Drift from the Damned

by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer

Not all bottled messages are found on the beach. Many, while browsing a book, have discovered a note. One connection to the sea belongs in Ripleys Believe-It-Or-Not - a missive hidden in a book from a bottle cast overboard by one of the book's characters!

In 2003, at a book sale in Bath, England, John Moore, 67, spent 1£ for a copy of Voyage of the Damned. From its pages fell a plea: "Please help me President Bru or we will be lost," penned Richard Dresel. The book explained the appeal.

The harrowing account begins with a thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, including Richard and Ruth Dresel with their 6-month old daughter. In Europe, they boarded the SS St Louis destined for

The SS St Louis in Havana Harbor, May-June 1939. (Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Cuba where they expected asylum. Unfortunatly, when they arived, Cuba's president Frederico Laredo Bru reneged on his promise of sanctuary.

For ten days, May 27 - June 6, 1939, the St Louis anchored in Havana Harbor while negotiations for refuge continued. At his wits end, Richard threw his plea into the Harbor. Rebuffed, the St Louis retraced its course across the Atlantic where officials dispersed the homeless to France, Holland, Belgium and England, the latter country by chance providing sanctuary to the Dresel family.

Years passed and the Dressels established a chain of clothing shops. The 1974 book Voyage of the Damned by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, and the 1976 film of the same name told the story of the St Louis. In 2003, John discovered Richard's plea and contacted the Dresel's daughter, now Zilla Coorsh, 65. "It would be interesting," said Zilla, "To trace the journey of the letter." I've taken up Zilla's quest, but, unfortunately, this is as much as I know.

As to ocean drift I can add the following. From Havana, located on Cuba's north shore 220 miles from Miami, flotsam frequently reaches Florida. Near Coco Beach, for example, Pete Zies beachcombed a plastic bottle containing a receipt fro a park near Havana Harbor. Since 1990, tens of thousands of Cubans, longing for freedom set adrift on make-shift rafts. Thousands completed the arduous journey, most beaching along eastern Florida.

Richard's entreaty most likely landed along eastern Florida during summer 1939. It also might have continued across the North Atlantic, washing ashore in wartime England as early as summer 1940. Why didn't the beachcomber report it? Answers to this and other questions form the rest of the story.

(Source: Jewish Chronicle courtesy Eve Streeter, British Broadcasting Corporation. I learned of this story from the sotes Eve sent after my interview on the BBC radio program Questions, Questions, April 27, 2004)


From the subsequent Beachcombers' Alert:

MIBs from the Damned

Across generations, MIBs (Messages in Bottles) cry out. Translated, this MIB reads: "Please help me President Bru or we will be lost." At the time, Frederico Laredo Fru was the president of Cuba.

The story continued from a past Alert, 847 refugees sought escape from Nazi Germany aboard the liner St Louis. At 8:00 pm, Saturday May 13, 1939, the St Louis set sail from Hamburg.

Photo by Jim White

In 2003, sixty-four years later, one of the MIBs turned up in the book Voyage of the Damned about the harrowing odyssey of the St Louis. The MIB bore the name of Richard Dresel whose family included a six-month old baby Zilla Coorsh, now 65.

On the Internet, I found Zilla. "I'm enclosing a copy of the message with my father's name on it," she replied. "However, I'm sure it was not written by my father and is not signed by him personally. I can only assume that the [passenger] committee formed on the St Louis sent these messages on behalf of the passengers. Unfortunately, I have not found any information about the way in which the message arrived in England."

Zilla's reply suggests that the committee hurled hundreds of MIBs overboard. Upon returning to Europe, during June 16-20, 1939, 181 passengers disembarked in Holland, 224 in France, 229 in Great Britain and 214 in Belgium. If the committee cast one MIB per refugee, a total of 847 might have drifted the sea. From Havana, they scattered along the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic. During June 1939, hundreds likely washed up along the U.S. East Coast and found in Europe vary from 1% to as high as 10%. If Europeans found 1%, perhaps 85 St Louis MIBs dispersed to Norway, UK, France, Spain, and Portugal, Azores and the Canaries. Some kept on around the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre back to Florida and Cuba. Others drifted on, making multiple circuits of the Gyre, turning up as late as the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

Thus far, only a single St Louis MIB has come to light. I hope beachcombers will report others.