I was a 10-year-old boy living in Havana when I first heard about the St. Louis, a luxury ocean liner that set sail from Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board who were fleeing Nazi Germany for Cuba.
For many of the passengers, Cuba offered a beacon of hope, a place of transit on their way to another destination. Most were waiting for the U.S. and Canada to start issuing visas again; even once they did, the wait could last months or years. However, when the ship arrived in the port of Havana on May 27, its passengers were denied permission to disembark, despite having the appropriate visas.
The St. Louis remained stranded in the harbor for a week. Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú ordered it to leave, allowing only 28 of its passengers to enter Cuba. The ship then headed for the United States, only to be turned away by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then turned away again from Canada by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. As a result, the remaining Jewish refugees were forced to return to Europe. Some were admitted to the United Kingdom; others went to France, Holland, and Belgium, but with the exception of the U.K., these countries were soon occupied by the Nazis, so the refugees didn’t get much in the way of asylum. A large number of them did not survive the war.
Several of those 28 passengers who had been allowed to enter Cuba made a lasting impression on my grandmother. The daughter of Spanish immigrants, she had been pregnant with my mother when the St. Louis arrived in Havana. Decades later, during my childhood, I remember her repeating that Cuba would pay dearly for what it had done to the Jewish refugees.
When I wrote The German Girl, a fictional retelling of this tragic part of history, I wanted to explore these harrowing events and their repercussions. The story of my protagonist, Hannah Rosenthal, is one of profound loss and upheaval, but it also reveals the far-reaching power of love. It touches on certain recurring fears: the fear of those considered “other,” of refugees, of those who worship a different God or speak a different language.
Such fears have played a part in my life ever since I left my home in Havana for New York in 1991 in search of freedom of expression. Overnight, I went from being a theater critic to being an exile, a refugee. I gave up my home and family to arrive at a great unknown. However, my sense of loss, displacement, and exclusion soon gave way as I was allowed to assimilate and flourish in this new country. I can truly call the United States my own, a place where I eventually created a new home and a new family.
Yet I remained haunted by the story of those refugees who had arrived in Havana so long ago. As I began writing The German Girl, I couldn’t stop thinking of my own children: Emma, 10, and twins Anna and Lucas, six. They inspired me throughout, at times lending their voices to some of my characters, such as young Hannah and Anna, Hannah’s great niece, just as some traces of my grandmother’s essence can be glimpsed in Hannah’s mother, Alma, and in Hannah herself, as she becomes an old woman in Havana.
As part of my research, I flew to Germany and explored the area of Berlin where Hannah would have lived, trying to imagine her city filled with broken glass and ogres waving flags. I traveled to Hamburg on the 75th anniversary of the sailing of the St. Louis. Afterward, I journeyed to Auschwitz, where I filed through a pristine garden before entering the cold desolate barracks and the gas chambers.
And later, I was able to visit Judith, a survivor whose name I got from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the real German girl, in her small apartment in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., where we spoke as if time had stood still. Our eyes brimmed with tears when she showed me a picture of herself, arm in arm with her parents, on the deck of the St. Louis. That afternoon in Queens, I embraced this frail woman at the end of my visit and whispered in her ear that I was ashamed at what had happened.
As a journalist, my visa for reentry to Cuba had always been denied, but this year, a quarter of a century after leaving Cuba, I was finally able to return. Standing before Havana’s legendary bay, I looked out toward the spot where the St. Louis had remained at anchor while its passengers hoped to gain entry. As I gazed at the city of Havana, which had proved out of reach for most of them, I couldn’t help but imagine other refugees, in times both distant and present, forced to confront a similar tragic fate.
Armando Lucas Correa is the editor-in-chief of People en Español. His debut novel, The German Girl, is due out from Atria in October.