The opening phrase on the cover describes it as “a shocking true story of hope, betrayal and Nazi terror”. It’s that and much more. It’s about people. Good people, bad people and, the worst of them all, the indifferent people. Voyage of the Damned is another beautiful book describing the Nazi politics. It brings to light an important point, which normally tends to get ignored in most of the books with similar settings, that not every German was a Nazi or Nazi follower. There were good Germans, who were proud of being Germans and were also good human beings.
The book is about a shipload of Jewish passengers, escaping persecution by the Nazis. Some of the Jews had been released from concentration camps and given a few days to move out of Germany. In the case of them being found after the stipulated period, it was back to the concentration camp and the gas chambers. Some of the passengers were luckily not arrested but were trying their best to escape from Germany before the Gestapo caught up with them. Some were trying to escape alone, some with their families. They came from diverse background. Some were well established professionals and had enjoyed moving with the crème-de-la-crème of the society. Some belonged to the middle class, working hard to provide their families with a decent life. But it didn’t matter what they did in another lifetime. Their biggest, and only, crime was that they were JEWS. And that made them the target for oppression and exploitation of the worst kind.
St Louis was helmed by Captain Gustav Schroeder, a man who took pride in his work and the efficiency of his crew. A thorough gentleman and decent German soul who “loathed the Nazi ideology” so much so that he briefed his crew to treat the passengers with the same attention that they offered their regular passengers. The crew respected their captain and did their very best to make the passengers comfortable once onboard. There was, unavoidably, a party leiter onboard along with a dozen party workers. Their only job was to constantly remind the passengers about their status and the Nazi dominance. On the part of the Nazis, under the instructions of Joseph Goebbels, who was their Minister of Propaganda, propaganda agents had been sent to Cuba to create an anti-Semitism atmosphere and spread misinformation about the arriving refugees.
The ship sailed from Hamburg on May 13, 1939, for Havana in Cuba. The book covers a few passengers and their experiences, both before and after, embarking the ship. After an uneventful passage they reached Havana and that’s when trouble started. They were not allowed to come alongside at the port as the Cuban officials did not find the visas issued to them ‘correct’. The truth being that the propaganda machinery had successfully planted doubts in the minds of the otherwise compliant nation. Days of negotiations between the rehabilitation committee and various government officials went round in circles but to no avail. The desperate passengers sent cables to as many world leaders as possible to help them out. US was adamant about not taking any more Jewish refugees for political reasons. UK and France were in two minds. The ship had to sail out of the Cuban territorial waters to avoid any further complications. They sailed around aimlessly, with depleting fuel and food stocks, while the refugee rehabilitation committee worked relentlessly to get some country to accept them. Finally the governments of Belgium, Holland, France and England agreed to take the refugees. The story ends with the passengers being sent to the various refugee camps in the respective countries. On Jun 21, 1939, the last of the refugee passengers stepped ashore in Southampton amid great fanfare.
The narration is crisp and to the point. The events were described as they had actually happened. The humanness of the ship’s passage touches you as you feel their happiness, sadness, desperation, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness and despair. Each one them, the passengers and the crew, was a victim of circumstances beyond their control and understanding. One cannot ignore the efforts put in by the crew. They were commendable and brave. Going against the Nazi policies and helping the Jews was not for the fainthearted. It’s a well-documented and researched narrative, given along with photographs and timeline. A must read for all who enjoy the World War II genre.