Friday, February 1, 2013

How My Jewish Uncle Escaped Out of Germany in 1939

Nadene Goldfoot                                                          St. Louis                                   
On Saturday, May 13, 1939,boarded  937  Jewish passengers sailing from Hamburg on the German ship, MS St. Louis.  They  landed in Havana, Cuba's  harbor on May 27th.  Only 28 were admitted into their country.  That's because they had valid US visas.  The others had all bought legal visas, but the President of Cuba wouldn't allow them in.   Their goal was to eventually get into the USA.  Out of the 28, 22 were Jewish. "Neither Cuba nor the US granted refuge to the ship's passengers."  The political conditions in Cuba was thought to keep out the Jews. Goebbels had sent agents to Cuba to stir up anti-Semitism.   The rest, 910  weary Jewish travelers were returned to a Germany that was trying to get rid of them, and we all know what their fate was.

Ever since last year's Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9th and 10th, the Germans were trying to speed up their forced evacuation of Jews.  By 1939, not only were visas needed to be able to enter another country but money was also needed to leave Germany. The United State had immigration quotas, and one needed to apply way before in order to get one.  This ill fated trip was written about in the book, Voyage of the Damned.  It also became a movie in 1976.
                                                                         SS George Washington
 Just 9 days earlier on May 4, 1939, my soon-to-be uncle sailed from Hamburg on the 1908 built USS George Washington, largest German-built steamship and the third-largest ship in the world. A tourist ticket cost $127 one-way.  Passengers on this ship at other times were Rose Kennedy and her children and Peter Lorre, the actor.

 It sailed straight to New York and entered Ellis Island on May 12th.  He wasn't yet 23 years old and traveled alone. Families had to pool resources to send even one member to freedom and this is what happened for my uncle.  He was leaving his 16 year old sister and parents behind with the plan to work and send for them.  But already it was too late for them to ever get out.  By then most Jews had already lost their jobs and were being charged immensely high rents under the Nazi regime. His family was lucky to have their own sausage making business and must have owned their own home.  His father had been a hero in WWI.

What a difference a week and a USA visa made with an American destination.  His parents had filed soon enough to make the quota, just in the nick of time before the door closed.   My uncle was the only person in his family that escaped Germany.  He was able to marry and have a family.  His family most likely never realized what a close call this had been for him. Yet that wasn't the end of demands on a Jewish man.  He had to have a sponsor in the USA to accept all responsibility for him, meaning financially.  My great uncle Max stepped up to the plate and took that upon himself while getting him a job with my father.  Thus, my uncle soon became an American on March 23, 1940 and was a naturalized citizen.  .

Resource:  St. Louis  Excellent report


  1. September 1935-Germany took away German citizenship from its Jews leving them legally defenselss.
    1938-300,000 Germans, mostly Jews, applied for US visas. 20,000 were approved.
    82% of Americans opposed Jews entering states.
    May 1939-Eve of War. St. Louis seemed to be last ship to try to get to USA. USA turned them down. St. Louis sailed up the Florida coast. The U.S. Coast Guard followed close behind to prevent any passengers from swimming ashore. The State Department refused to allow the refugees to land without special legislation by Congress or an executive order from the president. Efforts by American Jewish organizations to work out a compromise failed. The desperate passengers aboard the St. Louis sent President Roosevelt a telegram pleading their case. He never replied.

  2. May 27, 1949, St. Louis's sister ship, Orinoco, left Hamburg with 200 Jews bound for Cuba with the same results. They could not get into Cuba and USA would not take them.

    48 Jews on the British Orduna tried to land in Cuba. 68 Jews were transferring in Lima, Peru to the British ship- Orbila. They got to Balboa 7 got off in Chile. Some made it to the Canal Zone at Fort amador. 55 Jews, then 79 Jews arrived in panama May 1939 and got on the ship the American Legion. That seems to be the last to make it to the USA and be accepted.
    September 1, 1939: WWII started in Germany. Technically, Jews could get out up to November 1941, but no one would accept them.

  3. I'm looking for detailed information regarding the S.S. Orinoco and the S.S. Flandre including passenger lists, negotiations for docking and disembarkation, etc.

  4. I just clicked onto a comment and it disappeared instead of being published. What happened? I don't know. I was going to say to the reader that to find information about other boats, I would google their names. Also, if you belong to, they might have information. It would pay to join that website for a month and check there.

  5. I googled. Look what came up at the top of the list.

  6. I googled SS Flandre and so many sites came up. You'd had to look at them all. Here's from wikipedia.

    1. Also, the article on the SS Orinoco is also about a different ship in a different era. :-( I have since found a passenger list for the Orinoco in a collection of private papers archived in one of the Jewish history sites. Sloppy work there, Nadene. You don't get to do a quick Google search and assume you have the answer before perusing it. And, no, you don't have to publish this reply. However, you might want to remove your replies.

  7. Your interest in a different ship other than what was in my article is something you should pursue; not me. I was only trying to help you, Barbara. I gave you one detail about a ship you mentioned; not THE ship. You gave no dates or information on it. "I'm looking for detailed information regarding the S.S. Orinoco and the S.S. Flandre including passenger lists, negotiations for docking and disembarkation, etc." Don't expect other people to do your work, and be grateful when someone tries to help.

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