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No Turning Back

By Nicholas Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 1998

  Style Showcase


    SS St. Louis Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis peering toward Havana. (Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives)
It is far easier to find the dead than the living. That is the cruel calculus in the search for the stories of the passengers on the SS St. Louis.

The dead, they're where you'd expect them to be. Stuck there in ink, their names running off the page. Concentration camp lists, deportation lists. Prisoner cards. Memorial books.

The living, they're everywhere, and they're nowhere. Often they survived because they weren't found. To try to find them now – a half-century later – is like yelling, say, "Daniel" on an empty Warsaw street. Displaced-persons records. Shipping manifests. Phone books. Archives in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel.

Names, names, names, names.

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a few people have spent the last couple of years figuring out exactly what happened to the passengers on a ship called the SS St. Louis. Part of the museum's Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, the project is their first attempt to map out the consequences, to the present day, of an individual event in the Holocaust. It is also an appropriate project for the museum, charged with representing the American perspective. That is because the saga of the St. Louis is one of the most shameful in modern American history.

The ship left Hamburg, Germany, for Cuba on May 13, 1939, with 936 aboard, almost all Central European Jews who were fleeing the Continent after the horror of Kristallnacht, the pogrom of shop-burnings and mass arrests the previous November. They had landing certificates for Havana, but Cuba invalidated them and denied the ship permission to land. Then the United States, as the St. Louis steamed along its southern coast, refused to let the ship dock, in keeping with its straitjacket of a refugee policy, which would only tighten as the war progressed. Many of the passengers – some were sent to England, France, Belgium or the Netherlands rather than back to Germany – ultimately perished in the Holocaust.

It was galling. Just outside the port of Miami, the ship was. Being tailed by Coast Guard boats – there not to protect the ship, but to stop anyone who tried to swim ashore. A mass suicide was rumored. And the drama was on the front pages of newspapers for more than a week.

"We're really the only Holocaust museum that deals with bystanding as a category of behavior," says Scott Miller, coordinator of the St. Louis project. "What better than the St. Louis signifies America as bystander? I don't know of any event that even approaches the St. Louis."

Look at the Holocaust closely and you will find individual stories of people who were hidden from history. With the discovery of each of their stories – with their separate terrors and sorrows – those people are, in a sense, being saved at last. Their past is being recovered.

The St. Louis project is about that process.

It is also about our ignorance.

A 1997 survey taken by the Holocaust Museum revealed that only 29 percent of Americans knew that the United States did not grant refuge to all European Jews who asked.

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"It is a small event, but a very important, very emblematic one," says Sara Bloomfield, acting director of the museum. It is critical, she adds, in terms of what it says about the American response to the Holocaust – how red tape, antisemitism and a floundering economy conspired to restrict immigration to the United States so tightly that, with a brief exception, the State Department failed even to fill its yearly quotas.

And if it is a small event, it is an even smaller search, a tiny, concentrated enterprise. A pair of researchers – Miller, who now does the majority of the work, and Sarah Ogilvie, who initiated it – work on it part time: laborious, eye-straining work, of poring over lists, which takes time away from their other responsibilities. They have occasional help from an intern. They have zip for funding. Their aim is to find everyone by May, the 60th anniversary. They think they can do it.

They are sane people on an insane project – muddled memories, lost records, and 60 years in which to forget. They flesh facts out of hints like this: "Mr. and Mrs. Moser (Moses) could be the parents of a Dr. Moser who lives in Queens, N.Y. and my friend Jane Keibel who lives in Key Gardens, N.Y. meets him on the street sometimes."

There are 47 names left.

"This project for me covers the three cornerstones of the museum's mission," says Ogilvie. "It is a very intense research project, it's also a memorial to the people who died, and it's also, hopefully, about education."

The project began back in mid-1996, when Ogilvie, who is now director of the museum's Wexner Learning Center, noticed that in the course of a particular week, three or four survivors of the St. Louis visited the registry, where she was working.

"We realized that it would be possible – theoretically, it would be possible to trace the fate of all the 936," says Ogilvie. "And there's been a great deal written about the St. Louis, but it's tended to not be thoroughly researched. It's tended to be more popular accounts."

Indeed. The St. Louis saga first spilled forth to the public in the popular weepy 1974 book "Voyage of the Damned," which was later made into a high-budget Hollywood film. An hour-long documentary film was produced a few years ago, but the story still has not been the subject of serious scholarship. Its edges are still rough, its corners unexplored. Anyone wanting to explore the trail of its tragedy would be on a largely unmarked path.

