How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives

Published September 1, 2021
Updated March 12, 2024

Gustav Schröder: The German Sea Captain Of The “Voyage Of The Damned”

Gustav Schroder

Wikimedia CommonsGustav Schröder treated his Jewish passengers with courtesy and kindness as they attempted to flee the Nazis.

In May 1939, the ship St. Louis set off from Hamburg en route to the Americas. But this was no normal voyage. The ship, packed with over 900 Jewish refugees, was a last-ditch effort for many to escape the Nazis.

Some of the families had paid hundreds of dollars (thousands in today’s money) to secure a visa from the Cuban Embassy in Berlin. And they put their trust in Captain Gustav Schröder to get them there.

Schröder, an experienced seaman, paid special care to his Jewish passengers. He ordered his crew to treat the families with courtesy and care — a sharp contrast to the hostility toward Jews in much of Germany.

The captain also allowed the Jewish families to have Friday night prayers in the ship’s main dining room. And, while they prayed, he allowed them to take down the large portrait of Adolf Hitler normally affixed to the wall.

But even though the St. Louis sailed to Cuba without much trouble, its passengers weren’t able to find salvation in Havana.

Jewish Refugees In Cuba

National Archives and Records AdministrationJewish refugees wait to hear if Cuba will allow them entry. June 3, 1939.

After the refugees arrived in Cuba, officials turned them away. For seven days, Schröder tried to sway them to accept the refugees, but they still refused. The St. Louis then attempted to drop off the refugees in Florida — but American officials there also refused them entry.

Shocked and horrified, the passengers believed that they had no choice but to return to Germany. But Schröder refused to give them up to the Nazis.

Though he considered wrecking his ship on the English coast — thus forcing the British to intervene — Schröder eventually found another solution. Belgium, Great Britain, and France each agreed to take in a number of the desperate families. None of them would have to return to Germany.

Despite this, some 250 of them still tragically perished as the Nazis tightened their hold on Europe. But those who survived never forgot the kindness and quiet courage of their ship’s captain. In 1993, Yad Vashem recognized Gustav Schröder as Righteous Among the Nations.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "How 9 Ordinary People Became Heroes During The Holocaust — And Risked Everything To Save Jewish Lives.", September 1, 2021, Accessed April 20, 2024.