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Preserving the story of the SS St. Louis
Subhead: Documentary planned with portraits of survivors

By Debbie Levison
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 11, 2001

HARTFORD, CT., Jan. 11 — In what was surely one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, hundreds of men, women and children boarded a vessel that was intended to sail them to salvation but instead set a course for doom. The year was 1939, and the ship was the SS St. Louis. Its nearly 1,000 passengers had booked passage out of Nazi Germany to Cuba -- to safety, or so they thought -- but upon arrival in Havana harbor the refugees were denied entry. And later, though they could see the palm trees of Miami, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, along with leaders around the world, denied haven to the refugees. Eventually the ship was forced to return to Europe, where hundreds of the SS St. Louis passengers died at the hands of Hitler. Susan Forrest Davidson's mother, grandmother, uncle, great aunt and second cousin were on board the SS St. Louis. ``As a survivor of the voyage, my mother was called upon two years ago by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel discussion," says Davidson. ``Afterward, I contacted the museum to volunteer my services for the television program or film I had naturally assumed they would do of the story. But they said they weren't making any such film. And I thought, someone should." Davidson, a seasoned Boston-born television reporter and journalist now living in Hartford, embarked on a project to document the St. Louis saga. Her idea has quickly blossomed into an international venture that she feels was ``meant to be." From the moment she bumped into old acquaintance Steve Shaw at the GHJCC's West Hartford pool, the pieces of the project began falling into place.

SUBHEAD: Project has many components

As president of Visual Concepts Media, Inc. of Bloomfield, Shaw was immediately drawn to the idea. ``At least 75-80 percent of Jewish people I speak to have never heard of the SS St. Louis," he says. ``Very rarely do you hear the stories that led up to Auschwitz." With Davidson as director and Visual Concepts as the production arm, responsible for both fundraising and shooting the film, the team expects to create an in-depth documentary that will likely air on PBS as a one-hour segment and may reach the mainstream cinemas as a longer feature. ``We would love for this to cross over from Jewish film festivals to the mainstream," adds Shaw. According to Shaw, though televised airtime is one goal, it is only a small part of the project. ``We want to put together an entire curriculum for middle- through high-school," he adds. Ideally, the curriculum would include the VHS documentary, a four-page teacher's guide, wall posters, take home booklets, and student activities. ``The story of the St. Louis is a perfect jumping-off point for educating young people about many different themes and topics, like immigration or politics," says Shaw. ``The St. Louis story teaches much more, such as a lesson about the human spirit -- can one go on to be happy after a tragedy of this magnitude in one's life?" adds Davidson. ``And what happens when people turn their backs on those in need? It's about strength and survival, a story we should tell our kids that life isn't always easy, and that we take so much for granted."

SIDEBAR: Survivors to be interviewed

To tell the story, the filmmakers will present the ``intimate portraits" of four of the 100 St. Louis passengers who are still alive today. Among them will be Ilse Marcus of Washington Heights, New York. A newlywed on board the SS St. Louis, Ilse subsequently spent 18 months interred at Auschwitz before being liberated. Her relatives, including her new husband, perished. She never remarried. ``She has no family," says Davidson, ``and her only purpose in life now is to tell this story to educate others. She is incredibly adamant about telling it." Walter Karliner of Westbrook, Connecticut along with his brother Herbert of Florida will also be featured. The fourth survivor to be featured has yet to be chosen, but there are several candidates around the world whom the filmmakers are considering. Filming is expected to take the production team to Cuba, Israel, Europe, and several locations in the States. The last portrait will be that of the deceased SS St. Louis captain, Gustav Schroeder. ``Everyone knows about Oskar Schindler, but not about Captain Schroeder," says Davidson. ``He was honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. The survivors sent him money for years after the Holocaust, because he was ostracized by German society [for his humanitarian efforts during the voyage] and couldn't work. We'll try to interview his nephew in Germany. And we want to find the remaining crew how do they feel now, knowing the fate of those passengers?" Added to the storyline will be an original score; Israel's award-winning singer/songwriter David Broza has agreed to compose and record a song about the saga as part of the soundtrack.

SUBHEAD: Funding sought
Currently, the team is editing a trailer for the program and also is negotiating with an undisclosed major Jewish organization, both to gain non-profit status and for name recognition. ``We're holding parlor meetings -- that is, looking for major funding from people of means, although of course we would not object to corporate funding as well. Our goal is to raise $500,000 to $600,000 to finance the documentary portion. The educational component would require additional funds. This project is generating a great deal of interest," says Shaw. Davidson's personal interest in the project is a driving force. ``My grandmother is 97 years oldthe second-oldest survivor of the voyage," she says. ``We have to preserve her story.''

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission


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