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Voyage of the Damned
By MARILYN HENRY
As the St. Louis steamed toward Havana from Hamburg, Germany, with nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis aboard, Recha Weiler desperately nursed her dying husband, Moritz. While other passengers enjoyed the elegance of the civilized cruise after the repressions and humiliations of Germany, Weiler spent most of the voyage in her cabin with Moritz. But her efforts failed. The university professor died aboard the ship and was buried at sea.
An estimated half of the passengers were to die later, after both the US and Cuba rejected their pleas for refuge and the cruel 40-day journey sent them back to Europe to face the Nazis. Some 59 years after the St. Louis's desperate passage back and forth across the Atlantic, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Survivors' Registry are trying to trace the fates of its passengers, including Recha Weiler, the 61-year-old widow originally from Cologne.
The St. Louis left Germany on May 13, 1939. Its passengers, most of them from Germany, had expensive documents - some bogus - for entry into Cuba. When the ship arrived, however, Havana - and the US - refused to admit them. The St. Louis sat in the harbor for days. Desperate relatives packed motorboats and approached the anchored liner, shouting messages to loved ones. All awaited the outcome of frantic international negotiations to allow the refugees to disembark.
Ultimately, only 29 passengers were permitted to land in Havana. Then the ship was ordered to leave - maneuvering slowly and tantalizingly near the coast of Florida before turning back to Europe. On June 17, 1939, the St. Louis docked at Antwerp: 214 passengers remained in Belgium, 224 went to France and 181 to the Netherlands. Another 288 passengers went ashore in Britain on June 21.
But, the end of that journey was, for its passengers, the beginning of the Holocaust. "The fate of the 963 is a microcosm of the Holocaust," said Scott Miller, a researcher at the American museum who is organizing the St. Louis project.
Belgium, France and the Netherlands proved to be only temporary havens, as they were quickly overrun by the Nazis. A large number of the passengers who sought sanctuary there were deported and perished in the camps. Some went into hiding. Others apparently fled Europe, most likely before 1941.
Miller estimates that as many as 450 of the St. Louis passengers survived - most of them emigrating to the United States. However, Miller knows of at least eight who subsequently went to England. Another eight migrated to Israel, two went to Germany, four to Canada, three to Australia, two to France, one to the Netherlands, one to Argentina, and four to Chile.
Miller's estimates do not necessarily reflect the whereabouts of St. Louis passengers today; many have died, while others may have moved on. One passenger, for example, hid in Belgium during the war, emigrated to the US, and then quickly resettled in Palestine. It seems extraordinary that, after being turned away once, the overwhelming majority of the St. Louis survivors still came to the US after the war. Many must have felt the same sense of betrayal that haunted passenger Wilhelm Sydower.
Sydower had boarded the ocean liner intent on finding refuge for his family - a wife and daughter he left behind - and had planned to bring them over when a sanctuary was secured. Instead, he was returned to Europe and he and his loved ones hid out the war in Belgium, says his daughter, Renee Schifter of Tel Aviv. After the war, the family returned to Germany. Sydower died within five years, but not before telling his daughter of the journey.
"He told me about the problems they faced to get to a safe shore and how the United States of America, the great nation of immigration, was unable to take in 1,000 people who were in danger of being murdered," Schifter said. "He told me that the Americans were not much better than the Germans. They did not kill people with their own hands - however, they did not help them in time."
Schifter, who now works on behalf of survivors, refused to emigrate to the US. "Instead I went to Israel, because I never wanted to stay in Germany," she said. Miller suggests that others did go to the US after the Holocaust because it may have been easier than entering Palestine in 1946-47. Those who migrated to Israel went at different times, from different places and under different circumstances, he said. "It was not the original intent of any of them to go to Palestine," said Miller, who did graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Before Miller's project, little was known about the fates of the St. Louis passengers, in part because the voyage was only the beginning of their Holocaust experiences. Much of what is known about the survivors is where they were at the war's end, not at its start.
Today, many passengers of that tragic voyage hold the American policy of 60 years ago responsible for the death of their family members. Michael Barak of Ramat Hasharon is one of them. Barak was two days shy of his fourth birthday when he boarded the St. Louis with his parents. At the end of the journey, his family disembarked in the Netherlands. In 1943 they were deported to Theresienstadt. Michael's father, Manfred Fink, later died en route to Auschwitz.
Barak came to Israel in 1946 as part of the youth aliya program. His mother, Herta Fink, followed in 1948. To document the fate of each of the St. Louis passengers, Miller has scoured archives in Israel, the US and Europe. At this stage, he says, the project is nearly complete. Among the Israeli institutions consulted were the Jewish Agency's Missing Persons Bureau, known for its postwar efforts to locate family members of those who came to Palestine; Yad Vashem; and the Jerusalem branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which did extensive relief and resettlement work after the war.
Only 70 passengers remain unaccounted for, says Miller, who has appealed to the public for information. It is assumed that the 70 survived, because there is no evidence to the contrary. Their names do not appear in memorial books or on shipping manifests, or on lists for deportations, concentration camps or displaced persons camps. Miller says that the project is central to the mission of the Holocaust Museum and the Survivors Registry, partly because it will assemble information about the US role in the Holocaust. Miller hopes to trace the remaining passengers by next May, the 60th anniversary of the St. Louis' tragic journey, which became known as "the voyage of the damned."
It is believed that a commemoration of the St. Louis voyage could open an international discussion on the American and European refugee policy during the World War II. An independent Swiss panel of international historians, known as the Bergier Commission, is expected to release a report at year's end about Switzerland's wartime refugee policy. Switzerland admitted about 28,000 Jewish refugees, but has drawn international condemnation for turning away another 30,000.
The United States, which also turned away refugees, has yet to be strongly criticized. Its policy on Jewish refugees during the war seems to have been swept under the rug. Only 29 percent of all Americans know that the US did not admit all European Jews who sought refuge before or during the war, according to a survey of the American public conducted for the museum and released last spring, The survey found that 34 percent were unaware of the American refugee policy, while 37 percent thought the US admitted or probably admitted the Jewish refugees.
However, acknowledgement of the US's not so admirable role during the Holocaust came recently from US Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. In two separate reports on the financial ties between the Nazis and neutral states during World War II, Eizenstat talks about the cold response given the St Louis. In the June report, Eizenstat admitted that "America's response to the early stages of the slaughter of European Jews was largely one of indifference." Eizenstat noted that the United States accepted only 21,000 refugees from Europe and did not significantly raise or even fill its restrictive quotas, accepting far fewer Jews per capita than many of the neutral European countries and fewer in absolute terms than Switzerland.
"No country, including the United States, did as much as it might have or should have done to save innocent victims of Nazi persecution - Jews, Gypsies, political opponents and others," Eizenstat said in an earlier report in May 1997. "Restrictive US immigration policies kept hundreds of thousands of refugees from finding safety in the United States, most tragically exemplified by our refusal to allow the St. Louis to dock with its cargo of refugees - many of whom perished when the ship was forced to return to Europe."
©Jerusalem Post - July 1998