Tragic tale of the MS St. Louis takes the stage for the first time



Among the myriad Holocaust narratives we tell, which almost always end in tragedy, the fate of the passengers on the MS St. Louis exerts a particular hold on our imagination.

Of course, it does. The juxtaposition of strong, conflicting emotions — say, enormous relief and unspeakable terror — can have that kind of effect.

When the luxury cruise ship sailed to Havana from the port of Hamburg in May 1939, the 937 passengers — nearly all Jewish refugees — surely believed that they had escaped the Third Reich.

On arrival, however, they learned that the Cuban government had canceled their landing permits. They would not be allowed to disembark.

The United States would not admit the refugees either, even though the St. Louis sailed close enough to Florida to put the lights of Miami in view. The MS St. Louis went back to Europe.

Strong conflicting emotions? In its new production, “The Good Ship St. Louis,” Upstream Theater explores the whole range.

The drama is written and directed by Philip Boehm, Upstream’s founder and artistic director.

“This is a big show for us,” Boehm said, explaining that it involves 10 actors, most in multiple roles.

Original music is by Houston composer Anthony Barilla, and a stage design involves projections to establish a historical perspective.

Boehm, an award winning, prolific translator of books and plays in German and Polish, has run workshops on translation for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. His translation last year of “The Passenger” brought international attention and success to the novel, which had been largely ignored since its 1939 publication. Written at breakneck speed in the weeks after Kristallnacht by 23-year-old Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, “The Passenger” details the arc of Jewish persecution in Hitler’s Berlin.

Originally from Texas, Boehm naturally wrote his new play in English. But through music, he includes snippets of Yiddish, Ukrainian, Bosnian and Arabic, all languages of the refugees.

They are all part of “The Good Ship St. Louis.” Set in a contemporary frame, the first act deals with the passengers on the St. Louis, some of whom were taken in by England, the Netherlands and France. More than 250 of them were killed by the Nazis. The second act introduces the stories of refugees from other countries, also desperate, also looking for help from strangers.

“It’s not just what they have lost, it’s whom they have lost,” Boehm said. “(Even the most fortunate) had to remake their lives. Maybe they don’t speak the language, maybe they are elderly, maybe they are alone.

“And, in many cases, their stories are still open-ended. They suffered degrees of loss and displacement that we can never know.”

For that reason, Boehm feels especially pleased by a timely coincidence: the nearly simultaneous opening of “The Good Ship St. Louis” and the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, which was scheduled to open a day before the play’s opening Nov. 3.

“Holocaust museums are about more than not forgetting,” he said. “They are about taking that perspective into today and tomorrow

Rev. Dr. Dieter Heinzl of Ladue Chapel speaks at an interfaith vigil June 6 at the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse downtown marking the 78th anniversary of end of the voyage of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The vigil was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Holocaust Museum of St. Louis and several interfaith partners. All photos: Bill Motchan