The St. Louis was a German luxury liner carrying more than 930 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba in May 1939. When the ship set sail from Hamburg on May 13, 1939, all of its refugee passengers bore legitimate landing certificates for Cuba. However, during the two-week period that the ship was en route to Havana, the landing certificates granted by the Cuban director general of immigration in lieu of regular visas, were invalidated by the pro-fascist Cuban government. When the St. Louis reached Havana on May 27 all but 28 of the Jewish refugees were denied entry. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) dispatched Lawrence Berenson to Cuba to negotiate with local officials but Cuban president Federico Laredo Bru insisted that the ship leave Havana harbor. The refugees were likewise refused entry into the United States. Thus on June 6 the ship was forced to return to Europe. While en route to Antwerp several European countries were cajoled into taking in the refugees (287 to Great Britain; 214 to Belgium; 224 to France; 181 to the Netherlands). Only those who were accepted by Great Britain found relative safety. The others were soon to be subject once again to Nazi rule with the German invasion of western Europe in the spring of 1940. A fortunate few succeeded in emigrating before this became impossible. In the end, many of the St. Louis passengers who found temporary refuge in Belgium, France and the Netherlands died at the hands of the Nazis, but the majority survived the war.
Ruth Heilbrun is the daughter of Bruno and Selly (Grete) Heilbrun. She was born February 13, 1925 in Nordhausen am Harz, Germany, where her father owned a department store, Kaufhaus Heilbrun. Ruth had two older brothers, Kurt (b. 1913) and Hans (b. 1917). In May 1939 the family sailed on the MS St. Louis to Havana. After the ship was forced to return to Europe, the family was offered refuge in France. Ruth was placed in the OSE children's home, Villa Helvetia and later transferred to Montinin. Her parents settled temporarily in Le Mans and then in Perigeux. In the spring of 1942 the family received visas for the United States, and Ruth went to Marseilles to meet her parents. The family proceeded to Casablanca, where they boarded the SS Serpa Pinto for New York. After the war Ruth married Hans Windmuller, a fellow passenger on the MS St. Louis. Ruth's oldest brother Kurt, who did not travel with the family on the St. Louis, was killed during the war in Zagreb while trying to get to Palestine.