How a Dutch Wartime Play About the St. Louis Saved Jews

by Rafael Medoff

This week’s Yad Vashem conference on “Performing Arts in Holland During the Holocaust” 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 persecution.

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 view 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 shore.

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 Lichtman.

“We saw the Coast Guard planes that flew around the ship to follow its movements,” the passengers wrote. “We saw the Coast Guard cutter that trailed us and made sure the St. Louis did not come close to the Florida coast. We heard the cutter blaring its warning to the St. Louis to stay away…We categorically reject any and all attempts to distort these indisputable historical facts.”

Jan de Hartog had a specific purpose in mind for writing Skipper Next to God: “In those troubled times, there was a great demand for families that would accept Jewish children and hide them,” he later recalled. “The fisherman were ideal because they were a closed society, but they had a problem because they were against the Jews ‘who had crucified Christ.’ They had to be convinced that it was a long time ago, and that at this point their Christian duty was to give sanctuary to these persecuted Jews. The play was an instrument to try and bring that about. We were successful; a number of children were placed with the fishermen.”

“Skipper Next to God” also had a postwar life. It was performed on Broadway in 1948, directed by Lee Strasberg and starring John Garfield (who had a caused a sensation the previous year as the star of the film Gentlemen’s Agreement, which addressed antisemitic prejudice). In 1953, “Skipper” was made into a movie.

The New York Times, reviewing the Broadway play, argued that “whatever its merit” as art, Skipper Next to God “deserves to be produced” because of its “high-minded” purpose in showing that during the Holocaust years, “in America no one doubts that morally the Jews should be admitted, but everyone comfortably hides behind the letter of the law” in keeping them out.

Ironically–in view of the latest controversy–the Times gently chided de Hartog for erroneously depicting the U.S. Navy as the ones who blocked the ship’s approach. “Shouldn’t it be the Coast Guard?,” the Times asked.

(As published in “J,” the Jewish Weekly of Northern California – May 10, 2013)