Which is where Ogilvie found herself shortly after starting: Before she knew it, before she had really even figured out the feasibility of the project, there she was, with a few interns, paging through the arrival records of Dachau for names of passengers. Records organized chronologically, not alphabetically. In faded, very small, very fancy handwriting.

Sometimes, they'd find a name on the very first page they inspected. "And that was somehow very important – not just to talk about it in the abstract but about the individual people," Ogilvie says.

Six million is a statistic; one person is a story – that is the motto around the museum. And, for Americans, there are few if any stories of the Holocaust that are more mind-wrenching than the story of the St. Louis.

"It's a story that resonates with people of all different ages and backgrounds," says Ogilvie. "People connect with the story, they can understand it. The Holocaust was a very complex event, but somehow, thinking about this one particular group of people is something that people can connect to."

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The numbers are still shifting, of course, adjusting as the fate of each passenger is discovered, but it now seems certain: A slight majority survived the Holocaust. That is assuming that, since no evidence of their deaths has been found, most of those still unknown were survivors. And granted, 288 passengers did go to England, safe from the hand of the Nazis. But the number is the answer to the fundamental, painful question: What did it mean when Cuba and the United States refused to admit the St. Louis?

And it hints at yet more, at the unknowable: What were the consequences of American inaction during the Holocaust? We see clearly now, of course, decades later, but even in the autumn of 1942, the U.S. government had mounting evidence of the mass murder of the Jews. And did little to directly assist them.

In his book "While Six Million Died," the first work on American inactivity with respect to the Holocaust, Arthur Morse wrote that it was impossible ever to know what happened to all the passengers on the St. Louis.

No longer.

It required "simple but massive detective work," says Miller.

By simple, he means lists. Lists and lists and lists and lists. Dusty libraries and illegible handwriting. He means contacting Jewish organizations. He means soliciting the help of the Missing Persons Bureau of the Jewish Agency in Israel.

By massive, he means, well, massive. He means worldwide. The majority of the survivors eventually immigrated to the United States, despite the no doubt bitter memories. A few went to Israel and assorted European countries. A very few went back to Germany. Last month, four were located in Chile. The next places to search are Australia and New Zealand. There are, they say, at least a few remaining in extremely unlikely places – places they'd never think to look. "It's this obsession that we have, whenever we think of a place we connect it to the St. Louis right away," says Miller.

Some of the names on the passenger list have subsequently changed – like those passengers who emigrated to Israel and Hebraized their names, often without leaving a record of their former names.

And many of those who survived the Holocaust are not alive today – indeed, researchers say most of the still-missing passengers probably died 20 or 30 years ago. Information on their fortunes is often available only through relatives or fellow passengers.

Every time such information arrives in his mailbox, he feels a rush: "Dear Mr. Miller: As former passengers of the 'St. Louis,' my husband and I are able to give you some information about a few of the people you are asking about . . ."

So, go on, pick a name from the passenger list. Any name.

Lilo Bruhl. Disembarked in France. Married a non-Jewish French citizen for the duration of the war. Survived. Marriage probably saved her life.

Adolf and Berta Gruenthal. Disembarked in the Netherlands. Interned there at Westerbork. Had immigration certificates to Palestine but did not use them. Deported to Bergen-Belsen. Perished there.

Ruth Blumenstock. Disembarked in England. Came to New York in 1947. Now Ruth Mandel. Vice chairwoman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

To almost any name on that list, there is now a story attached. Some of the stories are criminally short. They end with deportation to concentration camps. They have a place of death, but not a date.

Some of the stories are vague, still unsubstantiated. Establishing a single story can involve checking 10 different documents.

Some of the stories are from the survivors themselves: Anyone still alive, and willing, is interviewed and all the details of the survivor's experience – before, during and after the St. Louis – are noted.

Says Ogilvie: "Doing this project 10 years from now, only looking at documents, would be a completely different experience. There is something extraordinary about looking at documentation, which is very removed, and then the next day speaking to that person on the telephone."

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Harry Rosenbach is talking about talking about it. By telephone.

"The first time, it hit me harder. And the more you do it, the more you get used to it."

Except that time, six or seven years ago: He was participating in the filming of a documentary about the St. Louis, in the Caribbean – and then their boat slid right by the Havana harbor.

"Exactly 55 years later, to the day. I'm not really religious, but one of the guys was and he said, 'Let's say a prayer for the people that didn't make it.' And we said a prayer. And that really hit me. I almost started crying."

