Friday, June 4, 2010

June 4th – Saint Gustav Schroeder Day

Story: Saint Gustav Schroeder was born in 1885 and died in 1959. Much has been written about the central story of his life, but I’ve had troubles finding more information about his early and late years. Gustav was a German who, at age 17, he went to sea and became a sailor. Over the next 37 years he worked his way up the ranks, becoming eventually the captain of a luxury ocean liner stationed out of Hamburg, the MV St. Louis. Now 1939 was not a good year for the German luxury tourism industry. However, Kristallnacht had occurred 6 months earlier and many of the few Jews left in Germany were desperate to escape. They had mostly lost their jobs, and been subjected to additional rents, so they were nearly out of money. But a group of Jews cooked up the idea of spending the last of their money on a cruise ticket to the Caribbean and just STAYING in Cuba or Jamaica or the US, rather than coming back to Germany.

On May 13, 1939 the MV St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg bound for Cuba, carrying a crew of 231, 930 Jewish refugees hoping to escape Germany, 6 non-Jewish refugees hoping to flee, and apparently 1 genuine tourist. Most had sold everything they owned for the cruise tickets. Several of the Jews had come out of hiding for the first time in months to board the ship. Its story was made into a book entitled Voyage of the Damned, and in 1976 into an academy award winning movie entitled the Voyage of the Damned. Now right at the beginning it was clear that this trip was not full of high-tipping rich folk, and of course, the Jews had been pretty effectively demonized in Germany by then. The crew was surly towards the Jews, and the Nazi flag flew on the ship, and Hilter’s portrait dominated the social hall. In the first few days, Schroeder, who was non-Jewish and staunchly anti-Nazi even before this story, called a meeting of the whole staff, emphasizing that the Jews were paying guests, and were to be treated with the same respect due any other paying guest or he would come down like a hammer. One thing that dominated the early part of the voyage was passing around the story of Aaron Pozner. Aaron Pozner had been released from Dachau two weeks earlier for reasons that are still unclear with the condition that if he did not leave the country immediately he would be killed. But he had seen the inside of the concentration camps first hand, and he wanted everyone to know what awaited them if they were not able to escape.
The trip to Cuba was in many ways relaxing, good food, movies, a pool, it was a luxury liner after all, and there was no immediate trouble. The one of the elderly passengers whose health was already failing died. His wife wanted him buried in Cuba, but the ship had no facilities to keep the body that long, so Capt. Schroeder pushed for a burial at sea. He found a Rabbi, on board and kloodged together the best compromise ritual he could between a traditional Jewish burial, and a traditional burial at sea. One of his underlings, who Schroeder knew was a Secret Service plant, insisted that Party regulations required a burial at sea to be draped in the Swastika flag, and Captain Schroeder’s first act of treason was to refuse this and to allow the Jew to be buried without the Swastika flag.

When the ship arrived in Cuba, they found that Cuban immigration law had been changed in early 1939, to prevent just what was now occurring. Tourists were still allowed and encouraged and required no visas, but “refugees” required a visa, and a significant monetary bond “to insure that they did not become wards of the state.” Further, the precise rules had changed since Jan, so most of the Jews thought they had already paid the required fee to the required person, when they got their tickets, but now found that if they wanted to get off at Cuba it would be another large fee, which almost none of them had the money for. There was much bureaucracy and negotiation, the ship sat in harbor accomplishing nothing. The crew and passengers all became distrustful of the captain. The passengers became fearful that there were SS and Gestapo had spies on board the ship watching, as indeed there were. One man slit his wrists and jumped overboard. But the Cuban police got him, sent him to the hospital, and eventually brought him back to the ship. Cuban boats patrolled the side of the ship to insure no one snuck out. The passengers began debating the merits of a suicide rather than being returned to the concentration camps. The captain set up “suicide patrols” to patrol the ship at night looking for people attempting suicide (and the beginnings of mutiny plans). In the end, the Cuban navy threatened to open fire if the MV St. Louis didn’t leave the harbor, and it left with only 23 of the 936 hopefuls having managed to disembark at Cuba. As they left Havana harbor it was full of rented boats with family of the Jews who had arrived in Cuba or America in earlier months shouting their farewells, expecting never to see their loved ones alive again.

