Click photo to download. Caption: Pictured is the Holocaust-era refugee ship St. Louis, the so-called Voyage of the Damned. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
This week’s symposium on “Performing Arts in Holland During the
Holocaust” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem explored the fascinating subject of how Dutch Jews under the Nazi
occupation organized plays, cabarets, and orchestras as they struggled to
maintain a semblance of normal life even in the face of intensifying
But an equally remarkable and little-known episode from that period concerns an
underground Dutch play about the voyage of the refugee ship St. Louis—the so-called
Voyage of the Damned—that reportedly inspired Dutch fishermen to shelter Jewish
children from the Nazis. The story of the play and its impact is particularly
relevant in light of a new controversy in the United States over the St. Louis.
The wartime play was the creation of Jan de Hartog, a best-selling Dutch
novelist and playwright whose works often focused on the seafaring life. De
Hartog had been deeply moved by the plight of the St. Louis, which carried 937
German Jewish refugees and was turned away from Cuba and the United States in
the spring of 1939.
As the St. Louis was making its way back to Europe, the governments of England,
France, Belgium, and Holland each agreed to accept a portion of the passengers.
The Dutch government admitted 181 refugees, but interned them behind barbed
wire, in a makeshift camp called Westerbork. One year later, the Germans
occupied Holland and Westerbork was turned into a transit camp for shipping
Jews (eventually including Anne Frank and her family) to Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, the German occupation authorities had outlawed the Dutch theater,
forcing de Hartog, along with other writers and actors, to go underground. He
later recalled that they staged plays “in barns and haylofts, and, in the case
of the Zuider Zee [the famous bay in northwestern Holland), in those large
sheds where the fishermen dried and mended their nets.”
His contact with the fishermen helped inspire de Hartog to write “Schipper
Naast God,” or “Skipper Next to God,” a play based on the voyage of the St.
Louis, although with a different ending. In the play, a German ship with Jewish
refugees is turned away from South America, so the skipper sails it to Long
Island, where he beaches the ship in the midst of a yachting competition,
forcing the yachtsmen to rescue the passengers.
In real life, the St. Louis hovered off the coast of Florida for several days
and the passengers sent telegrams to the White House, begging President
Franklin Roosevelt to grant them haven. He did not respond. Instead, a U.S.
Coast Guard cutter and patrol plane kept the ship from coming closer to the
In recent weeks, a controversy has erupted over the claim in a new book, FDR and the Jews, by Richard Breitman
and Alan Lichtman, that the Coast Guard was not sent to block the St. Louis
from approaching the shore. In response, a group of surviving passengers of the
ship issued a public statement strongly criticizing Breitman and