An undated portrait of Howard Trotsky's mother-in-law, Elizabeth Broder-Lewin, sits on Trotsky's kitchen table. Broder-Lewin was one of the more than 900 European Jewish people who sought refuge from Nazi persecution in Cuba aboard the German ocean liner the St. Louis. All of the passengers of the fateful voyage were returned to Europe after their Cuban immigration papers were rendered invalid by the government. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

It was May 1939, and Elisabeth Broder had a plan to flee Europe, where Nazi Germany was ascendant. She would board a boat to Cuba, where she would be reunited with her boyfriend. They would marry, and immigrate to the U.S.

But Broder ended up part of a historical moment in which the U.S. and other members of the international community could have done something to helps Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, but decided not to.

She was one of 937 passengers on the German ocean liner St. Louis, which crossed the Atlantic only to be turned away by Cuba, the U.S. and Canada, forcing all the Jews on board to return to Europe.

A copy of Howard Trotsky’s mother-in-law’s passport sits on the kitchen table of his Bangor home, Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Elisabeth Broder — who became Elisabeth Broder-Lewin later in life — was the mother-in-law of Howard Trotsky of Bangor. Trotsky’s late wife Evelyn, who died 25 years ago, did the research to assemble and preserve her mother’s history. Before her death, she traveled around the Bangor area and told her mother’s harrowing tale, enshrined in a remaining set of notes Howard Trotsky shared with the Bangor Daily News.

On Sunday, a new documentary will air on PBS called “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” The three-part series by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein examines America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century and the public indifference that challenged many Jewish refugees’ ability to flee persecution in Europe.

With the documentary’s release, Trotsky, a former high school teacher in Bangor and Republican state senator who served for eight years in the 1970s and early 1980s, said he thought it was time to pick up the story his wife left behind.

“I love America. It’s a great country. It’s the hope of the world to me, but we haven’t always done the right thing,” he said.

Evelyn Trotsky’s interest in her mother’s history was a difficult subject for her family, Howard Trotsky said. To trace it, Evelyn Trotsky worked with her father, who sent her news clippings and documents, like her mother’s ticket for the St. Louis voyage, her passport and Cuban immigration documents, all of which were donated after Evelyn’s death in 1997 to Yad Vashem in Israel, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Elisabeth Broder was aboard when the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, in May 1939 headed for Cuba with 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees.

The plan was for Broder to meet her boyfriend, Hellmut Lewin, in Cuba. They would get married, and she would be able to immigrate with him to the U.S.

A copy of a postcard with a photo of the St. Louis, a German ocean liner, sits on Howard Trotsky’s kitchen table in his Bangor home, Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

But that didn’t happen.

Not much is known about Elizabeth Broder’s early life. Her parents were proud Czechoslovakian Jews, and Elizabeth Broder was born and raised just outside of Prague. She met her eventual husband, Lewin, who was from Berlin, at the University at Prague.

Lewin’s family in Berlin had become increasingly alarmed by what was happening around them as the Nazis’ power grew and the persecution of Jews became deadlier. Lewin’s family fled to the U.S., where he soon joined them but was forced to leave Broder behind.

After making enough money in the U.S., Lewin sent Broder money for a ticket on the St. Louis, and she traveled from Czechoslovakia to Hamburg, where she boarded the ill-fated ocean liner.

The ship departed Germany on May 13, 1939, and was on its way to Cuba with hundreds of Jewish passengers clutching landing documents that should have gained them entry into the country. But just as they set off across the Atlantic, the Cuban government invalidated all landing permits, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

On May 27, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in Havana, Cuba, but no one was allowed to disembark as Cuban officials informed the ship’s passengers that their papers were no longer valid.

As Broder was trapped aboard the ocean liner, Lewin was on the Cuban shore, but the two failed to see each other among the hundreds of faces both onshore and on the boat.

Nearly a week later, the ship set sail toward the coast of Florida but was quickly met with denials from the U.S. government. The Canadian government also declined to let them in. On June 6, 1939, the ship began to chart a course back to Europe, a continent on the eve of war.

Howard Trotsky holds up a book with a photo of his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Broder-Lewin while she was on board the St. Louis. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

As the Jewish refugees sailed back to Europe, a deal was brokered that divided the passengers among several European countries that would allow them refuge. Belgium took 214, the Netherlands 181, Great Britain 288 and France 224.

Broder was one of the lucky ones and was among those given passage to England. The other passengers faced an uncertain future.

Of the remaining passengers, 532 were eventually trapped in western Europe under Nazi rule. Just over half of them survived the Holocaust.

Broder survived in England until she was able to move to the U.S. in 1942, where she married Hellmut Lewin. But, soon after her arrival, she learned that two of her sisters, twins, along with her parents were all deported to Dachau, a concentration camp, and died there.

A copy of Howard Trotsky’s mother-in-law’s passport sits on the kitchen table of his Bangor home, Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Several of Broder’s other siblings, however, managed to evade death during the Holocaust.

As Trotsky leaned back from his kitchen table in his chair on Friday, looking at the copies of his wife’s work and pieces of his mother-in-law’s life, he said the St. Louis is an important part of American and global history.

“No one can understand the Holocaust or another big genocide by the numbers alone,” he said. “The only way people can comprehend things is by individual stories. You can understand when you talk about a family, but you can’t understand it when you just talk about numbers.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...