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April 23, 2014 11:50 pm

‘Voyage of the Damned’ Commemorated in New Cruise

avatar by Joshua Levitt

The "Voyage of the Damned," the MS St. Louis, in Havana, in June, 1939. Photo: WikiCommons.

The "Voyage of the Damned," the MS St. Louis, in Havana, in June, 1939. Photo: WikiCommons.

A new cruise will commemorate the “Voyage of the Damned,” when 937 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were blocked from entering Cuba in 1939, and forced to return to Europe, where many ultimately died in the Holocaust.

Ruth Kalish and Robert Krakow, the producer and director of a film about the voyage called “Complicity: The Untold Story of Why the Roosevelt Administration Denied Safe Haven to Refugees,” will be participating in the cruise organized by the SS St. Louis Legacy Project, a nonprofit organization that champions human rights and immigration issues, and Protravel International.

“We will breathe life into history by using this unique cruise experience aboard the Crystal Serenity to trace the voyage of the SS St. Louis in a deeply respectful and meaningful way,” Kalish told the LA Times.

Photos and artifacts from the original journey will be displayed, Kalish’s film will be shown, and the play “The Trial of Franklin D. Roosevelt” will be performed during the cruise.

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Kalish said survivors of the original voyage will also participate in the cruise. Only those Jews who escaped to England lived through World War II, while the others were returned to countries that soon came under Nazi control.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which also has an exhibit about the ship, said: “Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938, the increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom in November, and the subsequent seizure of Jewish-owned property had caused a flood of visa applications. The plight of German-Jewish refugees, persecuted at home and unwanted abroad, is illustrated by the voyage of the St. Louis.”

Historian accounts of the debacle painted a complicated and unfortunate backdrop to the ship’s travels.

Rather than purely a political move to reject Jews, the full story involved the machinations of a Cuban bribery scheme, where a mid-level bureaucrat was charging visitors, including the Jews on the ship, for short-term visas, according to historian Jennifer Rosenberg. (Their plan had been to arrive in Cuba, then petition the U.S.) When the Cuban’s superiors discovered how much he was earning from the scheme, they changed the law to bar his loophole, but that stranded the Jews on the ship, as all of this happened after their voyage had begun. Meanwhile, a representative of the Jews aboard came forward to negotiate with Cuba, which asked for $500,000 to admit the ship’s passengers. The negotiations were never completed, and Cuba ruled against the ship.

With the ship returning to Europe, the U.S., and specifically, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was blamed for not making an exception to allow the Jews to land.

The two-week cruise is scheduled for November 5 to 19 and starts in New York City and ends in Miami. It leaves New York City and stops in Baltimore; Norfolk, Va.;  Charleston, S.C.; Grand Turk, Island; Willemstad, Curacao; and Oranjestad, Aruba before docking in Miami.

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