to scrape together $262 for passage to Havana plus $81 as security for return fare in the event Cuba would not accept them. But this was a formality, since they all held official landing certificates signed by Col. Manuel Benites, Cuba's director general of immigration.
For 734 of the refugees, Cuba would be only a temporary sanctuary, a way station en route to their future home — the United States. They had fulfilled U.S. immigration requirements, completed labyrinthine forms and now held quota numbers that would permit them to enter the United States from three months to three years after their arrival in Cuba. Since the refugees could not get into the United States immediately, the Cuban landing certificates were essential. The Hamburg-American Line had bought them from representatives of Colonel Benites and had resold them at an average of $150 apiece. As the Jews had long since been removed from the economic life of Germany, with all their possessions gone or sequestered, the efforts made to raise these sums had been prodigious. Few of the refugees were left with more than the $1 in cash they were allowed to take aboard.
But the memory of "the Night of Broken Glass" in November, 1938, was still fresh in their minds, and the afterimage of burning synagogues, shattered shop windows and brown-shirted mobs still clear. That moment of horror passed; but afterward, they had no longer been allowed to walk in the parks, and even their passage through tile streets was restricted to prescribed routes. Suddenly, they had been plucked front the shabby streets of their ghettos and, through the alchemy of a Benites landing certificate, ushered into the carpeted public rooms of a luxury liner. Defined as subhuman in their native land, they were now serenaded by a German string quartet, performers and audience responding as though the first six years of the Third Reich had been left on the receding shore.
There was Dr. Max Loewe, a lawyer from Breslau, who at the age of 14 had fought for his Fatherland in World War I and had been decorated for heroism. He was traveling with his mother, his wife his and their children Ruth, 17, and Fritz, 12. Dr. Loewe limped when he walked, for the soles of his feet had been beaten in a concentration camp. His whole family looked forward to the new life, except for the elderly grandmother, who cried continuously.
There were the Guttmanns, who had married in Berlin and were honeymooning aboard the St. Louis. Eva Brooder, a 21-year-old art student, observed them with special attention, because her fiancé would be waiting on the dock in Havana. So would the wife and small children of Bruno Glade, a concert pianist from Berlin.
The poster artist Moritz Schoenberger could now plan contentedly for his new life. His wife and 18-year-old daughter were already in the United States, preparing to meet him in Cuba. Moritz Weiler, an elderly university professor, was less optimistic. It would be difficult to begin life again, and there would be no friends or family members waiting in Havana, but at least he would find a haven after years of terror. For 67-year-old Rabbi Gelder, the voyage had only one objective — reunion with his two sons who had preceded him into exile.
One of the busiest passengers was Frau Feilchenfeld of Breslau. She was traveling with her four children, ranging from one to eleven, toward a reunion with her husband in New York.
As they sailed from Hamburg, not one of them was aware that eight days earlier, President Federico Laredo Brú of Cuba had signed decree number 93 invalidating their landing certificates. From now on, refugees would be required to carry visas approved by the Cuban State, Labor and Treasury departments. The thousands upon thousands of blank landing certificates sold to the Hamburg-American Line for resale to desperate refugees were now worthless.
The new Cuban regulation had been brought to the attention of the company before the ship sailed, but somehow, the passengers had never been notified — nor had Capt. Gustav Schroeder, the extraordinary commander of the St. Louis.
Before the first hint of trouble, the voyage of the St. Louis was a dreamlike odyssey, a moment out of time, an excursion from reality. The travelers were not treated as refugees but as passengers, with all the attentions and courtesies to which fare-paying guests are entitled. Deck games, dansants and polite conversations occupied the day. The voyagers reclined in deck chairs, sipped their coffee and enjoyed excellent meals in the elegant dining rooms. One would never know from the attitude of the stewards that they were serving members of a despised race. It was perhaps too soon for the passengers to realize that they were being guided on this unusual voyage by an unusual German. Captain Schroeder was making amends on this one journey for the entire German nation.
But before the ship reached Havana, telegrams from Cuban officials indicated that there was doubt, serious doubt, about the validity of the passengers' documents. These first warning notes shattered the illusion of a graceful pleasure cruise, and a wave of panic swept the ship. The fears that had been dissipated by days of civilized treatment returned with their old clutching intensity. Professor Weiler fell ill and declined rapidly. Even the ship's comedian, Max Schlesinger of Vienna, had difficulty in forcing smiles from his fellow passengers.
The questions were endless. What about loved ones waiting at the pier? Would passengers be permitted ashore while their papers were being studied? Could children come aboard? What about baggage and furniture shipped ahead? And how was it possible that the signature of Manuel Benites, director general of immigration, authorizing the undersigned to land in Cuba, could he open to question?
The 734 passengers who held American immigration quota numbers considered that they had an extra margin of safety. Even if the ship were ordered to return to Germany, surely the United States would waive the formalities of delay to save their lives.
Captain Schroeder sought to relieve the wild apprehensions gripping his passengers. He assured them he would make every effort to influence the Cuban authorities to honor the landing certificates. But it was 1939, and the refugees knew the scent of danger. Nothing was unimaginable. They had seen too many impossible cruelties to doubt the probability of yet another. In the midst of their anguish, Professor Weiler died.
Later, Captain Schroeder described his passing: "It broke his heart to feel that in his old age, he had to leave the land where, all his life long, he had worked on the best of terms with his colleagues ... one felt that his will to live had gone." Weiler was buried at sea. Captain Schroeder feared that the presence of his body aboard the St. Louis would give the Cuban Government an excuse to turn away the ship.
