On May 13, 1939, the ship St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Cuba with over 900 Jewish refugees. But the Cuban government refused to honor their landing permits and demanded a $1 million ransom payment. The refugees, having been barred from bringing money out of Germany, could not pay the fee.

Pleas for help went to the United States, but the State Department and president Roosevelt refused to get involved or offer asylum to the refugees. At the time, a Gallup poll showed that 83 percent of Americans opposed the admission of more Jewish refugees.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) tried to negotiate a solution with Cuba, or find another haven for the refugees, but was unsuccessful. It did not want to set a precedent for paying large fees for refugees from Nazi Germany. 

In the end, the ship passed by the coast of Florida but returned to Europe with about one quarter of the passengers finding refuge in England. The rest were sent to Belgium, Netherlands and France, where they were soon caught in the Nazi net. More than 250 died in the Holocaust.