“Mother of Exiles: Hope for Those Seeking Freedom” . . . This headline ran in a Midwestern newspaper along with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and these relevant words:
At a time when isolation has become a fetish for many, it is fitting to recall some of the evidences of America’s pride as a place of refuge . . . One such landmark, symbolizing the hope of peoples who migrate from their homeland to this foreign shore, is the Statue of Liberty . . . There is a sonnet on the wall at the base of the statue that is worth re-reading today, when so many are again fleeing from the hand of oppression.
And while it seems that this article could run in today’s newspaper, the year was 1939.
The sonnet includes the well-known words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
These words have come to symbolize America as a shining beacon of democracy and a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. However, not everyone knows that these words were written by a Jewish American poet named Emma Lazurus or that the poem was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. In the full poem the statue is named “Mother of Exiles” and she tells the reader:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In June 1939, the United States had the opportunity to open that golden door to save the lives of over 900 Jewish refugees. However, the country whose ideals were embodied by powerful words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty — words specifically written for persecuted Jews in need of America’s asylum — would fail them. Lady Liberty’s golden door was shut by indifference, xenophobia, and antisemitism.
History Unfolded and Alternative Viewpoints
The story of the St. Louis is well-known to many. Recently, however, several historians have attempted to revise the interpretation of the events, absolving the United States and the FDR administration of any responsibility towards these asylum seekers.  Thus, it remains valuable to go back to contemporary newspaper sources and decide for ourselves what really happened. And as Hoosiers, it is worth finding out what the average Indiana newspaper reader knew about the events and meditating on the uncomfortable question: Could we have done anything different?
Simply put, the U.S. did not act when the mainly Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louis pleaded for asylum in June of 1939. Most of these refugees had purchased visas that they believed would allow them to live in Cuba while waiting for their turn to immigrate to the U.S. when there was room within the quota. Instead, they were returned to Europe. While they were safe for a time in various host countries, after the Nazi occupation spread through Europe, many of these refugees were killed in ghettos and concentration camps. 
In this post, we will look at the incident through articles available in Indiana newspapers to ascertain what the average Hoosier, and by extension, the average American knew about this tragedy. We will place the newspapers in context using secondary source information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newspaper articles for this post have been submitted to the USHMM’s History Unfolded initiative which is attempting to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust through their newspapers. You can join the effort here: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/
Refugees at Sea
By spring of 1939, newspapers were full of reports of the misery faced by Jewish refugees at sea and the refusal of country after country to give them shelter. For example, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported on a Greek steamer seized off the Palestinian coast whose refugee passengers were denied entry by the British authorities there:
The sunny Mediterranean has been turned into a watery hell in which thousands of condemned souls – men, women and children – are floating in indescribable misery and physical agony . . . Uncounted Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution are drifting in a state equal to the worst horrors of the Dark Ages . . . they have been wandering for weeks and months on nightmare voyages, despairing of reaching any port except the bottom of the waters…
The Post reported on hundreds more turned away from Indian ports, as well as from Manila and Hong Kong. The Indianapolis News reported on another 104 Jewish refugees denied permission to land in Vera Cruz, Mexico. And reports from Bucharest described twenty hopeless Jewish refugees who jumped into the Black Sea rather than remain homeless.
The Passengers of the St. Louis
The hundreds of disparate people who boarded the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in May of 1939 all had one thing in common. They felt that the only choice left to them was to abandon their homes and loved ones for an uncertain life in a faraway land. Most were German Jews who had been forced from their jobs and sometimes their homes and subjected to increasing persecution by the Nazi regime. Some had even come out of hiding just for this journey. Some used the last of their savings to buy an expensive ticket, pay the “contingency fee” for an unplanned return voyage, and purchase pricey, inflated visas. Some of these individuals had been sent by the collective effort of their families, who pooled all of their money to save just one of their kin. Most were on a list awaiting U.S. visas which were limited by quotas. They hoped to pass time in Cuba until they could start anew in the U.S. 
Among the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis were several German Jewish families who we can follow through the historical record thanks to the work of the USHMM assembled into the online exhibition “Voyage of the St. Louis.” Their stories were surprisingly similar at first and tragically different at the close of the war. We will follow four families through this story (introducing the patriarch first only for consistency and ease in following the records). 