On May 27, the St. Louis docked at Havana. No one was allowed ashore. Guards patrolled the pier, preventing friends and relatives of the passengers from boarding the ship. Those who had come to greet the refugees hired boats and cruised near the ship, shouting messages of encouragement. They included Eva Broeder's fiancé, Moritz Schoenberger's wife and daughter, and Bruno Glade's family.
One man paddled a canoe close to the St. Louis while his wife held their two babies at the porthole. Such scenes were repeated day after day. At night, searchlights attached to the sides of the vessel probed the surrounding waters to reveal any passengers trying to swim to freedom.
Twenty-eight passengers were allowed to leave the ship. Twenty-two were refugees who, skeptical of the landing certificates, had hired lawyers in Europe to obtain more complete documentation. By paying legal fees plus $500, they had received visas authorized by the Cuban State, Treasury and Labor departments. The other six passengers permitted to leave permanently were a Cuban couple and four visiting Spaniards. Nine hundred and eight passengers remained aboard.
The Cuban Government's position was that the landing certificates had been sold illegally and that Cuba had to insist upon strict adherence to its laws. Furthermore, Cuba had admitted a greater number of refugees proportionately than the richer nations. The government neglected to mention that the arrival of the St. Louis had coincided with a wave of anti-Semitism in the Cuban press, radio and Congress, together with a fierce rivalry among pro- and anti-government forces over the millions of dollars that might be extracted from desperate refugees.
The passengers' distress was reported on the front pages of newspapers in the United States. That a German vessel had carried a large number of refugees toward safety, only to be rebuffed at the very gates of salvation, added a bizarre note. The press conjectured over the possibility that the passengers would return to face slow death in a ghetto or a concentration camp.
On May 29, the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief and rehabilitation agency, sent two representatives to Havana. Cecilia Razovsky, a social worker, would concentrate on arrangements for the housing, schooling and wellbeing of the St. Louis passengers if they were permitted to enter Cuba. The JDC's second emissary was Lawrence Berenson, a prominent New York lawyer who headed the Cuban Chamber of Commerce in the United States. He was assigned to negotiate the landing of the passengers with the Cuban Government. Among other assets, Berenson had been a personal friend of Fulgencio Barista, chief of staff of the Cuban Army. The JDC had authorized the lawyer to post a bond of up to $125,000, guaranteeing that none of the passengers would become economically dependent upon the Cuban Government. The JDC was prepared to offer further assurances that the refugees would not seek employment in Cuba while they awaited reimmigration.
President Laredo Brú agreed to meet Berenson on June 1, but on May 31, Captain Schroeder was notified that the St. Louis must depart the following day. The Captain, who had been trying to reach the President himself to urge that refugees be permitted to go ashore, notified Cuban authorities that he feared a wave of suicides if the ship were forced to leave.
One passenger had already attempted to commit suicide. Max Loewe, the lawyer from Breslau, World War hero and former concentration camp inmate, slashed his wrists and leaped overboard. He was rescued and rushed to a hospital ashore. He was thus the first of the unauthorized refugees to touch Cuban soil. His wife and children were not permitted to leave the ship.
On June 1, before his meeting with Berenson, Laredo Brú signed a decree ordering the ship to leave, but postponing its departure until the next day. The decree provided that in the event of noncompliance, the Cuban Navy would "conduct" the vessel outside of Cuban waters.
Despite the announced departure, the President kept his appointment with Berenson. The Cuban chief executive was cordial and expressed his sympathy for the refugees. He indicated hostility only toward the Hamburg-American Line, which he felt was attempting to lessen the dignity of his government by pressuring for admittance of its passengers.
Berenson outlined the JDC plan in general terms. In discussing the bond, he pointed out that it would be reduced proportionately as the refugees were admitted to the United States. It was clear in this opening conversation that the JDC had not set aside any sums for the private pockets of Cuban officials.
The President was courteous but adamant. "I have already stated that the ship must go out," he said. "I won't permit it to remain in the harbor. I will talk with you after that is done."
Laredo Brú then indicated that the St. Louis need sail only to the 12-mile limit, and he implied that thus Cuba would save face while he and Berenson negotiated specific terms for the eventual landing of the passengers.
Berenson, in constant telephone contact with the joint Distribution Committee in New York, communicated his guarded optimism about ultimate success. But there was a new and serious worry. JDC suggestions in Washington that the Government offer temporary haven to those refugees who possessed U.S. immigration numbers had been rebuffed unqualifiedly. There would be no compromise with the immigration laws. More than that, the State Department notified the JDC that it knew of no South American country that would permit the refugees temporary entry.
On Friday, June 2, at 11 a.m., the St. Louis sailed for Hamburg with its 907 passengers. Newspapermen in accompanying launches wept openly as hundreds of refugees lined the rails imploring Cuba for mercy and straining for a final sight of loved ones on the dock. The refugees had been reassured by Captain Schroeder that he would delay as much as possible at sea while negotiations continued ashore, but nevertheless, the destination was Germany. Although the Cuban Government had admitted that its officials had not been entitled to accept payment for the landing certificates, it neglected to return $150 to each of the destitute passengers.
Eva Brooder and her fiancé exchanged hurried messages, but they were never close enough for a private word.
A pantomime was enacted by 23-year-old Gerda Weiss and her fiancé, who had brought a marriage license and a ring down to the pier. Their pantomime ended with waves of goodbye, perhaps forever.
Max Loewe remained at Calixto Garcia Hospital in serious condition after his suicide attempt. His wife, mother and two children were still not allowed ashore.
