On May 4, 1939, the tugboats maneuvered the SS St. Louis away from the dock in Hamburg for the start of her two-week transatlantic voyage. She was a luxury liner, captained by Gustav Shroeder, and outfitted as one would expect with a swimming pool, movie theater, evening concerts and lovely meals. Her 900 passengers were also as one would expect – well-to-do Germans. In this case, however, they had embarked not to vacation, but to escape. These were all Jews, men, women, and children, fleeing ever-increasing Nazi persecution in their homeland. Each had been fortunate to obtain a Cuban visa at the cost of $3,000 or more apiece.
On board, the Jews were treated respectfully by the German crew on the orders of Captain Shroeder. He even allowed Friday night prayers in the main dining room, where the prominent portrait of Adolf Hitler was discreetly taken down for the evening. The mood on the ship was relaxed and jovial; after all, they had escaped! The conviviality disappeared on May 27 when the ship arrived in Havana, and it became clear that the Cuban visas had been revoked.
One week later, Captain Shroeder steered his ship toward the Florida coast. Having no landing permit, nor visas for his passengers; however, he was forced to consider returning to Hamburg. And here, Captain Shroeder’s heroism rose to the fore. He had no doubt of the fate awaiting his passengers in Germany, and so he sailed a slow and circuitous route back toward Europe to allow time for frenzied negotiations. He even conceived a plan to shipwreck the St.Louis off the coast of England to force the passengers to be rescued! In the end, his spectacular plan proved unnecessary. The ship was allowed to dock in Antwerp, and the passengers were given asylum in Belgium, England, and France. Ultimately, 650 of the 900 St.Louis passengers would survive the Holocaust due in large part to the captain’s efforts. Gustav Schroeder was posthumously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations on March 11, 1993.