December 8, 2021


The 1976 movie “Voyage of the dammed” related a shameful event that happened 75 years ago. The importance to this day of this poignant story is very well described in one critique of the movie made at that time. “if the world is truly so concerned about the plight of Jews in wartime Germany, how about this? They release a boatload of the condemned buggers and wait to see who embraces the lot. And guess what? No one does.”

55985.tifIt was May, 1939. Three ships, Flanders, Orduña, and St. Louis, sailed from Europe to Cuba with 104, 72 and 937 mostly Jewish passengers. Most were German citizens and had solicited visas to the U.S., with a stopover in Cuba. Unknown to them the US embassy, Cuban Jewish and human rights organizations began having difficulties with the original plan. I was 3 years old. My family had taught me against prejudice. I studied in a Cuban-American school where many of my classmates and friends were Jewish. Today, as I relive the behavior of Cuban leaders of the time and many of my compatriots I feel shame. The transatlantic ship St. Louis, the better known of the 3, carrying more than 900 passengers arrived in Cuba on May 27. Federico Laredo Bru, Cuba’s president at the time had revoked the refugee’s valid entrance permits and only issued new ones to 28 persons, 22 of them Jews. The reasons given were varied. It was dire economic times; thousands of refugees had been already accepted. As it appears in retrospect, it became a matter of monies and prejudice. Att. Lawrence Berenson was told by President Bru that admittance to the country would cost $453,500, and negotiations broke down later on. Inspired by well known politicians, like future President Ramon Grau San Martin, and newspapers more than 40,000 people gathered in the city to protest their disembarkation. The economy in Cuba was in the midst of a recession and unemployment high. With these circumstances it was not hard to exploit the passions of the populace. Anti-Semitism and sympathy to fascism also played a crucial role. Meanwhile in this country, the press wrote, exhibiting compassion, about the plight of the passengers, but few suggested admission to the country. Attempts to contact President Roosevelt directly produced a no response. Entrance was denied, and the citizens, though empathic, had similar anti immigrant and anti-Semitic feelings as demonstrated by a Fortune magazine survey that showed 83% of respondents against more flexible immigration laws. The ill fated ship returned to Europe, where some more refugees received asylum, but the majority returned home to face concentration camps and death.

Prejudice, government corruption, avarice, isolationism, and bad economic times played a role, but the bottom line was that enough monies could have helped their entrance to Cuba and escape torture and death. Let us ask ourselves; what is the price of a life?