Captain Schroeder, who had written to President Laredo Brú that he would not be responsible for the fate of the refugees if they returned to Germany, had posted an encouraging message on the bulletin board:
"The shipping company is going to remain in touch with various organizations and official bodies which will endeavor to effect a landing outside Germany. We shall try to stay somewhere in tile vicinity of South American countries."
The rumored price for a sanctuary in Cuba: $500,000 in cash for some friends of President Laredo Brú
ECILIA RAZOVSKY, whose plans for housing the refugees in Cuba now seemed academic, switched her attention to morale. Each day, she sent a series of telegrams to the ship, describing efforts that were being made to find sanctuary. To forestall suicide attempts aboard the St. Louis, word was spread that the U.S. Government had authorized the refugees' landing in New York if efforts for their entry into Cuba failed. But, as the Associated Press reported, "Kept from them was the news from Washington that government officials there said no arrangements had been made for them to land in New York or any other United States port."
As the St. Louis steamed very slowly under the concerned command of Captain Schroeder, I.awrence Berenson found himself in an utterly confusing tug-of-war with shifting Cuban factions. A Havana lawyer who was assisting him said that he had seen a letter in President Laredo Brú's handwriting empowering two of his henchmen to collect $500,000 in cash from Berenson in exchange for sanctuary for the St. Louis passengers. Soon after Berenson received this report, two men telephoned him, identified themselves as representatives of the President, and requested an appointment. Berenson refused to meet them, and they then threatened to shoot him. Later, as Berenson walked in the park, two men darted from the bushes and demanded the $500,000 they said they knew he was carrying. Berenson emptied his pockets to prove he was not strolling in the park with half a million dollars, so the men left without harming him.
Berenson's next meeting with the President was scheduled for Sunday, June 4. Batista, who was sulking at army headquarters in Camp Colombia while his rival, Laredo Brú, was ensconced in the Presidential Palace, sent word through an emissary that Berenson should not yield to Laredo Brú's exorbitant demands. The situation was further complicated when a former associate of Benites, who had been removed as director general of immigration, burst into Berenson's room late at night. "I know that you have one million dollars right there in your pocket, " he said. Speaking on Benites's behalf, he offered to arrange for the reception of the refugees on Cuba's Isle of Pines. It would cost Berenson $450,000, including a $50,000 fee and a S150,000 contribution to Batista's next election campaign.
Berenson reported the Benites proposal to Batista via an intermediary. "Absolutely nothing doing on shakedowns," replied Batista. "We will do this job without any such talks."
The emissary then told Berenson that the JDC bond would be sufficient and that both Laredo Brú and Batista would cooperate in settling the problem. He assured the lawyer that all arrangements would be completed in time for his meeting with President Laredo Brú. On Sunday, the hopeful Berenson arrived at the President's country estate only to realize immediately that no arrangements had been made.
"We have to have a cash deposit," said the President, tight-lipped. He then announced his terms: $500 for each man, woman and child plus full maintenance guarantees — almost $1,000,000. Berenson said it would take time to raise such an amount; Laredo Bird told him that the ship could be recalled if the money was available within 48 hours.
The Havana attorney who had been assisting Berenson was present at the meeting. Surprised that Berenson had not accepted the Cuban President's proposal, he became angry. "Berenson," he snapped, "you know those rich Jewish fellows from Sears, Roebuck, and Kuhn, Loeb can underwrite a million dollars in ten minutes. My friend was telling me how they sit around, and one says, 'I'll give you fifty thousand dollars,' and the next fellow says, 'I'll give you sixty thousand dollars.'"
While Berenson and the President discussed the cash requirements for rescue, the St. Louis hovered off the city of Miami. Captain Schroeder was delaying his return to Hamburg as long as possible, offering the 734 passengers with United States immigration papers a glimpse of their future homeland. The United States Coast Guard cutter 244 shadowed the St. Louis, with orders to prevent any refugees from jumping overboard and swimming ashore.
Newspaper descriptions of the scene prompted Bishop James Cannon, Jr., of Richmond, Va., to write a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
"... the press reported that the ship came close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city. The press also reported that the U.S. Coast Guard, under instructions from Washington, followed tile ship ... to prevent any people landing on our shores. And during the days when this horrible tragedy was being enacted right at our doors, our Government at Washington made no effort to relieve the desperate situation of these people, but on the contrary, gave orders that they be kept out of the country. Why did not the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Labor and other officials confer together and arrange for the landing of these refugees who had been caught in this maelstrom of distress and agony through no fault of their own? ... The failure to take any steps whatever to assist these distressed, persecuted Jews in their hour of extremity was one of the most disgraceful things which has happened in American history and leaves a stain and brand of shame upon the record of our nation."
While the St. Louis inched along the Florida coast, Lawrence Berenson received authorization from the JDC to make a new offer to the Cuban Government, increasing the bond to $500 in cash for each passenger. Berenson checked with the American ambassador, J. Butler Wright, who urged him to keep the offer as low as possible; the State Department had told the Ambassador that the Cubans were bluffing in their demands. On June 5, President Laredo Brú called a press conference and announced Cuba's willingness to receive the St. Louis refugees in a camp on the Isle of Pines. The President added that it was absolutely necessary that the refugees' food, lodging, reembarkation and other needs be guaranteed. If these guarantees were not forthcoming by noon of June 6, the offer would expire.
Then President Laredo lira told the press about his personal anguish: "The post that I occupy has painful duties, which oblige me to disregard the impulses of my heart and follow the stern dictates of duty."
Berenson had already prepared an itemized statement of the JDC's new proposal, involving an initial deposit of S443,000. By arrangement, the President's representative, a major in the secret police, would bring this statement to a meeting with Laredo Brú and Batista at ten o'clock in the evening. Two hours before the presidential meeting, the major went to Berenson's hotel and picked up the document. He glanced at it quickly, assured Berenson that it would be accepted and promised that he would telephone immediately after the meeting. In any case, the major would meet Berenson a the police station at 10 a.m. the next day to iron out any remaining details.
