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Radio: The Voyage of the St Louis

08 May, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu

The St Louis

IN May 1939, a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War, a German ocean liner captained by Gustav Schroeder (Philip Glenister) left for Cuba with over 900 Jewish passengers fleeing persecution.

Also on board the St Louis was Schiendick (Paul Ritter), a Nazi spy commissioned to pick up three rolls of micro film.

The refugees were denied permission to disembark in Havana, despite having been sold visas by the despicable Cuban immigration minister, Benitez (Joseph Balderrama). A decree by President Bru (Alan Corduner) effectively invalidated their landing certificates.

The Cubans, while trying to extricate a million dollars from the Americans, claimed it was a vote loser to take in so many political refugees. When would it end? they argued.

Attorney Lawrence Berenson (Toby Jones) from the US-based Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, cajoled the ministers, but to no avail. It transpired President Roosevelt was just as reluctant to accept the desperate passengers.

Philip Glenister. Photo: Rach

Schroeder, wanting to avoid returning to Hamburg with a full ship, contemplated running aground on the English coast to force a landing. Finally, as hopes began to fade, various European countries, including the United Kingdom, agreed to accept a quota of refugees.

Tom Stoppard’s compelling adaption of Daniel Kehlmann’s play (based on Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ book The Voyage of the Damned) highlights the machinations of those men who held the refugees’ future in their hands, seemingly content to barter human lives and toy with others’ despair. Also revealed is the power of propaganda to influence political decisions.

At the end, we learn the fate of several passengers. Only a few found salvation in Cuba – one because he had attempted suicide. Many of those accepted by Belgium, France and Holland were caught up in later round-ups and died in the death camps they had so desperately tried to avoid.

Director Sasha Yevtushenko manages to lighten a heavy subject with some upbeat musical interludes, including a rousing snatch of Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, to indicate scene changes.

This imaginative dramatisation of a true story serves as a salutary reminder that compassion has no price tag.

The Voyage of the St Louis, BBC Radio 4, May 9, 2.45pm

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