Lesson Plan

The St Louis Tragedy

Introduce students to the tragic story of the St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied territories only to be turned back to Europe after arriving in the Americas.

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Enduring Understanding

When given an opportunity to help Jews during the Nazi era, governments of North America often refused refuge.

Essential Question

  • 1In what kinds of situations do we decide to help, and in which do we refuse to help?


10 Min

Ask students to discuss the term “refugee” and share what they think it means. Have students identify the distinction between a refugee (one who is compelled to emigrate from their home country due to an existential threat) and an immigrant (one who immigrates to a foreign country voluntarily, with the intention of settling there permanently). Also, ask your students what perceptions of refugees seem to be held by our world today.


20 Min

Distribute this handout from Echoes & Reflections to each student and ask them to consider the following questions individually by writing down answers on a piece of paper.

  1. Given when the ship left Germany, did these refugees have a reason to be scared for their lives?
  2. What were the reasons that the passengers were not allowed to depart in Cuba? How do you feel about these reasons for refusal?
  3. How are the men and women in the photograph dressed? Do you notice anything in particular about the photo that strikes you as distinct?
  4. What more would you like to know about this story?

Share individual responses in a group discussion. Then distribute this reading from Facing History and Ourselves. Have students read this and look for additional insight about the story of the St. Louis.


20 Min

Have students pair with one another after they finish reading to reflect on their understanding. Each group should prepare to report to the class what they think is the most important lesson we can learn from the story of the St. Louis. Prompt them with the question, if the St. Louis came to our shores today, would we be more accepting of refugees? Would we have learned from the tragedy? What gives you confidence in your answer?

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