Sermon for Shabbat Shuvah – 26 September 2014

Shabbat is our physical and spiritual oasis during a trying week, giving us a break from the demands of the world.  This Shabbat is most special, as it is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  During these twenty four hours of rest, we reflect upon our year.  Where have we gone wrong?  Are we living up to our highest ideals?  How can we become more sensitive and loving human beings?  How can we make a difference in the lives of those around us?   When we are put to a test, will we be able to endure and hold our heads high?

The last question is crucial for we never know what fate will bring us in the coming days.  Will we have to make important business decisions?  Will we have to make critical decisions about the lives of loved ones?  Will our integrity be tested?  Will the Jewish people be threatened?  How will we respond?

That is the question we all ask ourselves.  How will we respond to an emergency?  How will we respond when our values and even our lives are put on the line?   How we will whether the crisis?

Tonight I briefly share with you the story of a man who held the fate of 907 Jews in his hands.  Seventy five years ago, Captain Gustav Shroder of the SS St. Louis, the premier ship of the Hamburg-American Line, was tested as never before.  Captain Shroder was a member of the Nazi party, a requirement for all employees of the Hamburg America Line as it was fully owned by the Nazi regime.  He was to sail his ship from Hamburg to Havana, where he would disembark the 907 German Jews, each of whom paid an exorbitant amount of money to the Cuban government for an immigration permit.  These German Jews planned to escape Germany, live temporarily in Cuba, and await their visas to enter the United States.  Seven hundred thirty four of the Jewish passengers already had their applications approved for the quota for immigration to the United States.

Though he was obliged to apply the Nuremburg laws to his ship, Captain Shroder refused to treat his Jewish passengers as second class citizens.  He ordered his crew to treat all of his passengers with the usual respect according to anyone on the Hamburg American liner.  “By boarding the St. Louis, they stepped into a world of luxury that even the wealthier passengers no longer had access to because of anti-Semitic persecution. Children swam in the pool on the deck, though the youngest might not have known how to swim, since swimming pools were forbidden to Jews. Couples danced in the ballroom, played shuffleboard, took sunbaths on the deck, and above all, enjoyed delicious meals and full cruise service offered by dedicated staff (The Ultimate History Project, Diane F Afoumado).”   After a delightful two week voyage, a lovely respite from the hell of Nazi Germany, the ship reached Havana on May 27, 1939.  The passengers prepared to embark, ready to begin a new stage in their lives.

Unbeknowst to them or their captain, the Cuban government refused to honor their landing permits.  There was a power struggle between the Immigration Minister, Manuel Benitez, and the President of Cuba, Frederico Bru, over who would receive the lucrative income that came from the landing permits.  Benitez pocketed the money, over $500,000, and refused to share it with Bru.  Bru retaliated by cancelling the Jews’ landing permits and forbidding any immigration to Cuba.  Shroder was apoplectic.  Nothing he said or did yielded any results.  Two representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee made their way to Cuba to negotiate with President Bru.  These negotiations failed as the president refused to meet with them while insisting on a payment of $500,000 to allow the refugees ashore.  A few days later, Captain Shroder was issued an ultimatum and forced to leave Havana harbor.  He sailed to Florida, hoping to bypass the Coast Guard cutters following him.  He contemplated running the ship aground on the Florida coast to give the Jews a chance to escape.  The Coast Guard cutters then prevented that, sailing between the St. Louis and the coast.  With the United States eliminated as a refuge, Shroder turned to Canada, but the Canadian government also refused the ship permission to land.  Having no where left to go, Shroder turned the ship towards Europe, hoping the run aground in England, presumably the safest place in Europe for the Jewish passengers.

Through miraculous negotiations, the JDC was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees. 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium.  “Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278, survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France (US Holocaust Museum).”

Relieved of his command, Captain Shroder spent the War years at a desk job in Hamburg.  He was honored by Germany after the War for his heroic actions and was honored by Yad Vashem when he was posthumously given the title “A Righteous Gentile.”  He was a man whose integrity was tested, whose honor was not infringed, who took care of his passengers despite knowing how his government hated them.  He is an example to us all.

If we are ever tested, may we have the integrity of Captain Gustav Shroder, a righteous gentile, whose courage enabled most of his Jewish passengers to live.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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