In May 1939, the SS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany. The ship flew the Nazi swastika, but nearly all of its passengers were Jewish. The 937 Jews onboard included men, women and children. Some had been released from concentration camps, others narrowly averted imprisonment. All were seeking to escape persecution from the Nazis. While the whole world watched and waited, the unfortunate travelers embarked on a strange and terrifying journey. Unknown to the passengers and the captain, the ship was merely a pawn of Nazi propaganda.
Voyage of the Damned recounts the desperate search for asylum for the passengers of the SS St. Louis. In vivid detail, bestselling author Gordon Thomas and documentary filmmaker Max Morgan-Witts describe the daily struggle to survive aboard the ship. “What most interested the Nazis was the use that could be made of the ship and its passengers once it had left Germany,” the authors explain. “The voyage could be exploited to the full for propaganda purposes: the German nation could be told that it was part of the general ‘housecleaning’ operation; the world at large could be told that here was clear evidence that Germany was allowing Jews to leave unharmed and unimpeded.”
The crew of the SS St. Louis was manned with members of the Gestapo—a fact that disturbed and angered Captain Gustav Schroeder, a non-Jew and opponent of the Nazi party. He was unaware that the steward assigned to the ship was on a mission for the SS. The steward’s orders were to retrieve American intelligence information collected by German spies and smuggled into Cuba. The documents included blueprints of American destroyers and specifications for an underwater sound detector, which could be used against submarines.
When the SS St. Louis arrived in Cuba, the refugees were denied entry as tourists or political asylum seekers. A month before the voyage, Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, had authorized Nazi agents to infiltrate Cuba with the purpose of stirring up anti-Semitism on the island. His plan worked. Responding to public pressure, the Cuban government increased its visa fee an additional $500 per person. Neither the passengers nor the ship’s captain—who had been given a total of $500 to bribe Cuban officials as necessary—could pay the fees. Two passengers attempted suicide.
The ship sailed on to the United States where President Roosevelt refused the passengers permission to land. In Canada they were refused permission again. And they found themselves returning to Europe and an uncertain fate. Made into an Academy Award®–winning film in 1976, Voyage of the Damned is a gripping, heart-wrenching testament to a terrible chapter in human history.