by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian
(Updated July 21, 2021)
Introduction: MS St. Louis’s 1939 Voyage to Cuba
MS St. Louis was a well-appointed 17,000 ton liner for the Hamburg-America Line, completed in 1929 for trans-Atlantic service between Hamburg and New York. On 13 May 1939, the ship departed on a special cruise from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba. St. Louis had 937 passengers aboard, mostly Jewish Germans who had been driven out by the violent persecutions of the Nazi state. They had secured Cuban tourist visas, which were attractive for several reasons. First, those visas did not require verification of the right of return. Second, the visas were available (for a bribe). Third, Cuba was very close to the United States (US). Many of the passengers were on waiting lists for entry into the US, or had family there.
Unknown to the passengers, Cuban President Laredo Brú had expanded the documentary requirements for foreign tourists before the ship had departed Germany. Cuban domestic anti-Semitism, political infighting, and corruption all contributed to the new regulation (Decree No. 937), which was a nearly complete barrier to entry for the passengers aboard St.Louis. Only twenty-eight passengers were able to land at Havana after the ship arrived on 27 May. The rest were put through a series of delays and denials from the Cuban government. Ultimately, St. Louis, still carrying 907 passengers, was ordered out of Cuban waters on 2 June.
During this ordeal, the passengers petitioned the US for aid and admission, and also contacted countries in central America looking for refuge. The US position was that the passengers could not be admitted, and although Captain Gustav Schröder considered an illegal landing of the passengers in Florida, getting St. Louis close enough to shore would have been dangerous. After several days of failed negotiations, St. Louis finally left waters between Florida and Cuba on 7 June, bound directly for Europe.
That evening, a group of prominent Canadians led by historian and professor George Wrong telegraphed a petition to the Prime Minister, William Lyon MacKenzie King, who was aboard the Royal Train at Niagara Falls, Ontario. The petitioners suggested that King “forthwith offer to the 907 homeless exiles on board the Hamburg American ship St. Louis sanctuary in Canada.” King’s response was to instruct Undersecretary for External Affairs Dr. Oscar D. Skelton to consult with Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, and the Director of Immigration, Frederick Blair, as he “would like to be advised immediately as to powers of government to meet suggestion which communication contains” as well as requesting that they send a reply to George Wrong.
In Canada, Parliament was not sitting. The Cabinet was not scheduled to meet until a week after King requested action. Further, the minister responsible for immigration, Minister of Mines and Resources Thomas Crerar, was away from Ottawa until 19 June. Lapointe took time merely to voice his opposition to admitting the passengers before leaving Ottawa on the evening of 8 June, and not returning until 13 June. Therefore these critical days for the passengers of St. Louis, as the ship headed back across the Atlantic, fell amid a power vacuum in Ottawa. After Lapointe’s initial response, which seems to have been the only input on the situation from an elected official besides the Prime Minister, Blair and Skelton were left to craft a Canadian response to the refugee situation for King.
Canadian Bureaucrats Respond
Blair’s first response to Skelton and King’s request was to detail the powers that King had to admit the passengers of St. Louis by way of Order-in-Council. It merits quoting in detail:
“In answer to the Prime Minister’s request as to the powers of Government to grant what is requested, I may say that most of the regulations which prevent a free movement of people to Canada from Europe, are made by Order-in-Council and assuming that these refugees are in good health and of good character, they could be admitted by a general Order-in-Council such as are passed from week to week for the admission of individual refugees who are named in the Orders.”
In his note to Skelton, Blair moved from this explanation of the possible process for admission to argue against allowing the refugees to enter. He argued that domestic backlash to a large-scale admission of Jewish refugees would prevent “what we are doing in a less spectacular way by putting up lists every few days,” referring to the lists of names of immigrants that accompanied Orders-in-Council for admission of people who were otherwise not eligible to enter the country (a substantial portion of those admitted by these “lists” were Jewish). Skelton followed up Blair’s advice with a telegram to King, but only after a noon-hour telephone conversation with Blair. The result of these conversations was that Blair and Skelton told King that only people from four specified groups (family, investors, entrepreneurs, and highly-skilled immigrants) could be admitted by Order-in-Council.
The policy basis for limiting Order-in-Council admissions to these four groups is not clear. Blair’s later note to Skelton regarding the passengers of St. Louis simply states that the passengers “could not have been admitted otherwise than by naming them in a special Order-in-Council since none of them, so far as we know, were able to comply with existing Canadian Immigration Regulations.” The implication follows the direction of Blair’s first response: the passengers were admissible by obtaining a suitable Order-in-Council. Further, the availability of ministerial permits to bypass the provisions of the Immigration Act by allowing entrance to inadmissible immigrants in justifiable circumstances does not seem to have entered the discussion at all, but Crerar’s absence may have prevented Skelton and Blair from proposing that option.
