Several years ago I read a sad saga to which I’ve returned on a number of occasions. It was the tragedy surrounding the migrant ship, M.S. St Louis, dating from the days immediately prior to the outbreak of WWII. It has a magnetic attraction that draws me back time and again.
The first time I read of the journey was about 1970. That was an excerpt from a letter written by a survivor of the voyage, one of the fortunate minority who ended up in England through and after the war. Next, I read the 1974 bookVoyage Of The Damned by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witt, which was followed by a somewhat maudlin film of the same name.
There was a gap then until I read Refuge Denied by Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller seven or eight years ago. Now, I’ve bought and read the most recent iteration, a novel called The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa.
What is it all about and why the attraction? The first part is easy to answer – despite the cynicism of G B Shaw, and truism or not, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” I find history fascinating – but perhaps not so much the second.
WWII had not yet started but already the Nazis pilloried German Jews, an action reaching greater heights after a Nazi official was assassinated by a young Polish Jew in Paris. On learning his parents were destined for immediate expulsion from Germany, Herschel Grynszpan shot Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in France. In Germany on 9 and 10 November 1938, the SA (the Nazi Assault Detachment) and Hitler Youth, in Goebbels’ words, set out to smash shop windows of many Jewish businesses ‘in a spontaneous outburst of public sentiment’. That atrocity became known to the world as Kristallnacht.
Violence against the Jews was systemic, even to the extent that Aryan neighbours shunned those Jews who’d been their friends and neighbours, often for a number of generations. In The German Girl, Hannah Rosenthal, whose family owns a block of apartments in Berlin, stands in the door of the elevator. She speaks with her friend Gretel from the floor above but is spurned by the mother, Frau Hofmeister, who says, “Let’s take the stairs. When are they going to leave? They put us in such a difficult situation…” She makes Hannah feel so dirty the lass scrubs herself in the shower without, at first, even removing her clothes.
The Rosenthal family is stripped of possessions and life savings, to be sent away on a ship, never to return. The family is issued visas from Cuba that allow a short-term stay on the island before then taking up full residence in the United States and Canada. They are among 900 people on board the M.S. St Louis, departing Hamburg on 13 May 1939, then picking up a further 37 at Rotterdam. At least, despite few possessions and being allowed to take no more than ten Reichsmarks each, they are able to escape the Nazi noose drawing ever tighter around them.
The exquisitely sad departure generates increasing optimism, even confidence, as they draw closer to their destination, but it proves premature. While at sea, cables are sent to the ship saying its passengers may not now be allowed to land. Visas allowing their stay are rescinded and the ship is turned away from Havana with a threat that, if it does not go of its own accord, Cuban ships will tow it out into the open ocean and leave it to its own resources. Meanwhile, a small number of passengers with relatives in Cuba are allowed to remain.
Negotiations had taken place in Cuba but were to prove fruitless. Mild hope that had developed evaporated as it became clear the St Louis had to put back to sea. Again from The German Girl, “Mr and Mrs Moser came in. She hugged me… it seemed she thought the powerful Rosenthal’s could help. Papa had to become the professor again, saying, ‘…we’ll find a solution.’ ” But there was none to come.
St Louis steams away. As it nears Florida, there is great excitement when US Coast Guard ships come out to meet it. However, they are not there to provide a greeting so much as to ensure it doesn’t enter American waters. With supplies now running low, Captain Schroeder has no option but to return home. There are continuing negotiations with several countries, with the outcome that 181 passengers will be allowed into the Netherlands, 224 France, 228 Great Britain and 214 Belgium. Sadly for all but those who land in Britain, they will fall back into the tyranny sweeping Europe, with more than one-third among them dying in gas chambers.
The book itself, The German Girl, is a fictional recreation. It features Anna, growing up in modern-day New York, and Hannah, an unmet aunt for whom she is named, one of those fortunate enough to be left in Cuba. Therein lies a highly interesting, multi-faceted story. I found it perhaps the best work of fiction I’ve read on the subject and applaud Armando Lucas Correa for his detailed research and compelling writing. It comes highly commended for all, whether familiar with the story of the St Louis and its tragic cargo, or not.