There was no telephone call. The next day, the frantic Berenson was unable to reach any of the Cuban officials. He went to the police station at ten o'clock, but the major had left word that he was detained at the presidential Palace. The President, no doubt following the stern dictates of duty, had left word that he was not to be disturbed. During the morning, there was one approach to Berenson by an intermediary of the major who inquired whether the JDC was prepared to give the major a gift "after this thing is over." Berenson said he would consider a small gift. At noon, the Cuban Government announced that its deadline for the guarantee of the refugees' maintenance had passed and that its offer of sanctuary on the Isle of Pines had been withdrawn. The Havana lawyer whom Berenson had dealt with explained why the offer had been canceled. "They were aware of all that cash," he said, "and they finally realized that nothing was to be handed out."
Berenson asked the Cuban how much the government officials had expected to get as their personal payoff.
"At least three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, in addition to the deposits," lie replied.
The JDC made one final effort to persuade the Cuban Government, and deposited $500,000 in a Havana bank, but President Laredo Brú replied that the case was closed.
At 11:40 on Tuesday evening, June 6, 1939, the St. Louis finally ended her idle cruising and set her course for Europe. Captain Schroeder would proceed directly — but slowly. A committee of passengers addressed a telegram to Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking help for 907 passengers, "of which more than 400 are women and children." There was no reply.
As the St. Louis nears Europe, a committee warns: "Regard these passengers as doomed once they reach German soil,"
N JUNE 9, as the refugees sailed to a fate that was no longer in doubt, the New York Times editorialized: "It is hard to imagine the bitterness of exile when it takes place over a faraway frontier. Helpless families driven from their homes to a barren island in the Danube, thrust over the Polish frontier, escaping in terror of their lives to Switzerland or France, are hard for us in a free country to visualize. But these exiles floated by our own shores. Some of them are on the American quota list and can later be admitted here. What is to happen to them in the interval has remained uncertain from hour to hour. We can only hope that some hearts will soften somewhere and some refuge be found. The cruise of the St. Louis cries to high heaven of man's inhumanity to man."
Nowhere in the Times editorial nor in the archives of the United States Government is there a suggestion that the refugees be sheltered temporarily within the capacious boundaries of the United States. Nowhere was their grave danger related to the American experience. Except in the Jewish community, there was no upsurge of feeling among the American people, all sons, daughters or descendants of immigrants, to come to the aid of these men, women and children floating across the Atlantic toward certain doom, guilty of no crime, accused of no offense, victims only of the accident of birth.
In all the United States, only one organization rose to the challenge of the St. Louis — the Joint Distribution Committee. On June 9, with the ship heading slowly — but directly — for Hamburg, the passengers sent the JDC a cry for help: WE ASK IN GREAT DESPAIR YOUR ASSISTANCE FOR DISEMBARKATION AT SOUTHAMPTON OR ASYLUM IN BENEVOLENT NOBLE FRANCE.
Morris C. Troper, the JDC's European chairman, with headquarters in Paris, was put in charge of the rescue operation. Troper was barraged with telegrams from New York recounting the JDC's failure to find haven: INTERVENTION COLOMBIA WITHOUT PROSPECTS STOP IMMIGRATION CLOSED. Chile; NOTHING DOING ST LOUIS ACCOUNT POLITICAL SITUATION. PARAGUAY YET UNDECIDED. ARGENTINE UNDERTAKING STEPS DOUBTFUL RESULTS. From the New York office, he received an ominous cable: ... REGARD THESE PASSENGERS AS DOOMED ONCE THEY REACH GERMAN SOIL.... WE WOULD WANT TO BE ASSURED NO SINGLE POSSIBILITY OF ESCAPE SHOULD FAIL TO BE GIVEN UTMOST CONSIDERATION. TIME IS OF ESSENCE BOAT HAS COMPLETED MORE THAN HALF OF TRIP.
Another message on June 10 reaffirmed the continuing inability of the JDC to budge the United States Government: ANY IMMIGRATION THIS SIDE OF WATER ... IS OUT OF QUESTLON. THIS WE HAVE NOT COMMUNICATED TO PASSENGERS BUT WISH YOU TO KNOW.
On the St. Louis itself, the passengers formed a committee to prevent suicide by constant patrolling of the decks.
The children played a game that Captain Schroeder later described. Two small boys with stern expressions guarded a barrier constructed of chairs. Other youngsters lined up asking permission to pass through.
"Are you a Jew?" asked one of the guards.
"Yes," replied the child at the barrier.
"Jews not admitted!" snapped the guard.
"Oh, please let me in. I'm only a very little Jew."
In Paris, Morris Troper began a round-the-clock effort to find havens for his 907 charges. He concentrated on European relief agencies that the JDC helped to support, and once again guaranteed the maintenance costs of the passengers. First, he telephoned Max Gottschalk, president of the Refugee Committee of Brussels. The next morning, Gottschalk spoke to Belgian Minister of Justice Paul-Emile Janson, asking him to admit 200 passengers, 150 with U.S. quota numbers. Janson said he would have to consult the prime minister. At 12:30 that same day, the chef de cabinet phoned Gottschalk and told him that the prime minister had approved. Later, Belgium agreed to accept an additional 50 passengers, all with American immigration papers.