Context for the Canadian Refusal
As a result, King did not receive advice on the government’s powers to decide in favour of and admit the passengers. Instead, he received a statement of the restrictive immigration regulations and a limited description of who could be admitted under Order-in-Council. This amounted to advice that the passengers of St. Louis were not admissible.
Blair wrote to Skelton a week after the initial exchange. In that note, he spelled out some of the key arguments against admission: the requirement for a special order in council; the fact that most of the refugees intended to reside permanently in the United States; and, the potential precedent for other refugees from German persecution. Blair also pointed out that “no request was made by the ship and so far as we know, by the passengers, for their landing in Canada,” which is consistent with the ship’s route: St. Louis did not head for Canada or enter Canadian waters. These arguments, coupled with a rigid attitude towards the enforcement of the exceedingly restrictive immigration policies of Depression-era Canada, were the crux of the brief and exclusionary advice sent by Skelton back to King on 9 June.
These arguments should be viewed against a backdrop of contemporary anti-Semitism among Canadian authorities. For example, Blair wrote in 1938 that “it might be a very good thing if they would call a conference and have a day of humiliation and prayer which might profitably be extended for a week or more, when [Jews] would honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular everywhere.” Later in 1938, High Commissioner for Canada in Great Britain Vincent Massey wrote that Canada ought to be generous in accepting “Aryan Sudeten Germans” so as to avoid accepting non-Aryan refugees later. In January 1939, Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) Wilfrid Lacroix voiced his opposition to refugee admission and tabled a petition signed by almost 130,000 Canadians, members of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, calling for the prevention of Jewish immigration. Two months before St. Louis sailed, another MP sent Blair a copy of the so-called Franklin Prophecy, a forged anti-Semitic screed supposedly written by Benjamin Franklin.
Drawing a Line
There were other petitioning letters to government, but Lapointe, Blair, and Skelton did not shift from their position of inaction or exclusion. They may have been protected from scrutiny by some false reports of sanctuary arrangements that emerged while the refugees had no certain destination between 2 and 13 June. Conflicting reports of success for the passengers in finding refuge in Cuba, in Dominica, and in other states, ran in Canadian newspapers and may have blunted the sense of urgency for offering refuge to the passengers in Canada. The confusion on the part of the press might be excused in that even the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, a Jewish advocacy and relief organization that worked on behalf of Jewish refugees from Europe) still circulated internal opinions that Cuba might yet relent as late as 8 June. King witnessed some of the US government’s consideration of the affair and interactions with the JDC as he traveled on the Royal Train in company with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he seemed to feel no imperative for Canada to act. He recorded in his diary that the refugee situation was “much less our problem than that of the U.S. and Cuba” and perceived from his discussions with Roosevelt that some resolution was in process. A quote from Blair written during the St. Louis crisis remains the best-known summary of Canada’s response: “It is manifestly impossible for any country to open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.”
MS St. Louis Returns to Europe
The passengers were given a safe return to Europe thanks to the JDC brokering a last-minute arrangement for sanctuary, announced on 13 June. The refugee passengers were distributed between the Netherlands (181), Belgium (214), France (224) and the United Kingdom (288). However, the Second World War broke out not long after their return to Europe, and in 1940, more than six hundred of the passengers were in territories that fell under Nazi authority. Researchers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller have shown that 254 of the passengers were murdered in the Holocaust; one passenger also died in later German air attacks on Britain.
Library and Archives Canada presents some of the key Canadian historical files related to the tragic voyage of MS St. Louis at: http://data2.archives.ca/e/e443/e011068294.pdf
(Library and Archives Canada, RG76 Volume 440 File 670224)
Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation: http://www.pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/canadian-immigration-acts-and-legislation
Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/prime-ministers/william-lyon-mackenzie-king/Pages/diaries-william-lyon-mackenzie-king.aspx
Canadian Parliamentary Historical Resources: http://parl.canadiana.ca/?usrlang=en
- Arnold Kludas, Great Passenger Ships of the World, Volume 3: 1924-1935 (London: Patrick Stephens, 1976), 116.
- C. Paul Vincent, “The Voyage of St. Louis Revisited,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 25:2 (Fall 2011), 255-257. Regarding the numbers of passengers, note that one passenger died at sea before St. Louis arrived at Cuba, and another attempted suicide in Havana harbour and was hospitalized in Cuba.
- United States Coast Guard, “What was the Coast Guard’s Role in the SS St. Louis affair (otherwise known as the “Voyage of the Damned”)?”, http://www.history.uscg.mil/Frequently-Asked-Questions/, accessed 29 September 2017. Schroeder also considered attempting to beach in England later in the voyage. See Vincent, 270-271.
