Georg Lenon, 78, Actually Made the 'Voyage of the Damned' —and Survived

As he sat in the theater watching the recently released film Voyage of the Damned, 78-year-old Georg Lenon felt his skin crawl. “When I saw the Nazi armbands and listened to the band play Deutschland über alles, it all came back. We were so full of hope. Then we were shattered.”

In 1939 Lenon was a 41-year-old bachelor who had briefly been held in Dachau concentration camp. He and 936 other Jews sailed from Germany aboard the liner St. Louis, permitted by the Nazi government to seek refuge in Cuba. When Havana, and then the United States, turned them down, the ship sailed back to Europe—demonstrating, the Nazis announced to the world, that Jews were not welcome anywhere. The movie tells the story of that fateful trip.

Lenon says the voyage over was “a dreamlike cruise. We danced, we played shuffleboard and we had movies. It was great. We had escaped Hitler. The German crew treated us like honored people.” The return trip was another matter. “We even had our own patrols to prevent suicides.” The St. Louis docked in Belgium, where Lenon and his brother were granted asylum. Their quota numbers came up 10 months later and they left for New York.

At the end of the movie, which stars Faye Dunaway and Oskar Werner, the audience is told that two-thirds of the passengers died in concentration camps. Lenon’s reaction: “My God, how lucky I was to have come out alive.”

As for the movie treatment, Lenon, who changed his name from Lenneberg, says, “There is some Hollywood in it. But basically the movie isn’t fiction. I didn’t know about some of the things that went on. I had no idea, for example, that we had a Nazi spy on board.” Lenon adds that one of the subplots—an affair between a young girl and the captain’s steward—is strictly out of the screenwriters’ imagination. “I knew that girl. She was the daughter of a lawyer who jumped overboard in Havana Harbor,” recalls Lenon. “She was always flirting with me.”

Lenon, who lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y., became a diamond cutter, married an American and retired six years ago. He says he understands now why this country refused to grant sanctuary to the refugees on the St. Louis. “It was political, I think. Roosevelt was running for reelection, and there was a big isolationist vote. The law said we couldn’t enter the United States, and the Americans simply followed the law. A law is a law. We Prussians know that better than anyone else.” Lenon certainly was not bitter. The first vote he cast as an American citizen was for Roosevelt in 1944.

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