European migrant crisis rankles survivor of pre-WWII refugee ship
JERUSALEM — The European refugee crisis has captured the world's attention, and Sol Messinger is one of the few people who can personally relate to the harrowing images of desperate families fleeing to safety by sea.
The 84-year-old retired pathologist from Buffalo was aboard the SS St. Louis — the famed trans-Atlantic liner carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939 that was rejected by the United States and Cuba and forced to return to Europe. More than a quarter of the passengers ultimately perished in Nazi death camps, and the ship's saga became a symbol of Western indifference toward the victims of Nazi persecution.
Messinger, who eventually escaped from a French detention camp with his parents, is among a half-dozen surviving passengers who were in Israel last week to reflect on their pasts and discuss what can be learned from their experience.
Refugees escaping conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere “are being driven out, in a great sense, like we were driven out, and they also have very few places to go to,” he said after a conference on the topic Wednesday at Hebrew University. “It's an outrage that things like this can still happen in our world.”
On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana with 937 passengers on board, nearly all German Jews fleeing the Third Reich. Long before Adolf Hitler plotted the destruction of European Jews, he pushed for their expulsion. The St. Louis offered a powerful propaganda tool, showing that no one else wanted them either — a move some historians conclude emboldened Hitler to push for the annihilation of European Jews.
The ship anchored at sea near Havana, where relatives waited to greet passengers, but was not allowed to dock. After Cuba rejected nearly all the passengers — and one of them slit his wrists and jumped overboard in despair — the St. Louis sailed north toward Florida, getting close enough to Miami to see its palm trees. It lingered for three days as passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt, begging for refuge.
In the end, they were turned away.
The ship's German captain, Gustav Schroeder, stalled on the return voyage, refusing to return to Germany until he had secured his passengers a safe haven. While at sea, an agreement was reached to disperse them among England, Belgium, Holland and France. Still, 254 eventually died in Nazi death camps.
In all, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The affair was later adapted into the film “Voyage of the Damned.” The SS St. Louis Legacy Project, which documented the history of the voyage and arranged last week's conference, successfully pushed for an apology from the State Department.
Messinger, an only child who turned 7 while on the ship, recalls speaking through a porthole to his relatives, who had come from America to greet them in Havana. Later, he said, he stood against the railing of the upper deck with his father looking out toward South Beach — a memory that makes him emotional every time he visits Miami.
His family was dispatched to Belgium and fled to Paris just before the Nazis arrived. From there, they were placed in a detention camp near the Spanish border.
“My mother and I escaped on Christmas Eve, because the French soldiers were drunk. And my father escaped on New Year's Eve because the French soldiers were drunk,” he said with a smile.
Messinger and his parents made it to New York in 1942. He said he tries to avoid politics when speaking of refugees and he hopes authorities will do the same.
“Try to treat immigrants as family, if at all possible, and try to do for them what you would do for your family,” he said.
Rebecca Kobrin, a history professor at Columbia University, said parallels could be drawn between the Jewish refugee crisis of the last century and the current migrant crisis, noting that the same terminology of a “Trojan horse” was used to describe their perceived danger.
Then, the displaced Jews invoked an unfounded fear of communism. Today, the Arabs invoke a fear of terrorism, she said.
“The refugees today — who no one wants — their future is unknown,” she said. “When refugees are given a chance, they contribute to the societies that absorb them.”
Scott Miller of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington said American policy leading up to World War II was particularly intransigent. He said most of the St. Louis passengers were on waiting lists for entry permits, but the United States would not let them in early.
The St. Louis' legacy is that “there are individual consequences to a less than generous refugee policy in a time of crisis,” he said.