The Plight of the SS St. Louis: Hope, Desperation, and Death


For a number of years, I ran a youth program for 8th – 12th graders at a synagogue on Miami Beach. The 9th grade program focused on Jewish immigration and culminated in a trip to New York City that included visits to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The first program of the school year was always one with a man named Herb Karliner.

Our 9th grade group headed to downtown Miami on a weekend evening, boarded a large boat, and then sailed out into Biscayne Bay.

Under the stars, Herb Karliner spoke to us.

Herbert Karliner was born in 1926 in Peiskrescham, Germany. On November 9, 1938, his family’s business was destroyed in Kristallnacht. They decided to flee Germany and secured passage on the SS St. Louis with landing permits for Cuba. There were over 900 refugees fleeing Nazi persecution on board the ship.

Herb was 12 years old when the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg on May 13, 1939.

When the ship arrived in Cuba, the refugees were informed that the Cuban government would not let them enter the country. The Cuban government had changed their immigration policy and retroactively invalidated the passengers’ landing permits. After six days in the harbor, the ship’s captain headed to Florida. Despite pleas to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the United States refused to allow them to enter either. The ship was forced to head back to Europe.

The St. Louis arrived in Belgium on June 17, 1939. The United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands agreed to take the refugees. Herb and his family were sent to France. In 1940, Germany invaded Western Europe. Herb Karliner was almost 14.

Herb and his brother survived the war in hiding.

His father, mother, and sisters died at Auschwitz.

254 of the refugees who were sent back to Europe died in the Holocaust, most in Auschwitz and Sobibór.

My 9th grade students listened as Herb told them how he could see the lights of Miami Beach from the St. Louis 70 years earlier. He and the other refugees were that close, and then they were sent away. Gazing at the palm trees of Miami Beach, 12 year old Herb vowed that he would some day make it to the United States.

He did.

It’s been 10 years since I last heard Herb Karliner speak, but his story remains forever burned in my mind. On that boat, with the wind in their hair, the stars in the sky, and the lights of Miami twinkling in the distance, the students understood. Herb Karliner and his family had been in a boat off the coast of Florida 70 years earlier full of hope.

But, hope turned to desperation.

For many of them, desperation turned to death.

“We were wondering why the United States, a big country like this, wouldn’t let 900 people come to this country. I never could figure that out.” – Herbert Karliner

For more on Herb Karliner and the voyage of the St. Louis:

Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
Creator: US Embassy Canada
Title: MS St. Louis Commemorative Project
Taken February 2, 2012
Original caption: Ambassador Jacobson and Herbert Karliner speak at the MS St. Louis Commemorative Project launch at the Ottawa Jewish Youth Library. Karliner is a survivor of the MS St. Louis ship that sailed to the U.S., Canada, and Cuba seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, but was turned away.

Author: Tamara Reynolds

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