Ill-fated WWII voyage led to a mini-Holocaust
By FRANK DAVIES
Herald Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- The faded photos at the beginning of the exhibit show
scenes from a 1939 luxury cruise: Couples play shuffleboard and lounge in deck
chairs, kids cavort in a makeshift swimming pool, a stylish woman sips
champagne at a formal dinner.
At first glance, the artifacts look ordinary. Egon Salmon's family donated
steamer trunk. There's Oskar Blechner's Leica camera, the doll that Hildegard
Wolff, 10 at the time, brought on board, and Moritz Schonberger's souvenir book
of the St. Louis, the German transAtlantic liner.
The rest of the exhibit, now at the Holocaust Memorial Museum through
tells a different story, chronicling the infamous voyage 60 years ago that came to
represent much of the world's indifference to the plight of German Jews fleeing the
Nazis on the eve of war and mass murder.
Siegfried Seligmann's passport is stamped ``J'' for Jew, with the middle
``Israel'' inserted by German officials to further denote his status. Herald photos
from June 1939 show a scene in Havana harbor of refugee desperation that's an
eerie premonition of Mariel and more recent crises.
Small boats, crowded with relatives, cry out to the passengers on the
who are not allowed to disembark. Nearby, police boats called ``suicide guards''
stand watch. Lawyers negotiate unsuccessfully with officials to take in the 937
Passenger Julius Hermanns, in a shipboard letter to his brother-in-law,
about another passenger's suicide attempt and his own yearning to be free: ``It
doesn't matter in which country. One clearly has to have nerves like a horse to be
able to get through everything.''
After cruising by Miami Beach, rejected by U.S. and Cuban authorities,
Louis returned to Europe, where four countries -- Belgium, France, Netherlands
and Britain -- agreed to take the refugees. When war swept the continent a few
months later, almost half would eventually die in death camps and detention
At the end of the exhibit, a hastily written postcard to his brother
Blechner, who survived the Bergen-Belsen death camp, provides a postscript: ``I
am alive. It is a miracle of God. The Allies rescued me.''
But many were not rescued, and the St. Louis episode left a legacy of
among survivors whose relatives died. The exhibit may be a surprise to some
Americans unaware of the U.S. role in turning back refugees desperate to flee
``It's hard not to be judgmental on an issue as moving and difficult
as this one,''
said Robert Levine, a University of Miami professor who lectured on the voyage at
the museum last week. ``When you examine all the elements of the puzzle, it's
the U.S. government that shares the greatest burden for what happened.''
Cuba also refused entry to the St. Louis passengers, and an anti-Jewish
Havana drew 40,000 participants. But Levine points out that Cuba took in more
Jewish refugees than any other country in the hemisphere, including the United
States, and many nations in Europe refused to take Jewish refugees.
Levine's lecture is part of a series of events this summer that accompany
exhibit. One of the researchers on the project, Sarah Ogilvie, said the story of the
St. Louis opens some eyes: ``A lot of Americans are shocked at how restrictive
immigration policy was, and how things changed.''
Behind the scenes, researchers Ogilvie and Scott Miller have spent more
two years playing detective, trying to document what happened to all 937
passengers. Miller calls it ``the Holocaust in microcosm.''
``Cracking the cases'' is how Ogilvie puts it, and there are 21 left
-- passengers on
the cruise ship list whose fate is unknown. They include Joachim Muck of Vienna,
born in 1900, who may have gone to Cuba in 1943, and Fritz Zweigenthal of
Vienna, who apparently never made it to the United States.
The researchers began their work with the ship's manifest, then combed
concentration camp records, displaced persons lists and memorial books of the
dead published by different governments. Last fall, newspaper articles in
Germany, Israel and the United States -- some with the passenger list -- jogged
the memories of friends and relatives.
Miller and Ogilvie believe six passengers live in Florida, including
of North Miami Beach, who donated several shipboard photos of his parents to the
exhibit. Karliner was 12 during the voyage. He survived the war in France. His
parents died in Auschwitz.
Not all the survivors were initially cooperative. Name changes and lost
often stymied the researchers' efforts, and Miller recalled trying to find three
members of the Fink family. One day, after the passenger list ran in a
German-language newspaper in Israel, Miller received an e-mail:
``It was from Michael Barak, who said he was Michael Fink, age 5, on
And he wanted us to know that he held the United States government responsible
for the death of his father. He eventually helped us find four other passengers.''
Those who survived until the 1950s and '60s, before records were computerized,
are the most difficult to track down, and Miller said old-fashioned luck plays a
part. He went to a Jewish cemetery in Paramus, N.J., verified the death of one
passenger -- and found the gravestones of six others.
The imperatives of history and the specter of thousands of refugees
Kosovo spur the researchers in their work.
``We're 10 to 20 years too late for some people, and that gets to you,
but you try
to be somewhat detached in your work,'' Miller said. ``Then you see the
unbelievable pictures from the Balkans, and that really affects you. This is not just
Julius Hermanns, a St. Louis passenger who was to die at Auschwitz,
many in a letter he wrote about the terrible conditions in an internment camp in
Nazi-occupied France: ``The question needs to be asked, how this can happen in
the 20th Century?''