SS St Louis: The ship of Jewish refugees nobody wanted
On 13 May 1939, more than 900 Jews fled Germany aboard a luxury cruise liner, the SS St Louis. They hoped to reach Cuba and then travel to the US – but were turned away in Havana and forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 were killed by the Nazis.
“It was really something to be going on a luxury liner,” says Gisela Feldman. “We didn’t really know where we were heading, or how we would cope when we got there.”
At the age of 90, Feldman still clearly remembers the raw and mixed emotions she felt as a 15-year-old girl boarding the St Louis at Hamburg docks with her mother and younger sister.
“I was always aware of how anxious my mother looked, embarking on such a long journey, on her own with two teenage daughters,” she says.
In the years following the rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party, ordinary Jewish families like Feldman’s had been left in no doubt about the increasing dangers they were facing.
Image copyright Howard Barlow Image caption 15-year-old Gisela Feldman on the St Louis
Jewish properties had been confiscated, synagogues and businesses burned down. After Feldman’s Polish father was arrested and deported to Poland her mother decided it was time to leave.
Feldman remembers her father pleading with her mother to wait for him to return but her mother was adamant and always replied: “I have to take the girls away to safety.”
So, armed with visas for Cuba which she had bought in Berlin, 10 German marks in her purse and another 200 hidden in her underclothes, she headed for Hamburg and the St Louis.
“We were fortunate that my mother was so brave,” says Feldman with a note of pride in her voice.
Tearful relatives waved them off at the station in Berlin. “They knew we would never see each other again,” she says softly. “We were the lucky ones – we managed to get out.” She would never see her father or more than 30 other close family members again.
By early 1939, the Nazis had closed most of Germany’s borders and many countries had imposed quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they would allow in.
Cuba was seen as a temporary transit point to get to America and officials at the Cuban embassy in Berlin were offering visas for about $200 or $300 each – $3,000 to $5,000 (£1,800 to £3,000) at today’s prices.
Image copyright Getty Images
When six-year-old Gerald Granston was told by his father that they were leaving their small town in southern Germany to take a ship to the other side of the world, he struggled to understand what that meant.
“I’d never heard of Cuba and I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen. I remember being scared all the time,” he says, now aged 81.
For many of the young passengers and their parents however, the trepidation and anxiety soon faded as the St Louis began its two-week transatlantic voyage.
Feldman, who shared a cabin in the lower part of the ship with her sister Sonja, spent her time walking around the deck chatting with boys of her own age, or swimming in the ship’s pool.
On board, there was a dance band in the evenings and even a cinema. There were regular meals with a variety of food that the passengers rarely saw back home.
Under orders from the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroder, the waiters and crew members treated the passengers politely, in stark contrast to the open hostility Jewish families had become accustomed to under the Nazis.
The captain allowed traditional Friday night prayers to be held, during which he gave permission for the portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in the main dining room to be taken down.
Six-year-old Sol Messinger, who was travelling with his father and mother, recalls how happy everyone seemed. In fact, he says, the youngsters were constantly being told by the adults that they were now safe from harm: “We’re going away,” he heard people say again and again on that outward journey. “We don’t have to look over our shoulders any more.”
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