The “extraordinary” true story of the St. Louis, a German ship that, in 1939, carried Jews away from Hamburg—and into an unimaginable ordeal (The New York Times).
On May 13, 1939, the luxury liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, one of the last ships to leave Nazi Germany before World War II erupted. Aboard were 937 Jews—some had already been in concentration camps—who believed they had bought visas to enter Cuba. The voyage of the damned had begun.
Before the St. Louis was halfway across the Atlantic, a power struggle ensued between the corrupt Cuban immigration minister who issued the visas and his superior, President Bru. The outcome: The refugees would not be allowed to land in Cuba.
In America, the Brown Shirts were holding Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden; anti-Semitic Father Coughlin had an audience of fifteen million. Back in Germany, plans were being laid to implement the final solution. And aboard the St. Louis, 937 refugees awaited the decision that would determine their fate.
Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts have re-created history in this meticulous reconstruction of the voyage of the St. Louis. Every word of their account is true: the German High Command’s ulterior motive in granting permission for the “mission of mercy;” the confrontations between the refugees and the German crewmen; the suicide attempts among the passengers; and the attitudes of those who might have averted the catastrophe, but didn’t.
In reviewing the work, the New York Times was unequivocal: “An extraordinary human document and a suspense story that is hard to put down. But it is more than that. It is a modern allegory, in which the SS St. Louis becomes a symbol of the SS Planet Earth. In this larger sense the book serves a greater purpose than mere drama.”
A Chance to Live
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3, 1939
The captain of the Hamburg-America Line passenger ship St. Louis did not look forward to the meeting that cool Wednesday morning of May 3, 1939. For the first time in his thirty-seven years at sea Gustav Schroeder was uncertain and uneasy about a voyage.
The newly pressed blue serge trousers and high-buttoning jacket were, for him, a reminder that his meeting with line director Claus-Gottfried Holthusen was to be an important one; usually Schroeder slipped into his favorite gray suit to go ashore for his end-of-voyage report to the marine superintendent in Hapag House, a few blocks away from shed 76, where the St. Louis was now tied up on the Hamburg waterfront.
But this morning, when the liner berthed after another voyage from New York, Schroeder had been ordered to report personally to Holthusen.
After he dressed, slowly and carefully, Schroeder once more opened the wall safe in his day cabin to read the cable again to seek a clue in its content.
The message had come during dinner some eight hundred miles out of New York when his steward discreetly handed him the radiogram. It gave him an excuse to leave the tedious table talk about Hitler and Nazi dreams of expansion in the half-empty first-class dining room.
The absence of passengers—the liner was less than a third full—was depressing evidence of the deepening world crisis. The majority on board were Germans returning from the United States. Some of them wore party badges and were pleased to see that many of the crew also displayed the Nazi emblem on their uniforms. The fact that the captain did not caused much comment, but no one dared raise the matter with him.
He was reputed to be precise, studious, and correct in all details. To his deck officers he seemed to be of the courtly nineteenth century, not of the twentieth. But when Schroeder was roused by something that displeased him, his language was so forceful and salty that it stunned those he addressed. He was also said to be "the smallest officer in the German merchant navy," and "the Graf on the bridge." Captain Schroeder was only five feet, four inches tall, but although he was small, it seemed immaterial. His body had hardly an ounce of surplus fat; he practiced calisthenics for twenty minutes each day without fail. The only wrinkles on his face were tiny crow's feet fencing his clear, blue eyes; he had the look of a man who had measured distant horizons all his life. His hair was gray, clipped short at the temples. He had it trimmed once a week by his steward. His skin was tanned from almost a lifetime at sea. Gustav Schroeder looked what he was—an energetic, experienced, and capable captain.
After the cable came, Schroeder had deciphered the apparently meaningless numbers. The code had been introduced by the line to communicate confidential information to its captains at sea. In the four months he had commanded the 16,732-ton liner, Schroeder had never before received a coded message.
