The Journey Begins in Hamburg

The MS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg en route to Cuba on May 13, 1939, with some nine hundred Jewish refugees on board, including fourteen-month-old Judith Koeppel. The passengers did not know that the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II were less than four months away. As the passengers moved about the deck and the St. Louis slowly maneuvered out of the harbor, the mood on board was festive.

Invoice for packing and shipping belongings of Jacob Koppel for voyage on the St. Louis to Havana, Cuba. April 24, 1939
Invoice for packing and shipping belongings of Jacob Koppel for voyage on the St. Louis to Havana, Cuba. April 24, 1939. Gift of Judith Steel, Yaffa Eliach Collection donated by the Center for Holocaust Studies. 5016.82.

And why should the passengers not be happy and even giddy with a sense of relief? After all, these refugees had managed to secure passage on a luxury liner—one of the last passenger ships to leave Germany. They were leaving behind the Nazis’ increasingly violent antisemitic policies, which had led to Kristallnacht. Many were looking forward to starting new lives in America 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 normally require no fee but that, in this instance, 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 eventually entitle them to immigrate to America. All they had to do was cross the Atlantic and set foot in Havana. There, and certainly in the United States, where relatives already awaited some of the passengers, they would finally cease being persecuted because they were Jews.

Entry into Cuban Waters

The mood changed dramatically when, fourteen days later, the ship entered Cuban territorial waters. To the consternation 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—only those, it turned out, whose landing permits were issued before May 6. To the passengers’ total shock , it was announced that all the other permits purchased after the sixth of May would not be honored, including those of Judy’s parents.

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.

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 United States 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, Judy’s parents were at least able to renew their optimism.

Traumatic Return

Finally, American immigration officials announced, on June 5, that the refugees would not be allowed to enter the United States. All options exhausted for the moment, the St. Louis turned and began its traumatic return voyage to the Nazi nightmare. There was minimal food and water on the boat, but most of all there was a growing hopelessness and barely controlled frenzy because the passengers saw their return to Germany as a death sentence. Where could they go? Stateless and with only the possessions they carried, where could they turn? By the time the St. Louis docked at Antwerp, four countries—England, France, Belgium, and Holland—had announced they would each accept approximately a fourth of the St. Louis’s passengers.

With the subsequent Nazi occupation of France, Belgium, and Holland, many of the St. Louis‘s passengers would eventually be caught up again in the Nazis’ web; yet most would somehow find a way to survive. But that was not so for Judith Koeppel’s parents.

The Fate of the Koeppel Family

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.

French identity card for Judith Koeppel to go to New York. Gift of Judith Steel. 360.96.

When Judith arrived in New York in 1946 to live with her uncle and aunt, the ship she was on, the Athas II, 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.

Part of this article is from the book To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope © 2002 by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.