The M.S. St. Louis

Luxury Cruise to Freedom

"They had to buy a round trip ticket."

"They heard about this ship that was going to be sailing from Hamburg to Cuba. It was leaving in May of 1939. And they did everything they could to book passage on it. Apparently the tickets were sold out almost immediately.

They had to pay an exorbitant amount of money. And they needed so many documents. But the main thing was the money. And they had to get landing certificates. And they had to go to the Cuban Minister of Immigration. And apparently this man was not a very ethical person because he had been charging a good bit of money and had been taking bribes under the table for some time. And the Cuban president got wind of it and decided that he would invalidate a lot of the documents that this man had issued. So-- but the passengers didn’t know about that at the time. Not only did they have to buy passage on the boat one way, but they had to buy a round trip ticket.

And there was a rally that took place in Havana a week before the boat sailed, and there were many speeches about how the immigrants were not welcome in Cuba because of the economy. And they told 40,000 spectators, and many more that were listening to it on the radio, that they needed to fight the Jews until all of them had left. 

So Hitler knew about this, along with the U.S. Consulate, and they let the boat sail anyway. I guess he must have thought, 'well, I’m gracious enough to let the boat sail with 900 and some Jewish passengers and they reject them, people will know that nobody wants the Jews, and they’ll understand how my government is trying to get rid of them, and why.'

And by this time, Edie was 16, and Ilse was 11, I believe, and they were just so relieved to be on that boat, thinking that they were finally out of the clutches of the Nazis, and that they were going to freedom. And of course my grandfather’s cousin Julius Frank-- whom we called Uncle Julius, because he was much older than normal cousins were-- was already in Cuba. So they were looking forward to being reunited with them, and then eventually they hoped the girls that were in England would come to the United States, and then they would be reunited with them."

Editor's Note: The M.S. St. Louis was a ship in the fleet of the Hamburg-Amerika line that had been in operation in Germany since 1847 and making round trip cruises to North America from Germany since the 1920s. A private company, the Hamburg-Amerika Line had been under increased pressure to cooperate with the Nazi government since personnel had been found to harbor anti-Nazi sentiments in the late 1930s. S.S. officials were embedded among the crew of the St. Louis, and the same voyage to Cuba that carried 931 Jewish refugees also included intelligence agents on an espionage mission. 

The cost of a voyage aboard the St. Louis is estimated to have been between 1500 and 2000 Reichsmarks per passenger ($40,000 in 2020 U.S. currency!) which had to include either a first class or tourist class state room, a return trip contingency fee, visa application fees, plus the cost of a special landing permit that could only be purchased from Cuban Secretary of Immigration, Manuel Benitez-Gonzalez. These "Benitez Landing Permits," as they became known, formed the heart of a scandal in Cuba that prompted the Cuban president, Federico Laredo Bru, to invalidate them and thus set the stage for those holding the permits (but without valid Cuban or U.S. visas) to be denied entry at the Port of Havana.