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May 10, 1974 - Image 56

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1974-05-10

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FDR an Opportunist, Author of St. Louis Account Declares Here

While more than .900 men,
women and children waited
and prayed for salvation from
the all-powerful United
States, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt was consulting his
pre-election charts.
What he found was that
the human cargo aboard the
St. Louis was not worth the
political risk he would have
to take.
Gordon Thomas, co-author
of "Voyage of the Damned,"
said in an interview with The
Jewish News that as far as
he was concerned, President
Roosevelt was "an anti-
Semite, an opportunist and an
In the book, Thomas and
Max Morgan Witts put it in
a form more in keeping with
their cool, reportorial style:
"Such demagogues as the
radio priest Father Charles
Coughlin found willing re-
sponse among the millions
who saw refugees like those
on the St. Louis as a further
threat to the 'purity' of the
United States.
"It was against that back-
ground that the State Depart-
ment, itself filled with its
share of prejudiced men, de-
cided to exclude the St. Louis
passengers. And Franklin
Roosevelt, the 'liberal' Presi-
dent, but always a President
mindful of public opinion, did
not overrule that decision."
Despite the mood in the
U.S. that spring of 1939, FDR
"could have let them in and
nothing would have happened
to him," said Thomas. Tele-
grams sent by the desperate
passengers went unanswered.
"Of course, if they had been
Catholic or Protestant, they
would have been let in."
Neither Thomas, 41, nor
Morgan Witts, 42 (a native
Detroiter), is Jewish. Re-
spected journalists and ilBC
producers, they hay.e done
well with earlier books, "The
Day the World Ended," "The
San Francisco Earthquake"
and "Shipwreck: the Strange
Fate of the Morro Castle."
"We always wanted to tell
the Holocaust story. But
there are 20,000 books on the
Holocaust, and we wanted to
tell it another way," said
Thomas. Among the many
connections they have around
the world was one in Cuba,
who suggested they look into
the case of the ill-fated refu-
gee ship that had been turn-
ed away from Cuban shores,
only to be sent back to Eu-
rope before the outbreak of
World War II. There were
few historical references to
the voyage.
• Fifty thousand miles and
21/2 years after starting their
research, the two investiga-
tive reporters have come up
with a fascinating account—
objective, to be sure, but
damning for its objectivity—
of a ship adrift in a sea of
callous men and govern-
"One of the best rules for
an investigative reporter is
not to get involved with your
subject," said Thomas. "But
as I stood in a street in Ber-
lin, at 27 Lintenstrasse, I re-
called that Adolf Eichmann
had walked that street. In
the cellar of a fine apart-
ment building at 27 Linten-
strasse were the original
records on the fate of the
Six Million. I became in-

