In May 1939 the MV St. Louis set out from Hamburg with more than 900 refugees fleeing Germany for asylum in Cuba. Although each of the passengers had entry permits to Cuba, they did not know that a week before departure the president of Cuba had invalidated all previously issued entry permits. So when they entered the harbor at Havana, they were denied dockage and eventually fewer than 30 passengers were actually granted entry.
After being denied entry to the United States and Canada, they ship sailed back to Europe and docked at Antwerp, where all passengers were allowed entry. Shortly after that, the Nazis had invaded and occupied the areas where these refugees sought asylum. Most of them were Jewish and many of them perished in the camps.
In the book, Voyage of the Damned, the authors estimated that more than 200 of the 900 passengers did not survive the war. I do recall from my days in school, the story and how the ship passed so closely off the coast of Florida that the passengers could actually see Miami Beach. And when we recall the history of the 1940’s we understand that our nation was isolationist and was trying to avoid getting into the war. But, our government knew that we’d soon be dragged in; for Germany was invading all of western Europe and Japan had already started fighting China and Korea. It was going to take another Lusitania type of incident to move the politicians along. But, they didn’t get it quite right; because they were taken aback by Pearl Harbor.
Playwright Nilo Cruz is a Cuban American who escaped to Miami, and calle ocho, in 1970. So he understands fully what it means to leave people and a home that one loves, to seek safety and a better life. He penned this work about an aging teacher who survived WWII in Europe while her family and friends sough refuge abroad, but had since perished. Marianne Fraulo plays Bemadette Kahn who lives a very solitary life as she writes about her life to the present day. She is sought out by a young Cuban student, Saquiel (Louis Gregory), who comes off like a stalker. He’s studying about the Holocaust and desperately wants to meet and interview Bemadette, who is not keen on even speaking with him about anything.
The intermediary is Lucila, (Denise Arribas), a sort of maid, cook, housekeeper and general all-around assistant to Bemedette. She becomes a mediator for each side as she tries to open the doors to effective communication. This was an easy choice for producer Anthony Rodriguez, whose parents also fled Cuba. And, as the world turns we now find the doors opening to Cuba. But, we also must keep in the back of our minds what has occurred in years past; for as George Santayana said in 1896, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Justin Anderson directed this show, which reaches deeply into the caverns of human understanding, and inspires one to think about others in the world who face these challenges every day. Performed in English with Spanish supertitles.
More info at AuroraTheatre.com