One Ship Against The World
In 1939, one man held the lives of nearly one thousand others in his hands, and sought their protection against the hostility of the entire western world.
Heroes, Who is a hero? What makes a person worthy of that designation? Do we use the term too casually? Do people recognize a hero when they encounter one?
Thinking back to the pre-World War II era, there might be a true hero whose name few people know. He was in a competition with some well-known people who were political office holders, but he was merely a man who had a job to do, and yet went far beyond the parameters of his designated job description. His name, Gustav Schroeder, the German Captain of the ship the MS St. Louis.
His competition for the role of hero at a particularly small window in time, was Cuban President Laredo Bru, The heads of State of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama, Franklin Delano Rooselvelt, President of the United States, Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, Frederick Charles Blair, Director of Immigration in the Department of Mines and Resources of Canada and officials in many European countries; in other words a rather illustrious group of people, one would think.
For those who do not recognize the name Gustav Schroeder, nor the name of his ship, a small quick history: It was 1939 and after passage of the life changing Nuremberg Law and Kristallnacht as many Jewish people as possibly could had already left Germany. Amazingly, 937 passengers were able to scrape together the cost of passage on a ship which was part of the Hamburg-American line, known in German as Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actiengesellschaft (HAPAG). One can only imagine their discomfort, even fear, when they approached the ship for boarding and saw the Nazi flag flying prominently, then being directed to the lounge and recreation area only to encounter a large portrait of Adolf Hitler.
But it was too late to back out. The ship represented the best option to escape the growing terror they foresaw. The passengers had purchased temporary Cuban passports that they had been told would enable them to stay in Cuba until they could obtain American passports. Unknown to them the fasicist-leaning government of Cuba was not above denying the validity of the visas and changing the rules.
They were a frightened and sorrowful group and the Captain noted in his diary that the sea and good food would restore the passenger’s spirits. He had instructed his crew that the passengers were to be treated as any others, an order that was resented by some of the crew.
But a typical cruise this was not and it was further plagued with a death and a suicide. The Captain made arrangements for a funeral and a burial at sea and found among the passengers a Rabbi. Good food and normal courtesy could not dispel the black cloud of fear and sorrow that overhung the voyage. Soon it was rumored that the passengers might not be allowed to disembark in Cuba while awaiting their U.S. Visas.
It is at this point where more recent information explains the intense hostility of the Cuban political climate. Evidently Joseph Goebbles, Hitler’s master of propaganda, had decided to use the MS St. Louis and two other smaller refugee ships, to add to the already negative attitude toward immigrants. Economic times were not positive and the idea of over a thousand refugees (and Jewish at that) coming into Cuba and “taking the available jobs” was not a difficult and already boiling pot to stir. Goebbels had contacted Nazi sympathizers in Cuba and they were busy painting the refugees as not only the “despicable” Jewish, but also as criminals and communists. Remember that Nazis were nationalistic socialists and hostile to the International Communists, so it was relatively easy for the pro Nazi agents to stir up already high animosity. Captain Schroeder knew nothing of this background and was thwarted again and again in his efforts to negotiate with the Cuban officials.
Finally 27 (some accounts say 22) passengers who held Cuban visas were allowed to disembark and the rest were ordered to leave the harbor, never disembarking. Meanwhile, the Captain was also entreating the authorities of Panama, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, the United States and Canada to allow at least temporary entry. Copies of wires survive in the virtual Jewish Library, begging the various Immigration people in those countries to allow the refugees to land in their country to await the U.S. approval. The Captain recognized the immense danger the refugees faced if they returned to Germany.
Meanwhile he was attempting to negotiate with American officials in the U.S. to allow the refugees to land in the U.S. and then get approval. Roosevelt’s answer was that with the Depression it would be political suicide to allow any refugees to land, and he recognized that at this time, sympathies were not pro-Jewish. Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, answered the same. Frederick Charles Blair, Canadian Director of Immigration, noted that “no country could open its doors enough” with all the Jewish refugees who would be arriving and ”a line must be drawn somewhere.” Since no one was admitted, he became famous for the policy of “none is enough.”
So governmental entities, some names even famous today and representing prestige and power, turned their backs, made excuses or even revealed hatred of Jewish people.
The frustrated Captain turned his attention to Europe. Even the tolerant Switzerland was not as tolerant as most of us would have assumed. They had already grudgingly allowed “enough” Jewish people to enter, but they stood by their unbendable rules for Jewish refugees. They had collaborated and agreed with the German government on the marking of the “J” on passports so they could limit the number of Jewish allowed to enter. Once a refugee was admitted they were not allowed to work for fear they would become a permanent resident and establish roots in Switzerland. Jewish men were placed in labor camps and women were housed in abandoned buildings. Children were usually placed in “good Christian” homes for the duration.
Finally, 287 were allowed into Great Britain, 214 into Belgium, 224 into France and 181 into the Netherlands. Of course, no one could foresee that these countries were not safe havens and many perished in the invasions or the Holocaust. But some did survive and they are grateful to this German Captain who risked his reputation and his career to do what he could to ensure their safety.
What is the point of this brief version of a historically sad, sad tale? We can take an additional lesson from the usual, “we had racism and now we are improving” though hopefully that is also true. Perhaps most important is the illustration of the unintended consequences of both cowardice and of bravery.
Cowardice emboldened Hitler. Now records reveal that this rejection of the refugees sent a strong signal to Hitler that the rest of the world did not view these people as desirable or worthy of their time and trouble. They were the reviled Jews and many people at the time felt they were justified in ignoring what became known but not talked about in the rest of the world. They were the largest single group being systematically murdered, though there were certainly others also. Hitler’s position was that if this easily identifiable group could be rounded up and murdered, then he was perfectly safe to pursue his “solution” to Germany’s Jewish problem — erase their very existence..
One could extend this to a long religious history and the animosity between Jewish, Muslims and Christians, but that is not the importance of this bit of history. The lesson to be gleamed is simply that any human is an individual worthy of respect and the ownership of his own life. Every person, unless they aggress against others, deserves to live their life without aggression against them, whether others agree with their religious beliefs, or even “like” their ethnicity or race.
The courage Captain Gustav Schroeder exhibited saved lives and set a clear example to many that one person can make a difference. By persisting in a moral effort, no matter how difficult and even not entirely successful, one brave person sets a standard of civilized behavior that serves as a benchmark for those who follow.
Thank you to E.C. Southam for sharing her extensive research and insight on Jewish history.
This article originally appeared in the AmericanDailyHerald
Lynn Atherton-Bloxham has been an enthusiastic pro-freedom activist for many years. A registered commodity and stock broker, her work has included conducting financial and economic evaluations for businesses. As a writer and political and social analyst, her work has appeared in many publications, starting with the Johnson County Missouri Conservative Newsletter in 1962 and continuing since with the Kansas City Business Journal, The Heartland Institute, the California Libertarian Journal, and the Oklahoma Libertarian Forum.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.