The Voyage of the S.S. St. Louis

“We were turned away and began sailing back and forth in the Miami harbor,” recalls Clark Blatteis of his voyage on the ill-fated ocean liner St. Louis. “The US Coast Guard wouldn't allow us to beach and eventually the ship returned to Germany.”

Seven-year-old Clark Blatteis and his parents were among the 937 refugees who sailed to Cuba in May 1939 on the S.S. St. Louis to escape Nazi persecution. Following Kristallnacht, Clark's father had been arrested and taken to a concentration camp. His mother applied for permits to leave the country. Clark recalls, “My father was released from the camp to join us as we sailed out of Hamburg.”

On June 4, 1939, the St. Louis was refused permission to land passengers under orders from President Roosevelt, as the ship waited between Florida and Cuba. Roosevelt felt admitting these refugees into the U.S. 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, and to try to bring refugees in who "might" take a job from an American, would alienate his grassroots support. Initially, Roosevelt showed limited willingness to take some of those on board despite the Immigration Act of 1924, but vehement opposition came from Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and from Southern Democrats—some of whom went so far as to threaten to withhold their support of Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election if he allowed it.

“The trip from Germany to Cuba lasted about two weeks,” Clark says. When the St. Louis reached Havana on May 27, only 28 of the Jewish refugees were allowed entry. The documents for all of the others, purchased from a corrupt consular official, were invalid.
The passengers stayed on the ship for five days. Then the St. Louis sailed slowly toward Miami. Telegrams to the White House and the United States State Department proved futile. The ship turned back. Belgium accepted 241 passengers, Clark and his parents among them.

When the Germans invaded, they were trapped again, recalls Clark: “We ran and hid in our cellar and heard bombs going off overhead. After the destruction, we were arrested for being German nationals.” Upon release, they traveled through France to Spain and boarded a boat for Morocco. After eight years in Casablanca, they finally made it to the United States.

Sanctuary was eventually found for the refugees in several European countries:
•Britain: 288 •France: 224 •Belgium: 214 •Netherlands: 181

You can help us tell their stories