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Tragic St. Louis voyage 75th anniversary is honored at Library of Congress

Library of Congress hosts talk May 19 for 75th anniversary of SS St. Louis, whose 930+ Jewish passengers fleeing Nazism were rejected by Cuba, U.S., and Canada, and had to return to Europe.
Library of Congress hosts talk May 19 for 75th anniversary of SS St. Louis, whose 930+ Jewish passengers fleeing Nazism were rejected by Cuba, U.S., and Canada, and had to return to Europe.
SS St. Louis in Havana Harbor June 1 or 2, 1939. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Library of Congress will host a panel discussion moderated by Marvin Kalb on May 19 honoring the 75th anniversary of the SS St. Louis, whose more than 930 Jewish refugees from Nazism were rejected by Cuba, the U.S., and Canada, and forced to return to Europe.

At "Voyage of the St. Louis", author and former TV commentator Kalb will talk with two authors of books about the ill-fated luxury liner and its doomed passengers. "The New York Times" termed it "the saddest ship afloat".

Martin Goldsmith wrote the just-published "Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance" (Da Capo Press). Goldsmith retraces the journey of his grandfather Alex Goldschmidt and uncle Helmut Goldschmidt on the St. Louis, and through six concentration camps until murdered in Auschwitz.

The author tells their story "as a grandson, a nephew, and an eyewitness." It's also "a tale of a lifetime of living in Alex's wake, the guilt that my family felt, and how I was affected by following in his footsteps." To read an excerpt, click here.

Martin Goldsmith also wrote "The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany" (John Wiley and Sons, Inc.), about the Kulturbund, an all-Jewish performing arts maintained by the Nazis from 1933-1941. The ensemble included Goldsmith's parents.

He is the host and classical music programmer for "Symphony Hall" on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and former host of NPR’s "Performance Today".

Diane Afoumado is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's chief of ITS (International Tracing Service) Research at its Survivors and Victims Resource Center. Dr. Afoumado's fellowship at the Museum focused on "The St. Louis Odyssey through the Eyes of Captain Schroeder". She had acquired a copy of Captain Gustave Schroeder's diary from a surviving St. Louis passenger, after a tireless search. Based on the diary and extensive study of international newspaper coverage of the voyage, she wrote the book "Exil Impossible: L'errance des Juifs du paquebot St-Louis" ("Impossible Exile: The wandering of Jews aboard the ship St. Louis") (Harmattan Editions). Dr. Afoumado has written three books, each in French.

When the St. Louis departed from Hamburg to Havana on May 13, 1939, all 937 passengers, most Jews fleeing from the Third Reich, held valid certificates for entry into Cuba. But Cuba's President Federico Laredo Bru refused to honor the documents, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Holocaust Encyclopedia.

After the ship left Havana harbor, it sailed so close to Florida that passengers could see the lights of Miami. Captain Schroeder appealed for help in vain. Several passengers sent telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt, who did not respond. So the ship was forced to return to Europe on June 6.

The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations negotiated admittance for many passengers to Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and France.

But within months, the Germans overran Western Europe. Of the more than 500 former passengers trapped in Western Europe, about half were killed in the Holocaust, and about half survived, according to the "Holocaust Encyclopedia".

To hear St. Louis former passenger Gerda Blachmann Wilchfort describe her journey, click here.

And to hear the free discussion among Goldsmith, Afoumado, and Kalb, go to the Library of Congress at noon on May 19.

For more info: "Voyage of the St. Louis", May 19, noon, Library of Congress, Whittall Pavilion, First floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. Free event. Gail Shirazi, gshi@loc.gov, 202-707-9897, or Galina Teverovsky, gtev@loc.gov, 202-707-8814.