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A photo of the SS St. Louis from the inside of a photo album
St. Louis Photograph Album. Lent by the Granston family, 9001.89.

A Journey of Hope

The SS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg en route to Cuba on May 13, 1939, with over nine hundred Jewish refugees on board, including six-year-old Gerd Grunstein and fourteen-month-old Judith Koeppel. The passengers did not know the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II were less than four months away. As passengers moved about the deck and the St. Louis slowly maneuvered out of the harbor, the mood on board was festive. Gerd explored the ship from bow to stern and was already making friends with an attentive German crew and a thoughtful captain.

And why should the passengers not be happy, even giddy, with a sense of relief? After all, they’d managed to secure passage on a luxury liner – one of the last passenger ships to leave Germany before the war began. They were leaving behind the Nazis’ increasingly violent antisemitic policies, which had led to the Kristallnacht pogroms and more. Many were looking forward to starting new lives in the U.S. after some time in Cuba. A number of passengers, having been released by luck or bribery from German concentration camps, were now taking in not only the fresh sea air but also their first breaths of freedom in months.

Like most of the passengers, Judith Koeppel’s parents, Joseph and Irmgard, had purchased landing permits for Cuba. These were routine documents that would not normally require a fee but, in this instance, they had to be purchased from a corrupt Cuban official at exorbitant prices. Many of the refugees were fortunate enough to have U.S. immigration quota numbers, which would allow them to move there once they’d crossed the Atlantic and set foot in Havana. Relatives already awaited some of the passengers.

An image of Judith Koeppel is attached at the top lefthand corner to the weathered tan paper application
Application card for Judith Koeppel (Steel) to join her uncle in New York. Gift of Judith Steel, 359.96.

As the voyage began, Gerd Grunstein skipped around on the deck. He bothered his father, Heinz, in their first-class cabin; he watched Captain Gustav Schroeder read the gauges on the St. Louis’s bridge — Gerd had the run of the ship. When he grew tired or hungry he rushed below, where the sailors shared their meals of wurst, bread, and beer with him.

There were souvenir photo albums to buy onboard, and like many of the passengers, Gerd’s father (his mother had died in 1938) took his own photographs as well, so that they could remember their voyage to freedom.

Entering Cuba

This all changed dramatically when, fourteen days later, the ship entered Cuban territorial waters. To the dismay of the passengers, Cuban officials refused to come aboard to begin the immigration process. As the hours dragged on, Joseph and Irmgard Koeppel, holding Judy in their arms, gathered into a worried knot of passengers looking down over the railing as only twenty-two people were allowed off the ship. Those twenty-two were the only ones whose landing permits were issued before May 6. To the passengers’ total shock, it was announced that all the other permits purchased after that date would not be honored, including those of Gerd’s and Judy’s families.

Family members of some of the passengers, who had come out into the harbor on small boats to locate their relatives, were not allowed on board. They could only shout up to their loved ones straining helplessly over the St. Louis’s railing. Something had to be done. Morris Troper and Lawrence Berenson, representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, tried to negotiate the disembarkation of the refugees. They failed. The ship would have to leave.

Black and white handwritten letter from the Koeppels family to Martin Koeppel
Letter from Koeppels on board the St. Louis to Martin Koeppel, expressing doubts that their immigration will be successful. Gift of Judith Steel, 363.96.

Losing Hope

While new appeals were being launched through diplomatic channels, the St. Louis left Havana on June 2. Hoping to buy time and catch the world’s attention, a sympathetic Captain Schroeder steered the St. Louis toward the Straits of Florida, near American territorial waters. Reporters in the U.S. wrote spirited stories, newsreels were made of the refugees’ plight, and still they waited. With the lights of Miami and other coastal cities visible in the distance, Gerd’s and Judy’s parents were hopeful.

Finally, U.S. immigration officials announced on June 5, that the refugees would not be granted entry. With this last hope crushed, Gerd remembered his father turning to him with a worried face asking, “If I jump into the water, would you hold on to me and lie on my back while I swim to the shore?”

All legal options exhausted for the moment, the St. Louis turned and began its return voyage to Europe. There was minimal food and water available, and morale was low, given that passengers knew their return to Germany was most likely a death sentence.

By the time the St. Louis docked at Antwerp four countries – England, France, Belgium, and Holland- had announced they would each accept approximately a quarter of the St. Louis’s passengers.

A teal blue card with Koeppel's signature and various stamps and text
The inside of Koeppel's ID card, containing handwritten descriptors and a photograph on the right side
French ID card for Judith Koeppel to go to New York.
Gift of Judith Steel, 360.96.

The Grunstein and Koeppel Families

Gerd and Heinz Grunstein transferred to the Rhakotis, a German ship bound for England. Unlike the crew of the St. Louis, the Rhakotis sailors taunted the six-year-old boy with an antisemitic chant that stayed with him all his life.

With the Nazi occupation of France, Belgium, and Holand, many of the St. Louis’s passengers were eventually caught up again in the Nazi’s web; yet most would find ways to survive. Along with those who went to England, Gerd and his father also survived. When the Rhakotis landed in Southampton, Gerd was so happy that he spend the entire day saying “Good Morning,” the only words he knew in English, to everyone in sight. The Grunsteins spent the war years in London in relative safety.

Not so for Judith Koeppel and her parents. After disembarking from the St. Louis in Belgium, Judy and her parents were sent to France. After France was invaded and occupied in June 1940, they hid for more than two years. Eventually they were discovered and arrested. Judith was old enough to remember the frantic cries of her frail grandfather as he was taken by French police to Gurs, a camp in the south of France that was a transit point for shipment to death camps in Poland.

Sensing they were now trapped, Joseph and Irmgard Koeppel made the agonizing decision to entrust their daughter to the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), a French branch of a Jewish relief organization that was able to hide their child with a Catholic family. In the embrace of this family, the Enards, who took her regularly to church for her protection but never tried to convert her, Judith Koeppel survived the war. She learned later that her parents had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.

When Judith arrived in New York in 1946 to live with her uncle and aunt, the ship she was on, the Athos Il, was carrying sixty-eight other orphaned children of the Holocaust. At the time, an East Coast maritime strike prevented all ships from docking. The federal government, however, interceded on behalf of the orphans, and the ship was able to dock and to deliver the children to their waiting relatives.

Visit our current exhibition The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do to see a selection of Judith Koeppel’s objects in person.

This entry is also found in the book To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope © 2002 by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.