Next, Troper contacted Gertrude Van Tijn of the Amsterdam Refugee Committee. She wired Minister of Justice C. M. J. F. Goseling while some of her non-Jewish acquaintances approached Queen Wilhelmina. On June 12, Minister Goseling announced that the Netherlands would welcome 194 of the passengers.
With sanctuary found in two countries and appeals under way in Britain, Portugal and Luxembourg, Troper wired Captain Schroeder, who was still making minimum speed toward Hamburg: WISH INFORM YOU MAKING EVERY EFFORT LAND YOUR PASSENGERS WITH SEVERAL POSSIBLE PROSPECTS ENROUTE WHICH WE HOPE WILL BECOME MORE DEFINITE NEXT THIRTY-SIX HOURS.
Aboard the St. Louis, the anti-suicide patrol and the encouraging attitude of Captain Schroeder and his crew were calming the more volatile voyagers. Max Schlesinger, the irrepressible comic from Vienna, raced around the decks urging passengers to "get bronzed in the sun. We're on a cruise. Let's enjoy it." But passengers agreed that the most inspiring example was set by Frau Feilchenfeld, formerly of Breslau. Headed back toward Germany with her four small children, separated no doubt forever from her husband in New York, she maintained a dignity that bolstered the courage of those on the edge of panic.
Troper now met with Louise Weiss, secretary general of the Central Refugee Committee in Paris. At 3:40 p.m., on June 12, she telephoned him to say that she had just seen Foreign Minister Georges Bonner, who said he would authorize the admittance of several hundred passengers if it was approved by Minister of Interior Albert Sarraut. At six o'clock, Troper, Louise Weiss and others met with the Minister. They informed Sarraut that Paul Baerwald, chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, had reported from London that the British would probably accept 250 passengers. Sarraut promptly agreed to accept a similar number.
On Tuesday, June 13, Morris Troper wired the passengers' committee aboard the St. Louis: FINAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR DISEMBARKATION ALL PASSENGERS COMPLETED. HAPPY INFORM YOU GOVERNMENTS OF BELGIUM, HOLLAND, FRANCE, AND ENGLAND COOPERATED MAGNIFICENTLY WITH AMERICAN JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE.
The reply was swift: THE 907 PASSENGERS OF ST. LOUIS DANGLING FOR LAST THIRTEEN DAYS BETWEEN HOPE AND DESPAIR RECEIVED TODAY YOUR LIBERATING MESSAGE.... OUR GRATITUDE IS AS IMMENSE AS THE OCEAN ON WHICH WE ARE NOW FLOATING SINCE MAY 13 FIRST FULL OF HOPE FOR A GOOD FUTURE AND AFTERWARDS IN THE DEEPEST DESPAIR. ACCEPT ... THE DEEPEST AND ETERNAL THANKS OF MEN WOMEN AND CHILDREN UNITED BY THE SAME FATE ON BOARD THE ST. LOUIS.
The ship altered course to land its passengers at Antwerp, Belgium, where transportation would be provided to their respective countries of asylum. In Britain, France, Holland and Belgium, citizens' committees joined government officials in planning the reception and housing of the refugees. Morris Troper attended one such meeting in Paris, presided over by M. Bussières, chief of the French national security. Bussières expressed his regrets that the United States, the country to which most of the refugees were bound eventually, had not been able to welcome them to an American port but instead sent them all the way to Europe. But everyone was too happy over the zero-hour rescue to consider the other implications of the month-long odyssey.
Early on the morning of June 17, Morris Troper, who had worked without rest from the moment Cuba rejected the St. Louis, boarded the ship in the waters off Flushing, in the Netherlands, two hours from Antwerp. Later, he wrote: "No words can describe the feelings of everyone on the tug when sighting the St. Louis with its human cargo, all standing as one man along the rails on the portside of the steamer."
One hundred and sixty children greeted the representative of the Joint Distribution Committee. Liesel Joseph, age 11, was the official spokesman. "Dear Mr. Troper," she said, "we the children of the St. Louis wish to express to you and through you to the American Joint Distribution Committee our deep thanks from the bottom of our hearts for having saved us from a great misery. We pray that God's blessing be upon you. We regret exceedingly that flowers do not grow on the ship, otherwise we would have presented to you the largest and most beautiful bouquet."
In the final disposition of the passengers, 214 went to Belgium, 287 to Britain, 181 to the Netherlands and 224 to France. The 907th passenger turned out to be Mr. I. Winkler, a traveling salesman from Hungary who had boarded the St. Louis inadvertently — an error, as he found out, of considerable magnitude. As soon as the ship docked, he hurried off. Max Loewe, the lawyer left in the Havana hospital, recovered eventually and rejoined his family in France.
Osbert Peake, under secretary in the British Home Office, announced that Britain's action in the St. Louis episode was not to be regarded as a precedent, and the London Daily Express echoed his words: "This example must not set a precedent. There is no room for any more refugees in this country ... they become a burden and a grievance."
The story had a temporarily happy ending, but the happiness was not to last for long. On September 1, 1939, World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. The only St. Louis refugees protected from the Nazi terror were those who had found sanctuary in Britain. Many–it is impossible to know how many–died in the German gas chambers following the Nazi invasions of Belgium, Holland and France. It may be that a few were able to use their American immigration numbers and sail past the Statue of Liberty to that final haven denied them earlier.
Captain Schroeder, without informing his superiors, had considered beaching the St. Louis on the coast of England if the JDC efforts failed. He returned to Germany and was unmolested. After the war, he was decorated by the West German Government for his conduct.
The United States's rejection of the St. Louis passengers was not lost on Hitler or his propagandists. It was only one of the many indications that his treatment of the Jews would not expose him to the wrath of the United States. The August, 1939, issue of Der Weltkampf commented upon democratic pretense and reality:
"We are saying openly that we do not want the Jews while the democracies keep on claiming that they are willing to receive them — and then leave the guests out in the cold! Aren't we savages better men after all?"
