Many know the tragic story of the SS St. Louis, a German liner crowded with Jewish refugees who was refused disembarkation in Havana by the Cuban government in May 1939.
The ship, carrying 937 people, was eventually forced to return to Western Europe. Many of these same people eventually came under Nazi occupation, and about 254 of St. Louis’ Jewish passengers were murdered during the Holocaust.
Pauline Meyerowitz, 88, from Tampa arrived in Cuba as a 5-year-old German Jewish refugee with her parents and brother, probably in March 1939.
Growing up, Pauline became familiar with the history of St. Louis, but only this year realized why her family’s plight was different, or how close her family was to being refused entry. Based on when Pauline received an ID card in Berlin – February 16, 1939 – and the time it would take for the family to get to a port, board a ship and get to Havana, they probably arrived just weeks before Cuba changed its immigration policy in early May.
If the family boarded a ship on the day the ID card was issued and the trip was 18 days (the time Pauline thinks it took) to get to Cuba, the ship would have arrived in early March. But they could easily have arrived later, if the family had taken time after Pauline’s ID card was issued to dispose of the family assets, saying goodbye to family members (who later died in the Holocaust) or encountered delays of any kind in booking the passage or in the journey.
Pauline was only 5 years old at the time and does not remember or have any records showing specific dates of departure or arrival or the name of the vessel. She remembers it was a freighter, not an ocean liner. Pauline
“I knew we were lucky, I just didn’t realize how lucky we were,” Pauline told The Jewish Press after reporting the results of research by historian Rebecca Erbelding, PhD, at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“In late 1938 and early 1939,” Erbelding said, “Cuba received Jewish refugees on temporary permits; most were waiting their turn on the waiting list to present their documents for permanent US immigration quota visas, which would allow them to travel to the United States.
Erbelding added: “About 8,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Cuba in the first five months of 1939, which sparked an anti-Semitic reaction among the Cuban population. A scandal involving a Cuban official making a huge profit selling the landing permits needed by Jewish refugees prompted the Cuban president to declare these permits invalid in early May 1939, just before the departure of the St. Louis.
“The Hamburg-Amerika line, which owned the St. Louis, mistakenly assumed that permits already issued would be recognized,” Erbelding said.
She could not find out which ship the Wander family took for Cuba. “Unlike the manifests from ships arriving in the United States, the Cuban manifests are currently not available online, and we do not have copies in our archives. Frankly, they may no longer exist; I haven’t seen any academics refer to it in the past, ”she said.
“In Cuba, the Wanders were relatively lucky,” Erbelding said, explaining that because Pauline’s father was born in Poland and her mother was born in Russia, immigration quotas from those countries applied to parents rather than Germans. “Although the waiting lists for Soviet and Polish quotas were long, the onset of the war meant that ships no longer sailed from Polish ports to the United States. Many Polish and Soviet Jews who hoped to emigrate were either trapped or attempted to travel east, via the Soviet Union, to obtain American immigration visas from diplomats in Moscow or even Tokyo. … Being safe in Cuba, the Wanders were probably able to avoid the line, as so many people in front of them were either trapped or still trying to find their way to the US consulates, ”Erbelding said.
This meant that in June 1940, the Wanders were given visas. Many of those who remained in Europe died while waiting.
~ BOB FRYER, Jewish press