Culture Magazine

Voyage to Nowhere: MS St. Louis

By J. G. Burdette
St. Louis in Havan (Credit: Wikipedia)

St. Louis in Havana (Credit: Wikipedia)

It would be a voyage to remember; whether it ended happily or whether it didn’t. One thing was for sure — it wasn’t going to be a picnic for Captain Gustav Schroeder. The Nazi regime had a way of working its way into everyday life. And now here, on the MS St. Louis, Schroeder knew that the Nazis had penetrated shipboard life.

As the Jewish passengers filed aboard Schroeder had a few run-ins with the Gestapo, a photographer from the Ministry of Propaganda, firemen who were Gestapo and a Nazi agent posing as a steward, Otto Schiendick. The captain would treat the Jews as equals and would brook no nonsense from anyone on his ship who would do otherwise. Schroeder’s attitude, for the most part, reflected in the attitude of his crew. They too were putting their best foot forward. The crew made every possible effort to accommodate the refugees. When shoddy supplies were called for to stock the ship, Schroeder left it to his able purser to do the opposite, which the latter was successful at. For the passengers the respect they received made it seem as if they had stepped into another world. On shore they had been second-class citizens deemed unworthy of respect.

Days before the St. Louis was to set sail for Cuba Jews began arriving in Hamburg from different areas of Germany in anticipation of the trip. For them it was not always a matter of wanting to leave. It was a matter of life or death. A few had been released from concentration camps and given a set amount of days to get out of the country. Others were fleeing observation of suspicious Nazis. Ultimately each of these individuals knew they were destined for concentrations camps and were getting out while the getting was good.

The departure of the Jews from Germany to Cuba served a double purpose. Operation Sunshine would allow for important documents concerning the United States to be smuggled out of Cuba and to Germany. The other purpose was propaganda. Antisemitism had been stirred up in Cuba and the prospects of the Jews being allowed into the country was somewhat shaky. The Hamburg-America Line which owned the St. Louis would not inform Schroeder until the last minute. If the 937 Jewish  passengers were not allowed into Cuba then it would only “prove” what Nazis had been saying; why accept the Jews in their own country when other nations of the world wanted nothing to do with them?

Voyage to Nowhere: MS St. Louis

Boarding in Hamburg (Credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was too late to do anything about it Schroeder was radioed some unfortunate news; two other ships carrying refugees were headed for Cuba, as well. If they arrived before the St. Louis, Schroeder’s passengers may be turned away. And so it was a race against the clock. Schroeder’s was, naturally, angry over this. The company seemed to be keeping him in the dark purposefully. In his words, they were “using” him. And he didn’t like it one bit. The company could have his resignation when the trip was over if that’s the way they wanted to play.

On 13 May 1939 the St. Louis set sail. She would pick up more passengers in Cherbourg to make for a complement of 937 before proceeding to Cuba. As the vessel steadily plied the Atlantic waters, the president of Cuba was making plans to turn the passengers away.

On board the passengers were enjoying the crossing. There were those who had endured so much in Germany that they had become overly paranoid or withdrawn. Passenger Recha Weiler lost her ailing husband on May 23. It had pained the elderly man to have to leave Germany. Recha was left to mourn his loss. With a rabbi and the help of the crew, the deceased man was buried at sea. Schiendick had the audacity to recommend a Nazi flag be draped over Weiler’s body. Needless to say he was ignored. Not long after the burial a crewman committed suicide by throwing himself overboard. A search was carried out and a boat launched but with no results. It wasn’t until very early morning that the search was called off.

In anticipation of the problems that lay ahead in Cuba, Schroeder selected a man to head up a passenger’s committee which would be concerned with the refugees disembarkation; the prospects of  which were getting dimmer and dimmer by the day. Schroeder informed them that he would not stand by and allow them to return to Germany. The captain would do all in his power to aid them.

On May 27 the St. Louis arrived in Havana. It was the end of a long journey and passengers were anxious to meet the relatives who waited for them ashore. But it soon became painfully clear they were not going ashore that day. As time dragged on it didn’t looks as if they would go ashore any day. Negotiations were ongoing, but the terms were extraordinarily expensive or unfeasible. The St. Louis was finally ordered out of Cuba as discussions carried on. In the end when the president finally granted them permission to come ashore he revoked it just as the St. Louis was sailing back for Cuba.

It was a frustrating situation. For the passengers it was a death sentence. The United States would not take them. Cuba would not take them. There had been offers from other South American countries but they had been deemed impracticable. The condition of passengers’ emotions were so bad that a suicide patrol had been formed. It wasn’t without grounds. There had been several suicides. One incident in Cuba had resulted with a paranoid passenger slashing his wrists and then jumping overboard, fearing the Gestapo was out to get him. He had been taken ashore after a crewman saved him. In fact, he had been left behind in Cuba while his wife and children were still on the ship.

Voyage to Nowhere: MS St. Louis

Gustav Schroeder center in uniform(?) (Credit: Wikipedia)

A few passengers had been allowed off the ship in Cuba and now there were only 907 refugees left. In a last ditch effort, as the ship was recalled to Hamburg, Schroeder and his officers made plans to set the ship afire off the English coast where passengers would be able to make it to shore. As it turns out Schroeder would not have to result to such drastic actions. An agreement had been met. Belgium, England, France and Holland would take the passengers. The over 900 passengers were “distributed” among the countries with Britain taking the most. The long journey came to an end on June 21 when the last of the passengers arrived in Southampton. It was indeed a journey to remember and one that had not quite ended.

Source: Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan-Witts. Voyage of the Damned.

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