Facing an isolationist Congress, Roosevelt hesitates to ask for changes in immigration laws
ar from liberalizing immigration during the Nazi era, the United States administered its laws with intensified severity. It was a complete turnabout for a nation founded and populated by aliens seeking asylum from oppression.
During the first 15 years of the twentieth century, an average of 900,000 immigrants a year sailed past the Statue of Liberty. But restrictionists attacked the new immigrants, largely Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. A succession of laws culminated in 1929 when the United States adopted a maximum annual quota of 153,774. More than half of these places were assigned to Great Britain and Ireland. Then, in 1939, President Herbert Hoover's administrative order instructing consuls to reject anyone with the probability of becoming a public charge cut total immigration in 1933 to 23,068. Of these, only 1,798 were Germans. Franklin Roosevelt refused flatly to alter the Hoover instructions. From 1933 to 1943, there were 1,244,858 unfilled places on U.S. immigration quotas, more than 300,000 from countries dominated or occupied by the Nazis. American severity applied not only to potential immigrants but to children seeking temporary sanctuary.
On January 9, 1939, a delegation of Roman Catholic and Protestant clergymen presented a petition to the White House calling upon the United States to open its doors to German children: "Working within and under the laws of Congress, through special enactment if necessary, the nation can offer a sanctuary to a part of these children by united expression of its will to help."
Sen. Robert F. Wagner of New York, attempting to implement the clergymen's proposal, introduced a resolution in the Senate, and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts offered an identical measure in the House of Representatives. Known as the Wagner-Rogers Bill, or Child Refugee Bill, it proposed that a maximum of 10,000 children 14 and under be admitted in 1939 and a similar number in 1940. Their entry would be considered apart from, and in addition to, the regular German quota. They would be adopted temporarily by American families, with costs and responsibilities assumed by reputable individuals and organizations. The children would not be permitted to work, thus avoiding labor union charges of unfair competition, and they would be reunited with their parents as soon as safe living conditions were reestablished. The migration of the children would be supervised by the American Friends Service Committee.
Within a day after the plan was announced, 4,000 families of all faiths had offered to adopt the children. Newspapers throughout the nation reported hundreds of telephone and mail inquiries from interested citizens.
Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the Wagner-Rogers Bill, as indeed she backed every attempt to aid refugees. The President had not committed himself, but the official White House attitude soon became known. Eddie Cantor was one of the first to find out.
Cantor, the popular comedian and singer, admired Roosevelt unreservedly. A warm, sentimental man, he had created the March of Dimes for the President's favorite cause, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Now, he responded with characteristic enthusiasm to the proposal to admit refugee children. On January 12, 1939, he addressed an emotional letter to Presidential secretary Marvin H. McIntyre. Cantor wrote that there were many more than 10,000 families in the United States willing to adopt the children, that far from hurting the nation economically, the arrival of the 10,000 would mean increased purchases of food and clothing. "My dear Marvin," wrote Cantor, "for generations to come, if these boys and girls were permitted entry in to this country, they would look upon our leader as a saint — they would bless the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt.... If it met with the approval of the President, and Congress, I would furnish you with names and references of the families willing to adopt these unfortunate children."
McIntyre sent Cantor's letter to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, with a covering note: "The attached is self-explanatory, and the President thought I might send it to you for your reaction. Confidentially, Eddie has been a very ardent worker for the Foundation, etc. I am wondering whether you could send him a discreet note of appreciation or whether it would be safe for me to do it." Welles thought it would he quite safe for McIntyre to reply, so the Presidential secretary wrote to Mr. Cantor: "There is a general feeling, I believe, even among those who are most sympathetic toward the situation in which so many thousands of persons find themselves abroad, that it would be inadvisable to raise the question of increasing quotas or radical changes in our immigration laws during the present Congress. There is a very real feeling that if this question is too prominently raised in the Congress during the present session we might get more restrictive rather than more liberal immigration laws and practices."
Roosevelt feared the antagonism of Congress, for at that very moment, he was seeking half a billion dollars from an isolationist Congress to expand the Army Air Corps and to construct air bases. The President's priority clearly went to defense.
Mrs. Roosevelt, however, persisted in her efforts to awaken her husband's interest in the Wagner-Rogers legislation. While he was vacationing aboard the U.S.S. Houston, she sent him a telegram: ARE YOU WILLING I SHOULD TALK TO SUMNER AND SAY WE APPROVE PASSAGE OF CHILD REFUGEE BILL. HOPE YOU ARE HAVING GRAND TIME. MUCH LOVE. ELEANOR.
Mrs. Roosevelt's gentle persuasion did not work. The President refused to commit himself.
On January 30, Adolf Hitler made a speech commemorating the day he had seized power six years before. He was quite candid: "Today I wish to be a prophet once more. Should international Jewry, inside and outside Europe, succeed once more in plunging the nations into war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and through it the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."
One witness tells congressmen: "We have got to keep not only these children out... but the whole damned Europe."
Y APRIL, 1939, when the first of two congressional hearings began on the proposal to admit 20,000 children, all illusions about Nazi moderation had ended.
At the opening of the first hearing, Senator Wagner made a fervent appeal for his resolution. He reminded tine committee members that the nation's leading Catholic and Protestant clergymen had signed a petition supporting it, and he made a point that would be reiterated over and over during the following months: almost half the youngsters to be admitted would not be Jewish. He produced editorials from 58 newspapers in favor of the bill, and he described the generosity of Britain and the Netherlands in offering sanctuary to boys and girls from Germany.
