St Louis Passenger’s Passport – Jewish Refugees Nobody Wanted

SS St Louis Passenger’s Passport – Jewish Refugees Nobody Wanted

On 13 May 1939, 937 Jews fled Germany aboard a luxury cruise liner, the SS St Louis. They hoped to reach Cuba and then travel to the US – but were turned away in Havana and forced to return to Europe, where the Nazis killed more than 250. By early 1939, the Nazis had closed most of Germany’s borders, and many countries had imposed quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they would allow in.

Cuba was seen as a temporary transit point to get to America and officials at the Cuban embassy in Berlin were offering visas for about $200 or $300 each – $3,000 to $5,000 at today’s prices.

Under orders from the ship’s captain, Gustav Schröder, the waiters and crew members treated the passengers politely, in stark contrast to the open hostility Jewish families had become accustomed to under the Nazis. The captain allowed traditional Friday night prayers to be held, during which he permitted the portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in the main dining room to be taken down.

When the luxury liner reached the coast of Havana on 27 May, that sense of optimism to reach a safe harbor disappeared to be replaced by fear, then dread. It quickly became clear that the ship was not going to dock and that no-one was being allowed off. For the next seven days, Captain Schröder tried in vain to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow them in. The Cubans had already decided to revoke all but a handful of the visas – probably out of fear of being inundated with more refugees fleeing Europe. The captain then steered St Louis towards the Florida coast, but the US authorities also refused it the right to dock, despite direct appeals to President Franklin Roosevelt. By early June, Captain Schröder had no option but to turn the giant liner back towards Europe.

In the end, the ship’s passengers did not have to go back to Nazi Germany. Instead, Belgium, France, Holland, and the UK agreed to take the refugees. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) posted a cash guarantee of $500,000 – or $8 million in today’s money – as part of an agreement to cover any associated costs. On 17 June, the liner docked at the Belgian port of Antwerp, more than a month after it had set sail from Hamburg.

The JDC was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees: 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium. While those countries did open their arms to the refugees after the St. Louis passengers disembarked from June 16-20, all but Great Britain were overrun by the German army. Two-hundred-and-fifty-four (254) other passengers from St Louis were not so fortunate and were killed as the Nazis swept across Western Europe.

Today there are only twenty-eight (28) living survivors according to this source from Oct 2015

SS St Louis Passenger’s Passport – Jewish Refugees Nobody Wanted


…issued to Ernst Philippi who was an inmate of the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp in 1938; Prisoner number 9730. The whole family Philippi was aboard the SS St.Louis. Father Ernst, his wife Margarete and their two sons Hans-Wolfgang and Gert-Egon.  All family members arrived in the Netherlands, survived the Nazi occupation and emigrated later to the USA. (Source: USHMM)

Germany J 1939 E_Philippi St Louis CC-001 Germany J 1939 E_Philippi St Louis CC-002 Germany J 1939 E_Philippi St Louis CC-004

UNDOUBTEDLY this travel document is one of the most exciting and most rare items a collector can have in his collection. Most significant evidence of the “VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED.” This was at the same time the very first chance for the United States of America to actively rescue Jews, but the US authorities refused the right to dock the ship at the coast of Florida. This document is the most significant evidence of this event.

Holocaust survivor shares lessons from ‘voyage of the damned’ on MS St. Louis (November 2016)
Survivor Recalls Voyage of The Damned 78-Years Later (June 2017)
USHMM, St. Louis, Passenger List

 SS St Louis Passenger’s Passport – Jewish Refugees Nobody Wanted

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...