56—Friday, May 10, 1974

in London, in one of its most "Of course we did, and we
The book already is doing fashionable districts, and we said so. He said no, he had
well, although the official were surprised to find four changed his name twice"—
publication date is not until locks on the front door." out of fear that he would be
May 13, the 35th anniversary After relocking them after found and taken away again.
of the sailing of the St. his visitors, the host showed
The scars were felt deeply
Louis. Thomas said five film them into the library. He by others. Six survivors are
companies are bartering for asked if they knew his name. in mental hospitals — two of
rights to the film version.
Despite the book's some-
times unflattering references
to the Jewish relief organ-
Remember the name well— voyage of the German pas-
izations involved in negotia-
tions for the St. Louis, for the St. Louis will come senger ship, which shunted
Thomas said "they showed to hold a place in the shame- 937 passengers between Ger-
great courage in opening ful history of 20th Century many and Cuba, only to be
returned to the hellhole of
their files to us. Joint (the "civilized" man.
Gordon Thomas and Max Europe because no country,
Joint Distribution Commit.
tee) was amazingly coopera- Morgan Witts have written a including the United States,
tive and didn't try to hide powerful account of the 1939 would have them.
The JDC's negotiator in
Cuba was a prominent New
Boris Smolar's
York lawyer, Lawrence Ber-
enson. Shrewd, well-connect-
ed, he nevertheless miscal-
culated in his approaches to
the Cuban hierarchy. "He
didn't know how Bru (Cuban
President Frederico Bru)
Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, JTA
hated him. Berenson believed
(Copyright 1974, JTA Inc.)
he could deal with the situa-
NYANA AT 25: When Jewish immigrants reach the
tion as though he were in a
United States, most of them remain in New York. This has
bazaar," said the author.
Much surprised Thomas as been the case ever since the years of the great mass-immi-
he delved into the records gration some 100 years ago; this is also the case now with
and interviewed the sur- Jewish newcomers arriving from the Soviet Union.
Soviet Jewish immigrants who prefer to be settled in
vivors. "For one thing, the
prosperous Cuban Jews cities outside of New York are being assisted in absorption
couldn't identify with the by the local Jewish Federations in the communities where
refugees. In . spite of their they choose to live. In New York, this mission is carried
terrible experiences, the out by the New York Association for New Americans, bet-
refugees themselves have be- ter known by its shortened name NYANA. Now celebrating
come what they were before, its 25th year of existence, NYANA can boast of the fact
in Germany." Among those that since its establishment it has assisted more than 150,-
who boarded the St. Louis 000 Jewish immigrants to become settled in New York. It
as first-class passengers, "a receives its funds from the United Jewish Appeal.
During the first four years of its existence, when the
certain snobbishness comes
through even 35 years later." Jewish DP's who survived the Nazi regime in European
With a number of the sur- lands began to come to the United States, NYANA helped
vivors (72 were interviewed about 50,000 of them to settle in Greater New York. Soon
from the approximately 240 the wave of Jewish refugees from Hungary started. Then
who lived through the Holo- Jews from Cuba began to arrive in this country as refugees
caust), Thomas and Morgan' from the Castro regime. This was followed by a wave of
Witts have formed strong Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Russian
friendships. Babette Spanier, invasion. Later began the forced emigration of Jews from
today 70 and living in Ger- Communist Poland where all Jews—including Communist
many on a pension, figured Jews—were branded by the authorities as "Zionists" and
importantly in the account. were brutally persecuted. Many Egyptian Jews also were
One day, after concluding given aid here.
Now NYANA is engaged in helping the Jewish immi-
an emotional interview with
her, Thomas received a grants from the Soviet Union, about 5,000 of whom are ex-
phone call. "She said she pected to arrive in the United States this year.
was going to kill herself, not
SETTLING SOVIET JEWS: Soviet Jewish immigration
because of what she had told
me, but because of what to this country started at the end of 1969. About 1,700 Jew-
happened when she got ish newcomers from the Soviet Union have been assisted by
home. She told her German NYANA to establish themselves in New York. Since last
neighbors of her experience, August, when the U.S. government instituted new and speed-
and they said to her, 'You ier procedures for the admission of Jewish immigrants
silly old woman, you're lucky from Russia, NYANA has helped to resettle 1,200 new-
to be living in Germany and comers from the Soviet Union.
NYANA sends many of the newcomer professionals to
getting a pension.'
"Why did she go back to private English courses for which it pays. But even then,
Germany? She needed the language knowledge is still often barely adequate for them
money, and she thought there to obtain employment in their professions. Added to the
wouldn't be any hatred left." language barrier is also the fact that most professions in
But some of the hatred is this country are licensed and examinations are required of
still there, Thomas has found all who have received their training in foreign countries.
on his many trips to Ger- The most difficult is the examination required from medical
many. "There's a feeling in graduates of foreign lands who want to practice as phy-
Germany now that they can sicians in this country.
Despite all the obstacles, 85 per cent of all the new-
brush this (the Holocaust)
under the carpet. They say, comers from the Soviet Union are in their own apartments
`Everyone's lost lots of peo- within one or two months of arrival. Within six months, the
ple.' But do you know what average family is fully self-supporting, and no longer re-
shocked me? Dachau — to quires assistance from NYANA.
NYANA carries out its assistance program in a modest
see people picknicking on
way without any special fanfare. Its president, Mrs. Jerome
that grass."
At the same time, "It is I. Udell, is a well-known figure in Jewish communal life,
joyful to me that the hero and its board of directors includes quite a number of prom-
of this story — Ca ptain inent Jewish women. Philip Soskis, its executive director, is
Schroeder — is a German. considered a most able person in the field of Jewish social
It is good to remember that work and his record in conducting the NYANA program is
many risked their lives."
As part of its activities, NYANA also finances summer
Thomas said the survivors
for children of newcomers and maintains sheltered
have received the book well.
"They have been marvelous, workshop programs for elderly, or physically, emotionally
and not one has asked for a and socially handicapped immigrants. The work—chiefly
penny to tell his story. We assembling, sorting and packaging—is secured from manu-
went to see one man, living facturers and the immigrants are paid wages according
to their productivity. Their work qualifies them for Social
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS Security and Medicare benefits.

them were children at the
time of the voyage. "We
must remember that the Six
Million is men, women and
children," said Thomas.
"The key word isn't 'Six
Million,' but Men, Women
and Children.