Wagner described the care with which the Quakers had organized the migration, of the Nonsectarian Committee's impeccable leadership and of the spontaneous response of Americans from all walks of life. He stated that the admission of 20,000 children could be of little economic consequence to a nation of 130,000,000.
He closed with the Biblical injunction: "Suffer little children to come unto Meand forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."
Former President Hoover and former Presidential candidate Alfred M. Landon informed the committee they supported the bill, as did representatives of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Clarence E. Pickett, the Quaker who had agreed to lead the children's odyssey, voiced the view that an issue more profound than that of helping German children faced Congress. "That issue," he said, "is whether the American people have lost their ability to respond to such tragic situations as this one. If it turns out that we have lost that ability, it will mean that much of the soul has gone out of America."
Then came the opposition.
Francis H. Kinnicutt, president of the Allied Patriotic Societies, represented 30 organizations opposed to the legislation. These included the New York County organization of the American Legion, American Women Against Communism, Dames of the Loyal Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, United Daughters of the Confederacy (N.Y. division), Daughters of the Defenders of the Republic, Society of Mayflower Descendants, Sons of the American Revolution (Empire State), two chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Lord's Day Alliance of the United States and similarly titled groups.
Kinnicutt said: "The bill ... would seem to be a part of a program to admit to the United States refugees of all kinds and descriptions without regard to the quotas or the numerical restrictions on immigration contained in our present laws." He opposed any bill designed "to meet the desires of millions of refugees, or persons claiming to be refugees, in all countries of Europe. And this at a time when we have over 10,000,000 of our own people out of employment....
"The bill, if passed," said the spokesman for the patriots, "will be a precedent ... in response to the pressure of foreign nationalistic or racial groups, rather than in accordance with the needs and desires of the American people."
The American Legion had earlier announced its support for Sen. Robert R. Reynolds's bill abolishing all immigration into the United States for the next ten years. A North Carolinian of virulent racial views, Reynolds had become the principal spokesman for the restrictionists, surpassing even Rep. Martin Dies of Texas.
Col. John Thomas Taylor, the American Legion's lobbyist, reaffirmed his organization's support of the Reynolds bill and its opposition to the Wagner-Rogers proposal. The Colonel argued the bill was discriminatory: "I think if such legislation [were] considered seriously it might well include 20,000 Chinese children."
Rep. Charles Kramer of California reminded Colonel Taylor that the Oriental Exclusion Act would prevent the entry of the Chinese. To this, the Colonel replied that he sympathized with refugee children. But if admitted, he warned, they would later be entitled to bring in their parents. The parade of hostile witnesses continued with Mrs. Agnes Waters of Washington, D.C., who claimed to represent the widows of World War veterans. She characterized the prospective immigrants, all of them 14 years old and under, its "thousands of motherless, embittered, persecuted children of undesirable foreigners." She called them "potential leaders of a revolt against our American form of government....
"Why should we give preference ... to these potential Communists?" she asked. "Already we have too many of their kind in our country now trying to overthrow our government."
Mrs. Charles Fuller Wines, representing a Michigan group called Young Americans, Inc., testified in a somewhat similar vein: "I say if we are going to keep this country as it is and not lose our liberty in the future, we have got to keep not only these children out of it, but the whole damned Europe."
The Child Refugee Bill was also attacked by John B. Trevor, representing the 115 patriotic societies of the American Coalition. Trevor had dedicated much of his public career to the cause of deporting the alien insane, but he was equally upset by the arrival of the alien sane. He, too, advocated a ten-year suspension of all immigration.
Trevor cited the outcome of a public opinion poll that had been published in the April issue of Fortune magazine. Those questioned had been asked, " If you were a member of Congress, would you vote 'yes' or 'no' on a bill to open the doors of the United States to a larger number of European refugees than now admitted under our immigration quotas?" The results had been overwhelming: 83 percent had said "No"; 8.3 percent had replied "Don't know"; and only 8.7 percent had answered "Yes."
"Here is an American tradition put to the popular test," wrote the editors of Fortune, "and here it is repudiated by a majority of nearly ten to one. The answer," they concluded, "is the more decisive because it was made at a time when public sympathy for victims of European events was presumably at its highest."
In calling the attention of senators and congressmen to the Fortune findings, John B. Trevor illustrated effectively the gulf in American public opinion separating sympathy and action. Some months earlier, a Gallup poll had revealed that 94 percent of the American people disapproved of the German treatment of the Jews, while 97 percent disapproved of the treatment of Catholics. Now, the Fortune poll made it clear that disapproval of Nazi policies did not imply a willingness to take action against them. Franklin Roosevelt had put his political finger to the wind and had gauged its direction accurately. The thousands of Americans who had signified their interest in adopting youngsters were not representative of a universal American feeling. In the absence of Presidential leadership, the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic appeared to reflect the American mood more accurately than the religious, civic or liberal groups.
The Unitarians spoke for the bill, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise appeared in its behalf. So did the YWCA and the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, whose 24 Protestant denominations included 22 million church members.
The first hearings on the bill adjourned on April 24. The second, to be held before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, would begin a month later.
On May 4, the national executive committee of the American Legion approved the recommendation of its National Americanism Commission to oppose the Wagner-Rogers measure because it was traditional American policy that home life should be preserved. The American Legion therefore strongly opposed the breaking up of families, which would be done by the proposed legislation. Apparently, the spokesmen for the veterans organization regarded it as preferable for a family to remain together in a concentration camp than to send its youngsters to freedom in the United States.