- Reports in Canada in early June claimed offers of refuge for the passengers of St. Louis from Dominica, Santa Domingo, and Cuba – see the Globe and Mail cover pages of 3 and 6 June 1939, and the Toronto Star cover page of 3 June 1939.
- Library and Archives Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King Papers, volume 262, telegraph from George Wrong to King, 7 June 1939, Toronto ON, microfilm reel C-3751, item 238579.
- Library and Archives Canada, Department of Employment and Immigration fonds, RG 76, volume 440, file 670224 “Department of External Affairs - Confidential telegrams to Prime Minister at Washington, D.C., United States, on immigration matters (German Jews on SS ST. LOUIS),” (hereafter File 670224) telegraph from King to Skelton, Parkton MD, 8 June 1939. There is some personal history between Wrong and King, including both a vehement protest by King and others at the University of Toronto’s Varsity student newspaper over Wrong’s appointment as a professor at the university, and possibly some grudging feelings from King toward Wrong over poor grades. See Library and Archives Canada, Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, 9 February 1895; Martin Friedland, The University of Toronto: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 164; and the Globe and Mail of 4 and 9 February 1895.
- File 670244, Skelton to King, Ottawa ON, 9 June 1939
- File 670224, Blair to Skelton, Ottawa ON, 9 June 1939
- File 670224, Skelton to King, Ottawa ON, 9 June 1939; File 670224, Blair to Skelton, Ottawa ON, 9 June 1939; and File 670224, Skelton to Blair, Ottawa ON, 9 June 1939
- File 670224, Blair to Skelton, Ottawa ON, 16 June 1939
- Library and Archives Canada, Statutes of Canada, An Act Respecting Immigration, 1910, Ottawa: SC 9-10 Edward VII, Chapter 27, Section 4
- File 670224, Blair to Skelton, Ottawa ON, 16 June 1939; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Voyage of the St. Louis – Animated Map,” accessed at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_nm.php?ModuleId=10005267&MediaId=3544
- Library and Archives Canada, Department of Employment and Immigration fonds, RG 76, Volume 391, File 541782 Part 5, “Immigration to Canada of Jews from Europe,” confidential letter from Blair to Mr F. Sclanders, Commisioner, Saint John Board of Trade, Ottawa ON, 19 September 1938; coded confidential telegram from Massey to King, London UK, 29 November 1938; Canada, House of Commons Debates, 30 January 1939 (Wilfrid Lacroix), accessed at http://www.lipad.ca/full/permalink/1168496/; and also in File 541782 previously listed, confidential letter from H.E. Brunelle to Blair, Ottawa ON, 16 March 1939
- Examples of the false reports of refuge include “Cuba Consents to Admit Jews,” Montreal Gazette, 6 June 1939; “Dominica Offers Haven to Refugees Barred at Havana,” Globe and Mail, 3 June 1939; “Santo Domingo Offers Home for 907 Jews Cuba Rejects,” Toronto Daily Star, 3 June 1939
- JDC Chairman Paul Baewald to JDC European Director Morris Troper, London UK, 8 June 1939, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #38560, accessed online at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1127112
- Library and Archives Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King Diaries, MG26-J13, 8 June 1939, accessed at http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/politics-government/prime-ministers/william-lyon-mackenzie-king/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=20412
- File 670224, Blair to Skelton, Ottawa ON, 16 June 1939, emphasis added; regarding the influence of the phrase, consider the article by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, “The Line Must Be Drawn Somewhere: Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939,” Canadian Historical Review, 60:2 (1979) 178-209, which becomes a chapter in their seminal work None Is Too Many. This is an apt summary of the attitudes of the Canadian officials involved, but it was written after news of an arrangement for the passengers had already broken in Canada, and so did not have a bearing on the outcome for the passengers. See: “4 Lands Offer Haven to Jews,” Montreal Gazette, 14 and 15 June 1939; “Europe Finds Homes for Stranded Jews,” Toronto Daily Star, 13 June 1939; “Drifting Jews Offered Haven By 4 Countries,” Globe and Mail, 15 June 1939. Finally, the 19 June Star contains in “The Jay Walker” column, a comment titled Port After Storm: “Nearly a thousand Jewish refugees from the steamship St. Louis will be given a haven in the great open spaces of Britain, Holland, Belgium, and France. The population of the Americas was too dense.”
- Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller, Refuge Denied: the St. Louis passengers and the Holocaust (Madison,: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 25
- Ogilvie and Miller, Refuge Denied, 174-175; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Voyage of the St. Louis”, accessed at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267