The coded cable was typical of the nagging pressures now intruding on his orderly life. Recently such pressures had exceeded the bounds of what Schroeder believed were proper company demands. He was increasingly aware of the intrusion of Nazi influence on his ship, and did not like it. There had been the compulsory signing on of six Gestapo agents as firemen officially on board to check sabotage attempts. A few voyages before, in New York, a bomb threat had been made against the St. Louis. No bomb was found, but the rumor made it difficult for Schroeder to argue that the firemen were not needed. The Gestapo agents had tightened security precautions and made attempts to spread party doctrines to all sections of the crew. Schroeder ordered them to stop such blatant propaganda, but he knew it was impossible to enforce such an order. He personally loathed the Nazi ideology; he had steadfastly maintained to his few close friends that as long as he believed in Germany's future as he did in the company's destiny, he would continue to oppose Hitler's doctrines. But he must do so circumspectly.
The most serious interference with the captain's command was the presence of a second-class steward he had inherited when he took command of the St. Louis in February 1939. Otto Schiendick had established himself as the ship's Ortsgruppenleiter, but his powers went beyond those of mere party political shop steward. He had arranged for at least two members of the crew to be forcibly removed from the ship for expressing attitudes not in keeping with Nazi policy. His greatest coup had been the dismissal of Captain Friedrich Buch, master of the St. Louis since its maiden voyage in 1929; Buch had been escorted from the ship by Gestapo agents under Schiendick's guidance.
Captain Schroeder took over from Buch, and during the short time he had been in command, tension had grown between him and Schiendick. Each man tested the other's strengths and weaknesses, waiting for a chance to make one swift, decisive thrust that would resolve the conflict. By simply not wearing the party badge Captain Schroeder knew he had made himself vulnerable; in the end, either he or Schiendick and the Gestapo "firemen" would have to go.
For six years Schroeder had resisted requests to join the Nazi party. Before the last voyage, a line official called on him as the ship was about to sail and warned him that refusal to join the party might mean loss of command. Schroeder was shaken, but he ordered the man off the ship.
Perhaps the radiogram was retribution for that action. The message he found was simple but mysterious: his next voyage was to be an unscheduled, "special" trip. He was filled with apprehension.
Schroeder knew his meeting with Holthusen was linked with that message; he had remembered that the director had responsibility within the company for all "special" ventures. Claus-Gottfried Holthusen was one of the most powerful men in German shipping. Schroeder had met him only once, some four months earlier, shortly after taking command of the St. Louis. At a lunch given by the company for its captains, Schroeder had sat opposite Holthusen. The director was expansive, suave, and charming; Schroeder was shocked that he so easily accepted Nazi domination of the line.
Holthusen's optimistic predictions at that luncheon had not come true: Hamburg-America, Hapag, was in deeper financial difficulties. Schroeder hoped Holthusen would reassure him that the line was in good health; he trusted the line would return "to the old ways."
In 1934, the Reich had become the majority shareholder, and the company had lost the independence it had successfully defended for ninety years. The swastika flying over the portal of the somber Hapag House represented a major upheaval involving both the Gestapo and German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr. Many of the line's ships now carried espionage couriers as crew members; the Gestapo had a number of agents constantly watching the staff.
Schroeder walked into Hapag House, a place that seemed to him to have little to do with the sea, filled with its clerks perched on high stools, concerned with profits and apparently little else. As he reached Holthusen's office he wondered whether the time had come for him to present his resignation; if not immediately, then he would do so soon.
Holthusen was in no hurry to come to the point. He discussed the last voyage. Had there been any problems? It was the opening Gustav Schroeder wanted. He told him bluntly that there were "disruptive elements" on board. He described "the intrusion of politically motivated persons."
Holthusen was silent.
Then, in the loud, confident voice Schroeder remembered and disliked, Holthusen said: "There are some things which are better left alone. For your own good, and the good of the company."
Schroeder was too disappointed to speak. He could expect no support to rid the St. Louis of its Nazi elements.
Holthusen was speaking again, this time about the "special" voyage. The St. Louis was to carry nearly 1000 refugees from Germany to Cuba. The trip would require "the greatest tact" on Schroeder's part. Though he was new to command, it had been decided that only Schroeder had the necessary qualities for such a voyage.