"And perhaps it is worth-
while for you to note that if
a certain ship carrying a 13-
year-old boy had not been
let into this country—before
the St. Louis — we would not
have had Henry Kissinger

`Voyage of the Damned' Drama of 937 Refugees

Between You
. . . and Me'



"Voyage of the Damned"
(Stein and Day) relates an
incident that has drawn little
attention in the over-all pano-
rama of World War II. But
this ship was a microcosm of
the drama being played
throughout the world.
Thomas and Morgan Witts
have telescoped the incom-
prehensible magnitude of the
Holocaust into human terms.
It is a day-to-day diary of
the events that transpired
with the sailing of the St.
Louis from Hamburg on May
13, 1939, to its arrival in
Europe a month later — re-
turning its passengers for
allocation to the four coun-
tries that agreed to give
them temporary haven.
(Of the 937, there were 907
who made the landing in
Europe. An estimated 240
actually survived the war —
the majority having died in
concentration camps.)
So complete is the detail,
so personal the narrative,
that the reader is himself
projected into the world of
Captain Gerhard Schroeder
aboard the "floating time-
While Schroeder sailed
from port to port, trying in
vain to find haven for the
men, women and children
aboard, the leaders of nations
quibbled over money, cow-
ered before "public opinion"
(gleefully whipped up by the
Nazi propaganda ministry)
and rationalized away their
own anti-Semitism.
Fr. Charles Coughlin,
Royal Oak's own, gets some
of the credit with his haran-
gues against "undesirables"
to a listening audience of
In contrast stands the cap-
tain—his humanity a rebuke
to the cruelty of his German
countrymen and the disin-
terest of a world on the brink
of war.
The Nazis calculated well
on that disinterest. With this
voyage — one of the last to
leave Germany — they de-
termined to show that no
country wanted the Jews.
As the desperation of the
passengers mounted, there
were suicide attempts, even
a pitiable effort at piracy to
avoid the return to Germany.
At the same time, the cap-
tain had to challenge fireman

Otto Schiendick, the t elf •-:
tapo's representative,
embellished his job of carry-
ing out an espionage assign-
ment by inciting the crew
against the passengers.
For 40 days and 40 nights,
the ship sailed to and fro —
the emotions of the refugees
spread taut, some . of them
already emotionally scarred
by concentration camp ex-
All the while, the negotia-
tions went on. The efforts of
the leading Jewish relief
agency, the Joint Distribu-
tion Committee, were not
successful — in part due to
"miscalculation" on the part
of its special representative
in Cuba.
But somehow, with all of
the La tin corruption (the
Cuban immigration officer
who issued the worthless
visas made a fortune), it is
the American reaction that
sears the memory. Nowhere
is it illustrated more graphi-
cally than in the transcript
of a phone call from Secre-
tary of the Treasury Henry
Morgenthau Jr. to Secretary
of State Cordell Hull.
In that conversation, Hull
replied to Morgenthau's con-
cern for the refugees with the
comment that "This is a
matter primarily between the
Cuban government and these -
people." The refugees could
not be settled on the U.S.
protectorate of the Virgin Is-
lands because they didn't
have "a definite home where
they were coming from, and
in a situation to return to."
Photographs of the St.
Louis passengers, many of
them used by the Nazis for
propaganda purposes, lend
additional interest to the nar-
rative. The reader also is
enabled to follow the course
of the voyage with a map on
the inside cover.
The authors dedicated their
book to "those who were the
damned, on the St. Louis —
not only the passengers who
are alive today and told their
story to us, but all on board
the ship, who were caught up
in events they did not under-
stand and could not cont --",__
Thomas and Morgan I;
have done honor to then'.
Read the book—and never
forget it.

Refugees board the St. Louis in Hamburg on May 13,
1939. From "Voyage of the Damned" by Gordon Thomas
and Max Morgan Witts.

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