Ever since so many refugee boats have been adrift at sea and not allowed to dock, I can’t stop thinking about the "St. Louis." And of its captain.
Was not allowed to dock: The refugee ship "St. Louis" in Havana harbor in June 1939 Photo: dpa
People wave, full of anticipation of the wide world. They are standing on a cruise ship that is just leaving Hamburg. I imagine how the "St. Louis" also sailed along the Elbe here. It too was a cruise ship with a distant destination – Havana. But her passengers were refugees. They left their homeland to avoid being murdered.
I walk up to Othmarschen, to the former house of the captain who steered the "St. Louis". His story seems important to me these days. Since so many refugee boats have been wandering around at sea and have not been allowed to land, I can’t stop thinking about the "St. Louis". And to their captain:
"He was rather such a quiet person," says his great-nephew Jurgen Glaevecke. In the room where he keeps all his great-uncle’s things, he puts a model ship in my hand. "This is the ‘St. Louis,’" he says. "The ship of the homeless on the high seas," as Captain Gustav Schroder called her in his memoirs.
In 1939, six months after Pogrom Night, Schroder sailed to Cuba with nine hundred Jews on board. For many, it was their last chance to escape the concentration camps. Schroder was in the NSDAP. But he instructed the crew to treat the Jews like any guests on a cruise. The refugees swam in the pool. The mood was good.
The parallels to today are almost eerie. Everyone knew, but no one intervened
But when they reached Cuba, the "St. Louis" was not allowed to dock. The passengers had previously paid 500 Reichsmark for a Cuban visa. "Domestic disturbances," they said. The ship lay offshore for five days. Schroder negotiated with the government, without success. One passenger attempted suicide. Finally, Schroder received orders to leave port or the ship would be driven out by force.
"Captain, where are you taking us?" people asked him. He could not give an answer. For the first time in his life, Schroder was sailing without a destination. The passengers were scared to death: "We’d rather jump into the sea than go back to the concentration camp," one lady said to him.
On his own authority, he headed for the USA, Florida Beach. But he was not allowed to dock there either. He wrote to President Roosevelt. But it was an election campaign and unemployment was high. People were afraid that the migrants would take away their jobs. Canada also refused. European countries referred to apportionment quotas. No one took them in.
The parallels to today that I hear here in Schroder’s room are almost uncanny. At that time, the press around the world became aware of the refugee ship’s odyssey. Everyone knew about it, but no one intervened.
After five weeks, provisions and oil ran out
Schroder had guards posted to prevent people from jumping into the sea. He formed a Jewish board committee, held general meetings. He had to speak comfort. But he, too, was depressed.
After almost five weeks, provisions and oil were running low. Finally, instructions came from the Hapag shipping company to turn back. "Destination: Cuxhaven." From there, a Gestapo boat sailed to intercept the refugees. Schroder, however, was determined "not to return there." He wanted to let the passengers ashore illegally at night on the English coast. But it did not come to that. Meanwhile, the Jewish Relief Committee had negotiated a port for the passengers: Antwerp. There they were divided among France, Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their gratitude "was touching and moved me deeply and unforgettably," Schroder wrote. He mourned all the more that nearly a third of the passengers later died in the Holocaust.
"What made him act that way?", I ask his great-nephew. He raises his hands in the air. "Justice," he says. "That people have equal opportunities. Not always just me." Schroder didn’t make much of a fuss about his courage. But he ends his memoir forcefully: "That the fate of this emigrant ship should be seen as a reminder: So that cruelty and inhumanity, wherever it may be, can never again spread."