As the M.S. St. Louis cruised off the coast of Miami in June 1939, its passengers could see the lights of the city glimmering. But the United States hadn’t been on the ship’s original itinerary, and its passengers didn’t have permission to disembark in Florida. As the more than 900 Jewish passengers looked longingly at the twinkling lights, they hoped against hope that they could land.

Those hopes would soon be dashed by immigration authorities, sending the ship back to Europe. And then, nearly a third of the passengers on the St. Louis were murdered.

Most of the ship’s 937 passengers were Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. Though World War II had not yet begun, the groundwork for the Holocaust was already being laid in Germany, where Jewish people faced harassment, discrimination and political persecution. But though the danger faced by the passengers was clear, they were turned down by immigration authorities, first by Cuba, then the United States and Canada. For many on the St. Louis, that rejection was a death sentence.

The voyage took place as German persecution of Jews reached a fever pitch. After Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, Germany embraced a series of laws that isolated Jewish people from daily life, by restricting their ability to move freely, shutting down their businesses and slashing educational opportunities. In November 1938, Kristallnacht, a state organized pogrom known as the “night of broken glass," left Jewish businesses, homes and places of worship in shambles.

For many Jews, Kristallnacht was a clear signal to leave. At the time, German Jews were being pushed by the Nazis to emigrate, and the danger faced by Jews elsewhere in Europe led some to find ways to leave the continent for good. The Jewish people aboard the St. Louis had made the difficult decision to start new lives thousands of miles away. The ship's destination was Cuba, where most passengers planned to live while awaiting entry into the United States.

The M.S. St Louis
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Refugees aboard the M.S. St. Louis. Here, they are seen arriving in Antwerp, Belgium after over a month at sea, during which they were denied entry to Cuba.

It took two weeks for the St. Louis, which flew a Nazi flag, to reach Havana. But the voyage didn’t end on Cuban soil. Rather, Cuban officials refused to let the passengers disembark. Though the majority of passengers had purchased Cuban visas in Germany, Cuba had decided to revoke all but 28.

The passengers waited aboard for an entire week. As time passed, they became increasingly desperate. One passenger, Max Loewe, slashed his wrists, jumped overboard and was sedated by authorities before being admitted to a Havana hospital. Passengers formed a committee and begged Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru, and then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for sanctuary. When it became clear that Cuba was indifferent, if not hostile, to the refugees, the ship sailed toward the United States.

They didn’t find sanctuary there, either. An attempt to land in Miami was rejected by immigration authorities, and a desperate cable to Roosevelt by some passengers was ignored. Though a U.S. diplomat had tried to negotiate with Cuba to admit the refugees, the U.S. itself was unwilling to open its doors. The passengers would have to abide by an existing quota system that allowed only about 27,000 people from Germany and Austria into the United States.

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A woman who was denied entry in Havana is seen crying while surrounded by her children aboard the M.S. St Louis in June 1939.

A State Department official telegraphed the passengers, telling them that they “must await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” Though Roosevelt had considered a concerted push to rescue Jewish refugees the year before the St. Louis sailed, he eventually dropped the idea, both because he knew it would be politically unpopular and because of his increasing focus on the looming world war.

On June 6, twenty-four days after the St. Louis left Europe, it turned around to return. It was accompanied by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, on the lookout for desperate passengers who might jump off the ship.

“It is useless now to discuss what might have been done,” wrote an unnamed editorial writer in the New York Times. “There seems to be no help for them now. The St. Louis will soon be home with her cargo of despair.” The refugees also applied to land in Canada, but its prime minister refused to entertain the idea. “If these Jews were to find a home [in Canada],” said immigration minister Frederick Blair, “they would be followed by other shiploads…the line must be drawn somewhere.”

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After the refugees were denied entry in Havana, Cuban soldiers stayed at the port to assure that the refugees return to the ship.

Back in Europe, some countries did offer to take some immigrants. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had assisted with the Cuban negotiations, promised a cash guarantee for every refugee in exchange for 181 slots in Holland, 224 in France, 228 in Great Britain, and 214 in Belgium.

But not all refugees were taken in, and the majority of European countries were occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. Some passengers managed to get other visas eventually, but many were forced back home.

The world’s refusal of the St. Louis’ desperate refugees was a death sentence for 254 refugees—approximately half of the number who had returned to the European continent in 1939. Many who did not die were interned in concentration camps, like Max Korman, who built on lessons learned on the ship to help organize inmates of the Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands.

After the Holocaust, the St. Louis’ survivors pushed for the remembrance of their ordeal. The United States changed its policy toward refugees in the wake of World War II, and began accepting more refugees than any other country in the world.

In 2012, the United States Department of State formally apologized to the survivors of the ship, and in 2018, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau followed suit. But the memory of those who died is still a painful reminder of what a refusal to adjust immigration policies in light of persecution and migration crises can mean. “We were not wanted,” St. Louis survivor Susan Schleger told a Miami Herald reporter in 1989. “Abandoned by the world.”