"Most important of all, Captain," the director continued, "this trip will ensure that your ship is fully booked at a time when our financial resources are at a low ebb."
Captain Schroeder responded to this appeal to his company loyalty. He had one question: Who were the refugees?
"Jews. But nothing out of the ordinary. Only people wanting to leave Germany," Holthusen replied.
Schroeder knew now that he must not resign until he had delivered the refugees to Cuba. But as he was driven back to the ship, he felt deeply perturbed by a conviction that the director had not been totally frank about the voyage.
His first action aboard was to muster the entire ship's complement in the first-class social hall. He briefed them on the forthcoming voyage and its passengers, then took the first deliberate step toward a confrontation with Otto Schiendick and the Gestapo "firemen," as he announced: "Any of you who do not want to accompany these people to Cuba can sign off now."
Neither Schiendick, the Gestapo agents, nor anyone else said a word. Gustav Schroeder returned to his cabin aware that he would have to take with him to Cuba members of a crew who actively hated the passengers for whom he would be responsible.
The first of those passengers—the Spanier family—arrived in Hamburg late that same evening of May 3, ten days before the St. Louis was due to sail. They came in a car flying a swastika and driven by a young S.S. officer.
On the long drive from Berlin, Dr. Fritz Spanier repeatedly whispered to his wife that this was the most bizarre twist of fate they had experienced in six years of increasing persecution; the memory of his remark remains with Babette Spanier to this day.
In April 1933, a Nazi decree barred Jews from working in state hospitals or clinics. Within a year, Dr. Spanier had to move his wife and seven-year-old twin daughters, Renee and Ines, from his comfortable home in the fashionable Berlin suburb of Dahlem, to a more predominantly Jewish quarter of the city. He found work in private practice, Babette Spanier was still able to dress fashionably in the Paris models offered by the Kurfuerstendamm shops. The family continued to go sailing at weekends on the Wansee; they could still buy lox and matzo. Dr. Spanier avoided those who said there were only two alternatives to the worsening situation: arm and fight, or leave Germany. The majority of his friends and relatives, anchored by their possessions and inured to the prospect of suffering, also stayed on.
Once, out of curiosity, he had attended a meeting of an underground Zionist organization. The twenty present had listened to a young man arguing that if each Jew in Germany was prepared to kill one Nazi before being taken to the camps, the wave of arrests would end. Hitler would realize he could not continue such persecution. It might take hundreds, even thousands, of lives, but it would happen.
Dr. Spanier had been shocked by the crudity of the plan. He could not accept that argument that those who had already gone so meekly to the concentration camps had doomed the rest. He had never attended another meeting. He ignored all the signs until July 25, 1939, when a decree drove Jewish doctors even from private practice. A few were authorized to serve their own community; Dr. Spanier was one of them.
Four months later had come the Kristallnacht. On that "night of broken glass," November 9/10, 1938, the Nazis committed a national act of vengeance against all German Jews in the Third Reich: 191 synagogues were desecrated, 171 Jewish-owned apartment houses set on fire, 7500 Jewish shops looted; 20,000 Jews were taken into "protective custody," half of them being shipped to Buchenwald camp. The police made only 117 arrests of non-Jewish Germans; not one was ever brought to trial.
The Spaniers escaped unhurt, but soon afterward they were forced to escape from their rented apartment to a garret owned by a widow. Her son was a medical student, and Dr. Spanier befriended and helped tutor him, not knowing the youth was a member of the S.S. When the student heard that the Spaniers were due to be arrested in the next roundup of Jews, he offered to drive the family to Hamburg.
Some time before that Dr. Spanier had spent 3000 Reichsmarks on permits for the family to enter Cuba and later, hopefully, the United States; he had kept to himself the knowledge that the permits were worthless unless the family obtained passage to Cuba.
For weeks he had haunted the Berlin travel agencies that specialized—and grew fat—on "facilitating" the departure of refugees.
