The liner St. Louis left Hamburg one Sunday last month. Out into the grey waste of the Atlantic it carried its dismal cargo: 937 German-Jewish refugees bound for Cuba. The ten-year-old, oil-burning, 16,732-ton ship was scheduled to discharge its miserable company at Havana, proceed to New York to pick up passengers for a gay June cruise to the West Indies. The refugees were to remain in Cuba until they could enter the U. S. They were a typical group of the world's newest homeless wanderers: men in sports clothes who had paid as much as $480 for their passage; distraught women; doctors and lawyers who had lost their practices; men who had been in concentration camps. There were 500 women on board. There was Max Loewe, a lawyer, with his wife and two children. There were 150 other children, 106 of them under ten. In the strange, fear-ridden, hope-ridden atmosphere of refugee ships, compounded of anxiety, relief, tension, they waited, living until their voyage's end under the terrible shadow of the red & black swastika ensign that flew from the stern.
For 13 days the ship plowed south and west. In glistening Havana Harbor on a sweltering Saturday the engines stopped. Across the water the refugees could see Morro Castle and the heat-softened outlines of Havana, where many of them had relatives among Havana's 25,000 Jews. Ninety miles to the north lay the U. S. But the ship did not dock. The launches that approached it were ordered back by harbor police. To the refugees the stretch of water between ship and shore was as wide as the 4,600 miles the St. Louis had crossed.
Sunday passed and Monday. The ship lay motionless and silent in the sluggish swell. Twenty-nine passengers whose papers were in order were permitted to land. Remaining were 908 who had only provisional permits of the Cuban Immigration Department to land as passengers en route to the U. S.and on May 5, nine days before the St. Louis sailed, hard-faced President Federico Laredo Bru had decreed that Cuba required specific permission of the Departments of State, Labor and the Treasury. Rumors spread as Tuesday passed without change, as New York representatives of Jewish relief agencies flew to Havana. The rumors whispered of a longstanding dispute between the Hamburg-American Line and the Cuban Government, of a growth of Cuban anti-Semitism due to the landing of 5,000 refugees in Havana during the past year. Lawyer Loewe slashed his wrists, leaped overboard. Another passenger took poison, was saved when crew members smashed in his stateroom door.