Franz Blumenstein was a successful businessman living in Vienna with his wife Else, their son Heinz, and his mother Regina. During Kristalnacht, he was arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Else was able to bribe officials for his release under the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He fled to Venezuela and then immigrated to Cuba where he made arrangements for his family to join him. He purchased landing certificates for Else, Regina, and Heinz who then booked passage on the St. Louis.
Siegfried Seligmann, a cattle dealer from Ronnenberg, Germany, was also arrested during Kristalnacht. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp for a time but was somehow, likely through bribery, able to secure his release under the condition that he flee. Siegfried was able to purchase tickets on the St. Louis for himself, as well as his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursula.
Julius Hermanns, a textile merchant from Monchen-Gladbach, Germany, was also arrested, sent to Dachau, transferred to Buchenwald, and released on the condition of immediate emigration. Like Franz Blumenstein, Julius had to leave his family behind. His brother-in-law in New York purchased him a Cuban landing certificate. Julius said goodbye to his wife Grete and his daughter Hilde and boarded the St. Louis.
Leopold Dingfelder owned a kosher meat shop in Plauen, Germany, where he lived with his wife Johanna and their son Rudi. An older son, Martin, had emigrated to America earlier. After persecution of German Jews intensified, the Dingfelders hoped to join Martin in the United States. They booked passage on the St. Louis to await U.S. visas in Cuba.
Regardless of how they began this journey, they must have boarded with some trepidation. For while the ship was owned by a private German company, it was still flying the swastika flag.
The Voyage to Cuba & Hope in the United States
The St. Louis left on May 13, 1939, at 8:00 p.m. Even before they set sail, their landing certificates had been invalidated by the Cuban government. Antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of competition for limited jobs, and Nazi propaganda had turned the Cuban people against further Jewish immigration. Only a few days before the St. Louis departed, 40,000 Cubans attended an antisemitic rally. Responding to this turn in public sentiment and backlash from widespread sale of illegal landing certificates, the Cuban government demanded additional paperwork and money from any potential immigrants.
The passengers were unaware that the tide had turned against them. As they sailed away from the Nazi empire, they likely relaxed a bit. The food was good, the crew showed movies, and children made new friends. The two-week journey was relatively uneventful except for two incidents of which most of the passengers were probably unaware. A man in poor health worsened, died, and was laid to rest at sea. A troubled crew member took his own life by jumping overboard late one night. 
The St. Louis entered the Havana harbor on May 27. According to the USHMM, of the 935 passengers, the Cuban government admitted twenty-eight: twenty-two Jewish passengers with valid U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, two Cubans, and another man who had attempted suicide and needed hospital care.
908 people, including the Blumensteins, Seligmanns, Hermanns, and Dinfelders, were denied entry. The story soon captured the attention of the media around the world. Perhaps, it seemed, sympathetic news stories would lead to their rescue.
What Hoosiers Knew about the St. Louis
The Jewish Post ran a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from Havana reporting that the St. Louis was “barred from landing under the presidential decree,” referring to Decree 937, which invalidated landing permits. Entry would now require written permission from the Cuban Secretaries of Labor and State and a $500 bond posted to ensure the refugees would not become dependent on the state. The passengers did not have this sum.
The Post article also reported on “intervention with the government by Jewish communal and refugee organizations.” The main negotiating force was American attorney Lawrence Berenson who represented the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC). Berenson had previously worked as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and thus had important contacts in both the U.S. and Cuba. However, the Post reported on June 2, the negotiations proved “fruitless.” Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters if the refugees could not pay the bonds totaling $453,500.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Post reported, two other ships, one French and one British, arrived with refugees, complicating the situation and increasing the antipathy of the Cuban people. They were also denied entry. The Post reported that the St. Louis passengers were growing “desperate” with some “seeking to commit suicide by throwing themselves overboard.” The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “Twenty-five police were sent aboard the liner to guard others from any attempted self-destruction after Max Lowe, one of the refugees, slashed his wrists and jumped overboard.” The Indianapolis Star also relayed reports from ship guards who “reported the situation among the refugees as desperate,” that “women and children cried continuously,” and that “calls for meals for the most part went unanswered.”
