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Courageous Captain

Voyage of the Damned

Gustav Schroder was a German sea captain who sailed to Cuba in 1939 with 937 Jewish refugees and went to extraordinary lengths to save their lives after multiple countries — including the U.S. – refused to grant them asylum. 

Born in Hadersleben, Denmark (then part of the German Empire) in 1885, Gustav was always drawn to the ocean. He first went to sea at age 16, aboard a training ship, and then became an able seaman on one of the fastest ships in the world, part of the Hamburg America Line fleet. He served with distinction in the merchant marine for 24 years and was then appointed captain. 

Always eager to travel to new places, Gustav was excited when his first posting as Captain was to India, then a British colony. He arrived in Calcutta in 1913, but unfortunately the outbreak of World War in 1914 upended all his plans. As a German, Gustav was classified as an enemy alien and kept in an internment camp. With nothing to do, he began learning languages, and by the time the war ended in 1918 he was spoke seven. Gustav returned to Germany in 1919 and found it difficult to get a job in a defeated Germany where production of ships was greatly reduced. Finally in 1921, Gustav found employment once again with the Hamburg America Line, where he served on various ships for 15 years.

As anti-semitism rose in Germany during the 1930’s, Gustav became increasingly troubled. A man with respect for all peoples and curiosity about different cultures, Gustav was horrified by the vicious persecution targeting Jews. In 1938, the pogrom known as Kristallnacht occurred, when Jews were attacked and murdered in the streets by a rampaging horde consisting of soldiers and civilians. Many Jews died that day, and hundreds of business and synagogues burned to the ground. Gustav knew he had to do something, and he got his chance when he was appointed captain of the MS St. Louis, a diesel-powered passenger ship that sailed the trans-Atlantic route from Hamburg to Canada and New York. 

In 1939, Gustav set sail for Cuba on the St. Louis with a ship full of passengers. Unlike the usual carefree vacationers, the passengers on this voyage were 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum. The Jews all had legal tourist visas to Cuba, so it was assumed there wouldn’t be an issue accepting the refugees when they arrived. During the voyage, Gustav insisted the passengers be treated with great respect, and provided with all of the comforts enjoyed by other cruising passengers. There were concerts, dances, swimming, and even religious services. A bust of Hitler was covered with a tablecloth. Those aboard the ship were deeply grateful for their miraculous rescue, and called the trip “a vacation cruise to freedom.”

However, when the ship arrived at Havana Harbor the captain and passengers of the St. Louis were in for a terrible surprise. The Cuban authorities had recently changed their immigration policy, and the Jews’ tourist visas were rejected. Only 28 passengers – American, Spanish or Cuban nationals – were considered to have “valid” documents, and they were allowed to disembark. The ship sat in the harbor for a week while American officials tried to persuade Cuba to accept all of the refugees, but to no avail. Cuba absolutely refused to take any more passengers.

Because the Americans had advocated for helping the stateless Jews, Gustav sailed from Cuba to the coast of Florida. He sought permission to enter the United States, but the U.S. government steadfastly refused to help. admit even one Jew. Even Cuba accepted 28, but President Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t accept a single Jew. This remained his position throughout the next several years, as the Jews of Europe were systematically slaughtered. Roosevelt could have done so much, and chose to do nothing at all. (Shockingly, many Jews then and now consider him a hero.)

Gustav was appalled at the American government’s actions, and he made a bold plan to actually run the ship aground and allow the refugees to escape. However, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull instructed the Coast Guard to shadow the St. Louis and make sure Gustav couldn’t carry out his plan. The “vacation cruise to freedom” became the “voyage of the damned.”

The next hope was Canada, but the Immigration Director insisted that his country, like their neighbor to the north, tightly shut their doors to admit no Jews. Gustav desperately negotiated with several governments while conditions on the ship became dire, without enough food and supplies for an extended voyage. He absolutely refused to return the ship to Germany until the refugees had found homes. 

Finally on June 17 1939, the St. Louis docked at the Port of Antwerp. Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to accept the Jewish refugees, evenly distributed to all four countries. Sadly, the following year Nazi Germany occupied Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Most of the Jews who had been returned to those countries were ultimately deported to concentration camps. Based on extensive research, historians estimate that 254 of the passengers who returned to Europe were killed in the Holocaust. Thankfully approximately 709 of the Jewish refugees who sailed on the St. Louis survived the war, and they all (and their thousands of descendants) owe their lives to Gustav Schroder.

After the St. Louis arrived back in Hamburg, Gustav was reassigned to a desk job and never went to sea again. Ironically, he was investigated as a possible war criminal during post-war de-Nazification proceedings, but many of the Jews he saved testified on his behalf and he was released. As Germany slowly came to a reckoning of the nation’s role in the genocide of European Jews, heroes began receiving official recognition. In 1957 Gustav was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal German Republic “for services to the people and the land in the rescue of refugees.” Two years later, Gustav died in Hamburg at age 73. He was survived by his wife and children.

Posthumously, Gustav was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. A street in Hamburg is named after him. In 1976, a movie was made about the St. Louis. Voyage of the Damned starred Max von Sydow as Gustav, and featured an all-star cast including Faye Dunaway, Lee Grant, James Mason and Malcolm McDowell.

For his extraordinary actions of bravery that saved 709 lives, we honor Gustav Schroder as this week’s Thursday Hero. 

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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