So Schroeder took the ship to Florida, which was close, figuring that Roosevelt had been talking a lot about opposing the Nazis and rescuing the Jews from Germany. We actually have now records of Roosevelt’s cabinet discussing what to do about the MV St. Louis and its cargo full of desperate Jews. They really hoped Cuba would take them, because when push came to shove Roosevelt was not willing to bend the immigration quota laws that had just been passed to allow the Jews entry. The boat milled around the edge of international waters in Florida for some time, making regular radio pleas and hoping for a change of policy, but none of the fleeing Jews from this ship were allowed to enter the US.

At this point the Hapag cruise line ordered Schroeder to start heading back to Germany, and to make some haste. Their company said, this was because of supply issues, and the ship was running low on food and water, but there was also real worry that war was going to break out soon. But here Captain Schroeder made his next heroic act. He vowed, but not yet publicly, that none of this Jews were going back to Germany, and that he would not return until he’d found safe places for each of his passengers. So he headed back and started up back-room negotiations with Britain. During the Atlantic crossing, a group of Jewish youths conducted a mutiny, and succeeded in capturing the bridge, but not the engine room, and Captain Schroeder and his crew were able to re-establish control. At this point it is clear that Captain Schroeder is personally leading the negotiation to find places for his passengers. As they cross the Atlantic, Britain does not budge, and the Captain and his upper officers form a desperate plan. They are going to run their ocean liner aground on British soil and force the issue. They planned out exactly how they were going to do it. However, before the day came, there was a diplomatic breakthrough. Britain wouldn’t take all the Jews, but if a few other countries would agree to share the immigrants they would probably be willing to take in some of them as a well-timed public relations gesture. France, Belgium and the Netherlands quickly agreed to those terms too, and the remaining 913 refugees were split up roughly 4 ways and deposited each in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. By June 20th the ship was basically empty and on its way home.

Sept 1st, 1939 a few months later saw war break out. Many of the Jews from the "Voyage of the Damned" were in France, Belgium or Netherlands, when those countries were overrun by the Germans. Records show that 275 of the passengers of the MV St. Louis died in concentration camps after all. The MV St. Louis and Captain Schroeder were at sea when war broke out. Schroeder ran the loose and hastily erected Arctic Blockade to reach Murmansk an (at that time) neutral port for resupplies. Then he successfully ran the much tighter Helgoland blockade to take the ship and crew home to Hamburg. Schroeder, however, refused to join the German military navy. He spent WWII in poverty. He tried to become a writer with little success. After the war, he was brought up on war crime charges during the de-nazification trials. However, several of the Jews he had saved spoke out at his trial and he was acquitted on all counts. His last decade or so, he was supported almost entirely financially by gifts from the Jews he had saved, and he died in 1958. In 1993 the state of Israel proclaimed him among “the righteous of the Nations” Gentiles who repeatedly risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust with no plan of reward.

I am grateful for normal folk who become heroes when the situation demands.
I am grateful for systems to provide basic assistance for refugees fleeing war or political violence.
I am grateful for intercontinental communications.
I am grateful that the evils of Nazism were exposed, reviled and defeated.

Other Notables for today
June 4th is the day most associated with the Tienanmen square struggles of 1989 in China. It is the date of the first hot air balloon ride by the Montgolfier brothers of France. It was the date of the first Pulitzer prizes, and the first minimum wage law in the US (in Massachusetts). It was when the 19th amendment granting womens suffrage passed Congress.


  1. thanks for that great summery of that small episode of heroism!!

  2. I'm a shame of my country for turning its back to people in dire need and in their darkest hour
    my hat off to the Capt. one guy in a millon

  3. After coming back to Germany, no reprisals were applied. Schroeder went on another cruise with the same ship and came back to Germany when the WW2 have started. Before coming home he left most of the crew in Russian, at that moment friendly (officially neutral) Murmansk, and slip evading British blockade to Gamburg. He was drafted to the German Navy, but served all the war ashore. Because of this service he was taken to a de-nazification procedure. After the war he have received normal pension in accordance to the current German law. Most of the other information is more or less OK. A history of such a great person should not be Holliwoodized