On May 13 1939 the SS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg for Havana. On board were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany after the horror of Kristallnacht, the pogrom of shop-burning and mass arrests the previous November. Each passenger carried a valid visa for temporary entry into Cuba. It was one of the last ships to leave Nazi Germany before Europe was engulfed in war.

SS St. Louis

As the boat approached Havana, the Cuban government declared the visas invalid and refused entry to the passengers. Subsequent negotiations with the Cuban government to permit the landing ended in failure. Similar attempts to seek entry to the United States also brought no respite. The United States, as the St. Louis steamed along its southern coast, refused to let the ship dock, in keeping with its straitjacket of a refugee policy, which would only tighten as the war progressed. After waiting 12 days in the port of Havana and off the Miami coast, the boat was forced to return to Europe.

Four weeks to the day after the St. Louis had set sail from Hamburg the Belgian King and Prime Minister agreed that 200 passengers could land in Belgium. Within a further three days on June 13 the British, French and Dutch governments each agreed to grant temporary asylum for the refugees until homes in other countries could be found. The ship docked in Antwerp and the passengers were dispersed to their various destinations.

Following the German invasion of Europe, many of the former St. Louis passengers found themselves under Nazi rule and did not survive the Holocaust. Most of those granted refuge in Great Britain were to survive the Holocaust. Amongst those was Oskar Blechner.