It became increasingly clear to the passengers that they would not leave the boat. According to the JTA, an editorial in the Cuban newspaper Diaro de la Marino “predicted pogroms against the Jews” if they disembarked. And the Jewish Post reported that “anti-Semitic activities have been increasing.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the people on board was just how close they were to safety. Little boats began to encircle the St. Louis, some of them rented by family and friends of the refugees who had previously immigrated. They were close enough to wave and shout to each other, but not to be reunited.
Negotiations continued. The JJDC made an offer to President Bru to pay part of the requested $453,500. He refused to compromise and ordered the ship to leave or the Cuban navy would force it asea. The Indianapolis Star reported that Cuban marines stood at the ready. Buying time for further negotiations, the captain of the liner “aimlessly cruised the Caribbean,” travelling “around the West Indies for a time in hope some country would answer… appeals and offer the refugee[s] a home.” Over the following week, many United Press (UP) and Associated Press (AP) articles ran in Indiana newspapers. The Kokomo Tribune and the Indianapolis News ran the same UP article June 3 with two different but powerful headlines: “Jewish Refugees Adrift in Caribbean Appeal to Many Nations for New Homes” and “Refugee Vessel Appeals for Help.” The articles reported that the St Louis was “appealing by radio to nations of the new world to relieve her of her terrified passengers before there was a wave of suicides.”
One of those countries to which the refugees appealed for asylum was the United States. On June 5, the St. Louis “moved slowly southward into Caribbean waters along the Florida coast.” As the ship moved first north and then turned around and headed south, the passengers could see the lights of Miami. Indiana newspapers widely printed wire articles reported from Miami that the U.S. Coast Guard kept the St. Louis from landing. The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “A coast guard patrol boat had trailed the ship as it passed near here watching its movements, guarding lest some of its desperate passengers jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore.” One headline from the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier perhaps summed up the situation most succinctly: “Refugee Ship Cruising Off Florida Coast: American Authorities Are Keeping Close Watch on Vessel that Has 907 Unwanted Jews Aboard.”
The article also reported: “For two hours the ship rode at anchor off the Miami channel light, easily visible from shore.” The Lafayette paper’s Miami report also noted, “Two coast guard planes were dispatched from Miami to keep the anchored craft under surveillance” and a “patrol boat hovered nearby.” The ship continued towards the Florida Keys “while negotiators sought to arrange for the refugees’ entry into Cuba, from where many hope to join relatives in the United States.”
Jewish organizations, led by the JJDC, finally raised and offered the entire bond requested by the Cuban president. Cuba, however, was no longer willing to welcome Jewish refugees and the president refused the offer. As the St. Louis turned around to head towards Europe on June 6, the United States was their last hope.
The Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article which reported: “Their hope crushed by the Cuban government’s refusal for the second time to give them asylum, victims of one of the strangest sagas of the sea renewed an appeal to President [Franklin] Roosevelt for last-minute intervention.” The Tribune closed the article by reporting: “Captain [Gustav] Schroeder decided to steer for Germany.” While, the ship ultimately did not land in Germany, for several days, the media reported that the Fatherland was the intended destination. The front page of the Indianapolis Star read: “Refugees Start Back to Germany” and the Kokomo Tribune headline read: “Jewish Refugees Reported Enroute to Germany After Cuba Refuses Landing.” According to the AP service, “The German liner St. Louis informed Tropical Radio at 11:40 o’clock tonight [June 6] that she had set her course for Europe, bearing back to Germany the 907 Jewish refugees who fled that country for Cuba . . . until they could get in the United States quota.”
Context and Contention
Most scholars agree that the United States, and more specifically President Roosevelt, did not do enough to help these refugees. Recently however, a vocal minority have argued that the blame lies only with Cuba and that FDR could legally have done nothing to help. Without wading into this academic and political mire, we can assert with confidence that the U.S. did little. According to the USHMM, “President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees.” FDR chose not to act because of “general hostility toward immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and [his] consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president.” In short, while newspapers printed sympathetic stories and editorials, the cause was not popular enough or politically beneficial enough to justify intervention. 
Land and Loss
Fortunately, Jewish organizations, again led by the JJDC, were able to negotiate with four European countries for the placement of the refugees. Great Britain admitted 288; the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium admitted 214, and France admitted 224 Jewish refugees.  The St. Louis unloaded her passengers to these countries between June 16 and June 20. Only those who arrived on British soil would find safety. 
