The Voyage of the St. Louis

The Voyage of the St. Louis


The St. Louis was a German transatlantic cruise liner, part of the Hamburg-America line. It sailed from Hamburg on 13 May 1939 with 937 Jewish passengers on board. They were all fleeing from the persecution of the Third Reich with the hope of eventually starting a new life in America. The ship’s destination was Havana, Cuba where they hoped that they would be allowed to stay until they were permitted entry into America. However, after three weeks at sea, on 6 June the St. Louis was ordered back to Germany by the Nazi authorities after the passengers were denied entry to Cuba, America and Canada. The passengers knew that if they were returned to Germany they would almost certainly be sent to the concentration camps of either Buchenwald or Dachau. An American Jewish charity, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee dispatched one of their lawyers who was based in Paris, Morris Troper, to negotiate with the governments of Britain, France, Belgium and Holland to secure entry visas and safe refuge for all Jewish passengers. He was successful, and the St. Louis docked in Antwerp, Belgium on June the 17th. When war broke out just a few weeks later many of those refugees found themselves trapped when the Nazis invaded Western Europe. Sadly 254 of the passengers who were on board the St. Louis were rounded up and sent to concentration camps mainly Auschwitz and Sobibor. One of the young refugees on board the ship, who was allowed into Britain, was my close friend Gerald Granston. My name is now Gerald Granston. I was born Gerr Gunstein in Germany in February 1933. Memories of Germany that I have certainly aren’t good ones. I couldn’t go to school because you had go only, as a Jew, to a Jewish school where I was brought up in Hechingen was just too small for that. You couldn’t play – or certainly non-Jewish children wouldn’t play with you because they were scared of being labelled Jew-lover. So it was a very lonely time. I know my childhood was most unhappy. My catalyst was Kristallnacht, when the synagogue in Hechingen which had been there since, I think it was 1735 was completely internally ransacked. My grandfather was dreadfully upset – I remember him coming home crying and hearing him saying they had played fussball – football – with the Torah. They did what they could to ruin every synagogue – internally and sometimes externally as well – with the exception of one synagogue in Berlin and that synagogue was going to be a museum to a race that no longer – or a religion – that no longer existed. The voyage to Cuba was, for me, fantastic. I had been warned by my father, ‘you must not go with the ship’s company. They are Germans.’ So of course the first thing I did was made friends with the sailors and enjoyed having wurst and fizzy drinks in their mess at lunch time. The voyage out was a tremendous relief everybody was going to freedom. The pictures of people on the ship… they all had smiles on their faces. Cuba was never going to be where we wanted to be. Cuba was a stepping stone because it had the Atlantic between Europe and the continent of America and, more importantly, it was very close to America and we were sure that Roosevelt would relent and would say ‘your visas, I know, are not until 1946 but you can come in now’ whilst we would be relatively safe in Cuba. I remember standing in line with my little suitcases, with my father and waiting to disembark. The immigration, customs came on they were very – I remember they all had smiles, very friendly people but everything was mañana. That was the only word of Spanish I ever have learnt – tomorrow. And tomorrow never came. Everybody began to feel a panic. We’re not going to get off this ship. The American Joint, which is a wonderful charity, they offered the Cuban government 500 US dollars per passenger with another $150 to go in President Brús’ pocket. A lot of money. But Roosevelt did nothing to expedite either letting us into Cuba or, more importantly, saying to the captain ‘bring the ship to Florida, we’ll let the Jews come in’. In fact, we were not referred to as ‘refugees’ the American press referred to us as ‘the Jews’. I think we were five days in Havana harbour and then for about four days cruising up and down the Florida coast. I remember seeing the odd hotel to me it was utopia! I don’t think I was fully aware of what was waiting for us in Germany I think my father and the adults – many of the ship’s passengers had been released from concentration camps prior to going to Cuba – so they knew what was going to happen. When we heard that three countries had offered us asylum – France, Belgium and the Netherlands and then United Kingdom being the fourth – we all voted. Passengers had a vote – we thought we had a vote. The majority of the passengers wanted to come to the United Kingdom with the little strip of water. It wasn’t to be. For the United Kingdom you had to have a sponsor. My father and I were lucky that my father’s cousin was a GP in South London. He was our sponsor. But in those days you had to ensure His Majesty’s Government (as it was) that you would not be a drain on the United Kingdom. But still the best of all those worlds because I think everybody knew that war was going to come and the desperate action once they got to France, Belgium, Holland was to move on elsewhere. In Germany, you never looked a policeman – certainly in my lifetime – you never looked a policeman in the eye. You averted your gaze. God forbid he should find out. The majority of the police – not all the police obviously – but the majority of the police were Nazis and if they found out you were a Jew they could have arrested you for anything they wanted. I remember coming off the gangplank and seeing a policeman. and as I walked by him, he looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder and I quite openly wet myself. I was so scared. This man was going to arrest me. He didn’t of course. He said ‘hello, welcome to England’ or something in that ilk. And that, to me, has been the difference to this day between Germany and the United Kingdom.

2 Replies to “The Voyage of the St. Louis”

  1. I personally know a man who was on the St Louis at age 5. He survived in the Netherlands when they arrived back in Europe. After the war, he made it to the U.S. and Denver.

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