In New York City, the new favorite of the "patriotic" lobby, Senator Reynolds, addressed the American Defense Society. Calling for a repudiation of the Wagner-Rogers proposal, he warned that in time event of war, the United States would be swarming with spies. "The danger is from within," the North Carolinian said, attacking "certain minorities." He argued that Americans were "asleep at the switch" and unaware of the activities of these minorities.
One of the most enthusiastic members of his audience was Fritz Kuhn, the führer of tile German-American Bund. Asked about the Senator's talk, Kuhn said, "I liked it very well. I would underline everything."
On May 17, 1939, a week before the House immigration committee resumed the hearings on the proposed Wagner-Rogers legislation, the British published their White Paper on Palestine. It dealt a new and devastating blow to the Jews, limiting their immigration to 75,000 during the next five years. The White Paper shut off escape from Europe at the very moment it was needed most. Total Jewish population would be held to one-third that of the Arabs, and the sale of land to Jews would be heavily restricted. In response to Arab violence, the British announced that no further Jewish immigration would be permitted after the five-year period, "unless the Arabs of Palestine are prepared to acquiesce in it."
From the moment the House immigration committee, chaired by Rep. Samuel Dickstein of New York, began the second round of hearings, it was clear that the proposal to admit 20,000 children was in serious jeopardy.
Rep. A. Leonard Allen of Louisiana set the mood as he questioned an American Federation of Labor lawyer who had supported the bill. He asked the AFL man whether he would also agree to admit Spanish, Rumanian and French children. The attorney replied that he did not know the AFL's policy on that particular question but that the president of the AFL was for the bill.
After a heated exchange, Allen snapped: "In other words, you are a restrictionist until certain powers in the country begin to clamor for a certain bill, and then you are ready to flop, is that right? ... The Federation can do as it wishes to do, but I am going to stand for America. Put that down in the record."
Joe E. Brown, the widemouthed movie comedian, testified simply and eloquently about the need for the legislation. When he was challenged by the congressmen to state whether or not he personally would adopt a child, Brown quietly replied that he and his wife had already adopted two baby girls and that a young Serbian boy had been living with them for seven years.
This did not pacify Congressman Allen. "...Would the gentleman advocate bringing the hordes of Europeans here," the asked, "when the record shows that we have thousands and thousands of poor people in this country who are in want?" Brown assured the Louisianan that his intention was not to harm Americans.
A number of witnesses who had recently returned from Germany offered firsthand testimony of Nazi barbarism. Clarence Pickett described the fate of children banned from schools and parks and spat upon in the streets while their fathers languished in concentration camps. He repeated the sentiments of a Catholic priest who had said that the saddest thing of all was to see Aryans in church moving away from non-Aryans who had considered themselves Catholic for generations.
The writer Quentin Reynolds testified on the basis of his two extended stays in Germany. In an exchange with Chairman Dickstein, Reynolds made it clear that he believed the worst was yet to come.
DICKSTEIN: Do you contemplate ... that there will be another pogrom?
REYNOLDS: I not only contemplate it, but I am confident the complete pogrom is not very far away.
DICKSTEIN: In other words, there will be a new slaughter?
REYNOLDS: Yes, there is no doubt about that.
REYNOLDS: Yes, a complete pogrom.
When Congressman Allen asked where the thousands of German children would find homes,
Dickstein turned to Reynolds and said, "Between you and I, we can dispose of the 10,000."
"Yes, in an hour," replied Reynolds.
As the hearings continued, the restrictionists concentrated their fire on the bill's alleged threat to the quota system. They were quite willing to admit the youngsters within the German quota, and they pointed out that past German immigration had fallen more than 10,000 below the quota limits.
Chairman Dickstein agreed that this had been true in the past, but pointed out that the present German quota was swamped with applicants and filled for years ahead. The opponents of the legislation then suggested that the children be given preference over the adults who had already filed for immigration.
Col. John Thomas Taylor, on behalf of the American Legion, echoed this theme. "...If the purpose is to help these children," he argued, "this committee could allow 10,000 children this year and 10,000 next year to have a preference over the immigrants who have already filed for admission...." Now, John B. Trevor sent a spokesman to champion the quota system and submitted a list of his 115 organizations.
The American Coalition of patriotic societies represented, among many other organizations, the united passions of the Colonial Order of the Acorn (N. Y. chapter), The Christian American Crusade, the American Vigilant Intelligence Federation, the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America and, from the Midwest, the Tax Evils Committee of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The hearings before the House immigration committee ended on June 1. The next day, President Roosevelt received a memo from Brig. Gen. Edwin M. "Pa" Watson, one of his aides. Watson reported that Rep. Caroline O'Day of New York had asked for an expression of Mr. Roosevelt's views on the Wagner-Rogers Bill. The President picked up a pencil and scrawled on the memo; "File No Action-FDR."
On June 30, the Child Refugee Bill was finally reported out by the Senate Immigration Committee with one modification. The 20,000 youngsters' visas over the next two years would be issued against the German quota, not in excess of it. Senator Wagner, the German immigrant who had had a warmer welcome from the United States, was appalled. He realized that the 20,000 children might become 20,000 death warrants for the adults they would displace.
"The proposed change," he said, "would in effect convert the measure from a humane proposal to help children who are in acute distress into a proposal with needlessly cruel consequences for the adults in Germany who are in need of succor and are fortunate enough to obtain visas under the present drastic quota restrictions."
Wagner took the only course now open to him. He withdrew his legislation. The plan was dead. The ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic and the philosophers of the American Legion had triumphed. They had won their war against the children. The aliens had tried to breach the walls of the mighty Republic, but the patriots had withstood their assault.