Franz Blumenstein, who preceded his family and arranged their passage on the St. Louis, would have watched the ship carrying his wife Else, his three-year-old son Heinz, and his mother Regina turn around and sail back to Europe. They disembarked in the Netherlands and over the following years arranged for visas that would let them join Franz in an agricultural colony in the Dominican Republic. However, by 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and they could not procure the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Else missed Franz desperately and in 1941 wrote him:
It won’t be long and then we will, with G-d’s help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive.
After deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in 1942, Regina was arrested by police. She somehow managed to hide Heinz during the arrest. Else and Heinz fled and went into hiding for a time in northern Holland. Despite the efforts of Dutch resistance, Else was arrested and on September 24, 1943. She was transported to Auschwitz. Heinz remained hidden throughout the war and was able to eventually join his father in the United States. Else and Regina died in Auschwitz.
The Dingfelder family of Leopold, Johanna and their 15-year-old son Rudi (their other son previously emigrated to New York) also disembarked in the Netherlands. Like the Blumensteins, the Dingfelders were arrested and deported in 1942. Leopold and Johanna were sent to Auschwitz, while Rudi was sent to Westerbork transit camp. He was forced to labor in an aircraft factory in Holland for a time before he was sent to the Vught concentration camp. After being sent back to Westerbork, he was taken to Auschwitz where he labored in the Siemens-Schuckert factory.
When the Soviets advanced in 1945, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Rudi marched for two-weeks to Buchenwald and sent to another factory outside Berlin. As the Soviets closed in, the SS forced him to join a “death march.” He and four others attempted an escape near Schwerin. Most were shot. Rudi was soon rescued by Allied troops and eventually emigrated to the United States. Leopold and Johanna died at Auschwitz.
Siegfried Seligmann, his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursala disembarked in Belgium and settled in Brussells. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, Belgian police arrested Siegfried. He was sent to France and imprisoned at Les Milles, a factory converted to an internment camp. Alma and Ursala traveled to France, hoping to find him. They were arrested in Paris and taken to a different internment camp. Somehow, separately, the entire family managed to obtain the visas necessary to leave France. They settled in the United States.
Julius Hermanns, who had to leave his family behind when he boarded the St. Louis to flee Dachau, disembarked in France. He contacted his wife Grete and his teenage daughter Hilde to join him. After France declared war on Germany, Julius was arrested and taken to Saint-Cyprien, an internment camp on the French-Spanish border. Here he joined 50 other passengers of the St. Louis. Julius wrote to organizations and relatives begging for help:
We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places . . . In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably.
Grete, Hilde, and several of their relatives were deported to the Riga ghetto December 11, 1941. After several transfers, Julius was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942.
Julius died at Auschwitz while Grete and Hilde likely died at Riga.
Mother of Exiles
Of the 620 St. Louis passengers returned to the European continent, “532 were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe,” according to the USHMM. Of these Jewish refugees who were in sight of the palm trees of Havana and the lights of Miami, and who repeatedly radioed the United States for asylum, 254 died in the Holocaust.
As we continue to debate who is and who is not allowed through the Mother of Exile’s golden door, we should consider whether we can improve on her legacy.
Learn how we can confront genocide: https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide
Recently, scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have argued in their book FDR and the Jews that there was nothing that could be done for these refugees and that President Roosevelt, and the larger United States, do not deserve the condemnation that this incident drew. This position has been hotly contested and thoroughly dissected by Rafael Madoff in “Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust,” David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, accessed http://new.wymaninstitute.org/2013/08/politicizing-americas-response-to-the-holocaust/
 The main source for secondary and contextual information for this post is “Voyage of the St. Louis,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Information on the families of St. Louis Passengers accessed “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” Online Exhibition, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/st-louis/story/
 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis
 Breiman and Lichtman argue that there was no way FDR’s administration could have admitted the passengers because the quota was full. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies argues that the refugees could have been easily admitted to the U.S. Virgin Islands where the governor and legislature offered asylum. Medoff argues, “The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitmann and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did. See Medoff’s book FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith. Breiman and Lichtman argue that the fact that these refugees founds temporary safety, frees the United States of any blame for their eventual fate. The USHMM study Refuge Denied shows that passengers were desperately seeking menial jobs in Chile to get out of being sent to these “safe” countries.
 One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.