The Voyage of the St Louis

Daniel Kehlmann, adapted by Tom Stoppard, based on the book The Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts
BBC Radio 4
Released

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In some ways, The Voyage of the St Louis could be regarded as a companion piece to Sir Tom Stoppard’s recent play Leopoldstadt, in that both look at the plight of the Jews during the rise of Nazi Germany.

This engaging documentary play is largely based on testaments from those involved and the story that they tell beggars belief.

It starts on 13 May 1939, when the eponymous ship set sail from Hamburg bound for Havana with a cargo of 900 Jewish emigrants, consigned by Adolf Eichmann.

As listeners discover far into the 90 minutes, this may well have been a far from subtle attempt at a propaganda coup engineered by Joseph Goebbels.

Complicating an already almost impenetrable political minefield, along with the passengers, the ship carried a particularly nasty Nazi secret agent, one of its stewards, Schiendick played by Paul Ritter.

In addition to winding up anybody and everybody, his mission was to bring a small package of microfilms back to the Third Reich.

Many of the passengers, all of whom were destitute, had spent time in concentration camps and therefore the prospect of relocation to Cuba was relatively good news, especially given that the country had, at the time, accepted more Jewish refugees than anywhere else in the world.

The Cuban response made it clear that it might be time to change that generous policy, even though Minister for Immigration and President both spotted an opportunity to take bribes. The political situation was further complicated by the knowledge that whatever the ostensible position, the all-powerful General Batista pulled the strings.

The government in Havana also had a concern that if they let 900 Jews enter the country without a fight, more would inevitably follow, which should ring bells with those who read regular news stories about boat people attempting to smuggle their way into the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

With all of this going on, Philip Glenister’s Captain Schroeder might reasonably have been described as a Righteous Gentile, like Oskar Schindler. At one point, he even considered ignoring not only the law but his own ethical principles if that could save so many lives.

On a different level, a series of negotiators attempted to break the impasse, primarily the American director of the Jewish distribution committee, the ubiquitous Toby Jones portraying pushy Lawrence Berenson.

Despite the combined efforts of the good guys, a combination of greedy Cubans and evil Germans, having allowed the ship to dock in the harbour, forced it to turn around. Before then, remarkably three of the Jewish occupants escaped, two children rescued by their father and one man hauled out of the sea having attempted suicide.

It is to be observed that when America was given the opportunity to save the day, it signally failed to do so.

As the ship headed back to Europe, with the virtual certainty that every passenger on board would be returned to Germany and the death camps, negotiations began with most of the other countries in northern Europe, including Great Britain, France, Holland and Belgium.

Anyone wishing to know the outcome of this distressing but stirring tale, directed by Sasha Yevtushenko, will be able to listen to the play on BBC Sounds for the next 30 days. They will not be disappointed.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher