U.S. Rebuffed 937 Jews Fleeing Hitler 50 Years Ago : Survivors Recall ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Times Staff Writer

Sunday they came back, some of the few who survived, old folks now, staring through the tincture of memory, passengers on the “Voyage of the Damned.”

“Fifty years ago, it wasn’t such a celebration like this, let me tell you,” said Herb Karliner, squinting at the shoreline. “Fifty years ago, we were turned away.”

On this very day, half a century ago, they were passengers aboard the St. Louis, a ship with 937 Jews fleeing the persecution of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and circling desperately off the coast of Miami Beach.

They had hoped to find asylum. Instead, a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat chased them farther out to sea. Eventually, the ship returned to Europe and most aboard perished in the Nazi death mills.

Sunday the Coast Guard showed up again, this time to provide escort. In the morning sun, the survivors boarded a yacht. Then they sailed out to the spot where they had once been sent away. “God bless America now; before, maybe not,” said Eric Spitz, 64.


Those were typical sentiments during the commemoration. The survivors tossed red and white carnations into a choppy sea. They chanted the mourner’s prayer and sang the anthems of Israel and America. They counted up their blessings and griefs and wondered aloud.

Ruth Holman, 80 and a little wobbly these days, said: “I look in the mirror and I ask: Is it true? How can I still be here when so many others are dead? And may they all rest in peace.”

28 Attend Reunion

In the past year, Herb Karliner, a retired Miami Beach pastry chef, has located 70 survivors of the sorrowful voyage. They are scattered across two continents. Twenty-eight came here this weekend.

Most often, they did not recognize each other, though sometimes there was a tiny glint of recollection across the years. Then they would ask: So what happened to you? And how did you come to escape?

Aboard the rental yacht Florida Princess, renamed this one Sunday the St. Louis, they mostly sipped juice and tried to keep cool. The vessel was jammed with reporters and well-wishers. Seasickness added to the solemnity.

A Miami Beach city commissioner had arranged for a barge to pull alongside. It held the remnant hull of the Ostwind, a pleasure boat that had belonged to Hitler.

The purpose was to dump the donated relic into the sea and make a big show of it--and this was done, though many survivors considered it a publicity stunt. There was only timid applause.

To the majority, this was a day for recounting old memories, not making new ones, a time to reflect on when the madness in the world seemed to grow collective and the doors of sanctuary closed. A day to tell their story:

Persecution by Nazis

In 1933, Hitler, arch-villain in a century’s worst nightmare, rose to power. The anti-Semitic thuggery of his Nazi Party would soon warp toward genocide.

Initially, the Nazis’ aim was to force the Jews to flee. They stripped them of their legal rights and placed them under the boot of the security police. Possessions were seized, businesses shut. Arrests were arbitrary.

Some Jews did go, but most remained, believing the terror would spend itself over time, like a storm. That is what Liesl Loeb’s father, a prominent lawyer, told his family. “Then came Kristallnacht,” Loeb recalled Sunday.

Nov. 9, 1938, was the night of broken glass. Brown-shirted mobs burned synagogues and ransacked stores and pummeled Jews in the streets.

Herb Karliner’s father, a shopkeeper in a town near the Polish border, was taken to a concentration camp: “When he came back, we almost didn’t recognize him. And my uncle, he was taken too, and the (police) eventually came to the door with a little box and said: ‘Here is what’s left of him.’ ”

Escape Became Obsession

There would be no more talk of riding things out. Every Jewish life was in danger. People were afraid to leave their homes. Escape became an obsession--and the greatest hope of all was to make one’s way to the United States.

America, after all, was not only a nation of freedom and justice, but a land made great by the toil of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty in New York harbor welcomed refugees. Its inscription concludes: Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

“And President Franklin Roosevelt, he had been built up to us larger than life, a great humanitarian,” said Eric Stein, then a boy of 11.

But Americans had their own anxieties. They were emerging from the Great Depression and worried that foreigners would take their jobs. Many wanted no part of the trouble in Europe. Besides, it wasn’t so clear to some people what side to be on.

And what of the tempest-tost Jews? Well, maybe they were asking for it, many said. Anti-Semitism did not hide in America. It was as easy to find as a radio show or a rally in Madison Square Garden.

Years on Waiting Lists

The United States, like most other countries, preferred that the Jews find some place else to go. Country by country, immigration quotas were rigidly enforced. Jews were given no preference. Their names filled waiting lists. Years from the top.

That was why the voyage of the St. Louis was so remarkable. Officially, the 937 Jewish passengers were booked for Havana, Cuba. But most of them also had fulfilled U.S. requirements and held quota numbers. In a year or two or three they might take the step across the Florida Straits to America.

For them, this change in fates seemed almost surreal. They left behind the persecution of Germany on May 13, 1939, aboard a luxurious ocean liner, their comforts elegantly tended to and the chaos of the world kept away by a moat as wide as the sea.

The ship’s captain was Gustav Schroeder, an honorable man who insisted that the passengers--many just freed from concentration camps--be treated to all the customary amenities.

“We were transported into another world,” remembered Ruth Holman, 30 years old then, the wife of a pharmacist. “Oh, it was elegant. The mood was wonderful. I would dress up to go dancing every night.”

Hitler’s Photo Removed

The long, tapered vessel had a beauty salon, card rooms, a gym, a library, a swimming pool. Winding staircases led to the ballrooms, where the orchestra played spirited waltzes. Movies were shown, absent the depressing newsreels. Hitler’s photo was removed from the social hall during Sabbath services.

Crystal chandeliers hung above the grand dining room. The tables were set with fine china and cutlery, and gourmet meals were served by uniformed waiters. Coffee, meats, tropical fruits; these were things the passengers had not tasted in months.

Children played tag on the decks. “This was paradise for a kid,” Eric Stein said. “Before the ship, the world had gone completely nuts. Now, all of a sudden, it was one big party.”

But Hitler and his propagandists knew something that Schroeder did not: The ship was no longer welcome in Havana, according to authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, who wrote the book “Voyage of the Damned.”

Cuba had been an important refuge, accepting far more Jews than most countries. To some extent, this was owed to corruption. Trouble began when the jefes began to quarrel over splitting bribes. At any rate, Cuba’s president, Federico Bru, tightened the immigration loopholes.

Brutal Treatment Denounced

This set up a confrontation that appealed to the German fuhrer. Diplomats from around the world had denounced his brutal treatment of the Jews. All right, then, he would call their bluff. Who among them would take these people?

The passengers, of course, knew nothing of this scheming. When the St. Louis entered Havana’s harbor, they rushed to the railings and scanned the outline of their supposed sanctuary. Delays in disembarking at first only seemed the stuff of bureaucratic sluggishness.

Jews already in Havana greeted the ship. Many used motor launches to nudge up beside the mammoth vessel so they could recite prayers and shout hosannas to relatives and friends on board.

One of those in the small boats was Karliner’s uncle. “The first word of Spanish I learned was manana ; we would all leave the ship tomorrow,” Karliner said.

But days passed, and Cuba’s decision to rebuff the refugees became more and more clear. Newspapers sent correspondents. The unwelcome St. Louis became an international story.

On shore, the docks took on the ambience of a carnival. Vendors peddled food. People rented binoculars. What would these desperate Jews do next?

Passenger Slits Wrists

During the afternoon of the fourth day, passenger Max Loewe slit his wrists with a straight razor and leaped over the side into the bay, where he was rescued. “I remember him racing by, the blood dripping . . . " Eric Stein said.

Still, Cuban officials remained firm: The Jews must go. Privately, however, they agreed to relent for a hefty bond. Backdoor negotiations proceeded with representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

There was an offer and then a counteroffer. Then, suddenly, for whatever reasons, Bru broke things off. He ordered the ship away. And on June 2, 1939--20 days after departing Germany and six days after arriving in Havana--the languishing St. Louis headed back out.

On board, rejoicing had become lament. For 12 hours the ship circled in an ever-widening arc off the Cuban coast, hoping to be recalled. Then, finally, Schroeder gave the order to proceed slowly northward toward Florida.

“America was my dream nirvana,” Liesl Loeb recalled. “From the time I was a child, this was all our family hoped for: America.”

In the brightness of early morning they saw the shores of Miami Beach. The ship moved close enough for the city to reveal itself--the bend of the palm trees and the creamy colors of the oceanfront hotels.

But any hope of docking was soon blunted by the appearance of U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat CG244. It chased the St. Louis farther out and made sure no one aboard jumped off and swam for land.

The front page of the June 5, 1939, New York Times contained an article headlined: “Refugee Ship Idles Off Florida Coast.” By coincidence, a headline in an adjoining column said: “Roosevelt Appeals To World To Join Moral Rearming"--an appeal by the President for “moral fiber” among people of the world.

Historian David Wyman, an esteemed Holocaust scholar, finds the inadvertent pairing of stories ironic. What about America’s moral fiber? he asks. “If the world had opened its doors, hundreds of thousands of Jews would have been saved,” he said.

“In 1939, we did not know there would be genocide; but we surely knew lives were in danger . . . . Only when expulsion failed did the Nazis turn toward extermination.”

Joint Telegram to Roosevelt

On June 6, no help forthcoming, the St. Louis ended its futile inching along the U.S. coast. In a final clutch at rescue, the passengers sent a joint telegram to Roosevelt. There was no reply.

“No one listened; the world turned its back,” Karliner said.

Not entirely. As the ship returned toward Germany--its passengers in a dour, almost funereal gloom--the JDC was able to arrange for the Jews to be split among England, Belgium, Holland and France.

For some, this was a saving grace. Those sent to England survived. But after World War II broke out, Germany occupied the other three nations. Jews there, in monstrous numbers, were sent to the death chambers.

So Sunday, 28 of the survivors came back and relived a part of it. Most of them had long since made it to America and adopted it as home. “The bloody page of history has turned,” said Hans Fisher, 61. “We are here; the Nazis are gone.”

For many, any bitterness toward the America of 1939 has turned to vapor; but to others it is too stubborn an ache for time to soothe.

“Yes, yes, 50 years ago I was here,” said Gisela Lenneberg, now 91, seated on a deck chair, the buildings of the city in her sight just beyond the surf. “They didn’t let us in.”

Her voice rose slightly: “We were desperate. And you know what they said? Go back to Hitler.”