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Salvation so close, yet mercy so far

  • Author: Tom Kizzia
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published May 18, 1999

This story was originally published in the Anchorage Daily News on May 18, 1999

The ocean liner St. Louis, which carried about 900 Jewish refugees on an epic 1939 voyage from Europe to the United States and back again, has become a lasting symbol of a nation's callous response to the plight of Germany's Jews.

Departing from Hamburg, Germany, 60 years ago this month, the St. Louis carried refugees bound for one of the few countries that would take them: Cuba. Passengers had paid $160 each for ''landing permits'' in the Caribbean nation. But once they reached the Havana harbor, they were not allowed to go ashore without real visas, which only a few dozen passengers had.

Condemned to drift, the ship headed north for Florida, where it hovered off the coast, in sight of the lights of Miami, while the U.S. Coast Guard watched for escapees. Despite worldwide publicity and pleas for help, President Roosevelt would not intervene. U.S. law set strict limits on the number of immigrants from each country, and the passengers on the St. Louis would have to return to Germany and get in line.

TX: After five days, the German ship started back across the Atlantic. European nations scrambled to strike a deal while a sympathetic German captain sailed slowly to the east. In the end, the passengers were divided among England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, so they did not have to return to Germany. Soon after, however, with the outbreak of war, many of the former passengers fell into Nazi hands.

About half the passengers turned back from America on the St. Louis eventually died in Nazi camps and massacres, according to researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which is holding a special exhibit on the St. Louis this summer.

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