When he was informed of the impending arrest, he tried again, and fortunately, found one agency that was selling tickets for the St. Louis. He bought four first-class berths for 3200 Reichsmarks. He paid an extra 1000 Reichsmarks for permission to take his surgical instruments out of the country. All the money had come from a relative in Canada. The family were assigned to cabins 111 and 113 on B Deck. By midafternoon of May 3, they held the papers that could keep them from Dachau, or Sachsenhausen, or Buchenwald.
Babette Spanier had spent a busy morning selling off what remained of her household goods to buy more clothes for the twins; Renee and Ines now had enough dresses to last them for the next five years. She bought a topcoat for her husband and a fur wrap for herself, and packed the family's remaining possessions into trunks.
Babette Spanier had been reluctant to leave Berlin. In spite of the insults, the taunts, the jostling on the pavements, the shops, theaters, and cinemas proscribed to her and her family, she wished to stay, because, as she explained later, she was a Seidemann, and there had been Seidemanns in the Ruhr for more than four hundred years: "We regarded ourselves as German through and through. We spoke German, we thought in German, we were German. The very idea of leaving the country where our roots were was heartbreaking."
There was another, and more personal, reason why Babette Spanier did not wish to emigrate. Her marriage was in difficulty; she feared that it could not survive a move halfway across the world, that her handsome husband might divorce her once they reached his ultimate goal, America. But, faced with the sailing tickets, the specter of the Gestapo, and her husband's promise of a "wonderful new life ahead," she, with the children, left Berlin; she was comforted by her husband's hand in hers throughout the journey.
That evening, in Hamburg, near the railway station, their car was forced to a halt by men and youths from a big Nazi rally who surrounded it. Many carried party banners on their shoulders, like rifles, rolled tight around the staves. Suddenly a squad of storm-troopers surged toward a man coming out of the railway station, carrying a cheap suitcase. He tried to flee, but the soldiers were too quick. They rammed him against the wall, kicking and jabbing him with their staves. In moments the storm troopers stepped back, leaving him crumpled on the sidewalk.
In the back of the car the twins whimpered; their mother calmed them with a lullaby. Only later did she realize she had crooned a Jewish lament her mother had sung to her. As the car drove on, protected by its swastika flag and uniformed S.S. driver, Dr. Spanier noticed dozens of people staring at the figure on the ground. Not fifty yards away a squad of armed policemen ignored the whole incident. The Spaniers saw the man crawling away, shaking his shaved head, dragging his suitcase behind him. Though they did not know it, he had also come to Hamburg to board the St. Louis.
That night the young S.S. officer drove them to a small hotel in the old quarter of Hamburg. Inside, a sign over the desk stated: "Jews forbidden." Dr. Spanier booked two adjoining rooms, and then the family shook hands with the benefactor who gave each of the children ten Reichsmarks and wished them all a safe journey.
Shortly afterward two Gestapo officers arrived at the hotel.
About a mile from the hotel, Aaron Pozner, the man who had been beaten, finally found a hiding place that even the Gestapo would have little stomach to stand. He had dragged himself down to the waterfront and there, a few cable lengths from the St. Louis, he discovered a yard stacked with animal hides from an adjoining slaughterhouse. Born and raised in a farming community, he knew the skins would be left undisturbed for weeks to cure. So, tying a handkerchief across his nose and mouth, he burrowed into the pile of skins, ignoring the dried blood and pieces of flesh, the flies, and the stench. For a man who had survived Dachau, it was not hard to bear.
On Kristallnacht, 178 days ago, Pozner, a Hebrew teacher, had been dragged from his home by the Gestapo and shipped to Dachau, one of some 8000 Jews brought to the camp during that November night. His head had been shaved, and his clothes exchanged for a coarse linen suit with a yellow star stamped on it; it became his badge of shame, an excuse for the guards to beat him at every opportunity. His only link with the outside world—a snapshot of his wife, Rachel, and his small children, Simon and Ruth—was snatched from him by a guard, who urinated over it.
Excerpted from Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts. Copyright © 1974 Stein and Day, Incorporated. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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“Probably the last great untold spy story to come out of the eve of World War II.”San Francisco Examiner
“Everything about Voyage of the Damned has been touched with greatness.”The New York Post