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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
salvation but instead set a course for
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
``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
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
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
``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."
Survivors to be interviewed
To tell the story, the filmmakers will present the ``intimate
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
others. She is incredibly adamant about
Walter Karliner of Westbrook, Connecticut along with his brother
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,
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
to interview his nephew in Germany.
And we want to find the remaining crew how do they feel now, knowing the
of those passengers?"
Added to the storyline will be an original score; Israel's
singer/songwriter David Broza has
agreed to compose and record a song about the saga as part of the
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
``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
$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.