Rosenbach, who was 20 years old on the St. Louis, now lives in Randallstown, Md.

On the lists, he is Heinz Rosenbach, from Kassel, Germany.

Now retired, he manufactured women's slippers for years. He is married with two sons. It is almost an ordinary life. After he disembarked in the Netherlands, his quota number for the United States came up – just months before the German invasion of Holland, almost exactly a year after being rebuffed from the United States.

"But what is 900 people in a country?" he asks at the end of the conversation. He speaks not with anger, but with resignation. He is 78 now.

It is a reaction, Miller says, that is typical of those that interviewers hear from the St. Louis survivors in the United States. It is drastically different from that of Israeli survivors, who express outrage immediately.

"With the Israelis, I didn't have to ask," Miller says. "With the Americans, it's more like a sigh, like, 'They could have taken these people in.' But these people built lives here. And feel at least, 50 years later, the United States government invested in this institution, which millions of people are visiting – they recognize that turn in thinking. But I've never come across a survivor who justified what Roosevelt did."

Since the living and the dead of the St. Louis are almost one-to-one – since you can scroll down the passenger list with a finger and mark off every other person as dead – to talk with a survivor is to feel that the conversation also includes the presence of a person who fell victim.

You are not aware of it, of course. Until the survivors mention those few times – always mundane, prosaic moments – when they became aware of it. Those random times when – when it hit me, they say. When it hit me.

It hit Charles Hoffman during a Redskins game on TV.

During the commercials, he happened on a special on the Holocaust, the pre-Holocaust years, just when the program focused on the St. Louis. The camera scanned the railing of the boat – and he saw himself, 6 years old, and his mother.

"Gee whiz, I was on that boat," he remembers thinking. "I was one of those few."

Those lucky few. He and his mother wound up in England, came to the United States in 1943. He lives in Wheaton, has been married twice, has two kids. Works as an electrical engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. An almost ordinary life.

Hoffman remembers two things from the voyage: leaving Hamburg, he and his mother at the railing at the outset; and a suicide attempt, a wrist slashing, in Havana. Images of hope and desperation, linked – they are what remain with him from the St. Louis. Adrift in his memory, which image follows the other? How does it end, with hope or desperation?

It hit Hoffman again at the end of the Vietnam War, as he looked at the boat people on television – those who created our cultural image of boat people. In May 1939, no one had created a vocabulary with which to conceptualize the tragedy of the St. Louis.

"When I tell people about it, they always react very strangely – like, they couldn't believe that the U.S. didn't let us in," he says.

"Now is that me? If someone has said, 'There's this ship; should they let them in?' Would they say, 'No, it'd open the floodgates'?

"Because no one would ever, to my face, have said, 'They shouldn't have let you in.' "

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There is already a panel on the St. Louis in the Holocaust Museum, located near the end of the prewar section. It tells of the tragedy, shows photographs and passenger documentation. It packs a punch.

People walking through the Holocaust Museum generally look like people who have had the wind knocked out of them – they look queasy, unstable. Here, in the most claustrophobic hallway in an airtight museum, they look like people deflating. A ship of more than 900 stateless refugees, sent back to a place where many had already experienced persecution: How cruel. How heartless. Okay, Cuba rejected them.

But America, too? America?

On the subject of the American refugee policy, David Wyman is blunt.

"What we need is a 'Schindler's List' on this topic to get it out in the open," says Wyman, the author of the now-classic 1984 work on American inaction, "The Abandonment of the Jews."

The Holocaust Museum takes that need seriously. There are panels in the museum on the plight of refugees and numerous video presentations on the American response. All are direct, informative.

How much do we know?

Told of the survey finding that only 29 percent of Americans know that the United States did not admit all European Jews who sought refuge, Wyman gasps.

"I'm appalled at that, It's sheer ignorance. It's preposterous."

The St. Louis, Wyman reminds you, was not an anomaly. It was part of an ongoing policy. Other ships were refused entry. The State Department, in a tacit policy change, gradually cut back on immigration during the war until the actual flow of immigrants was just 10 percent of the quota. Wyman places the St. Louis in the context of a pair of other wartime actions that went awry: How the Wagner-Rogers bill, which proposed to admit 20,000 Jewish children to the United States over two years, was killed in a Senate committee in 1939; and the severe restrictions Britain placed on Jewish immigration into Palestine.

"What the Germans said to the Jews with Kristallnacht was, 'You cannot stay here.' And what the outside world said, through the Evian Conference" – a meeting of nations that sealed the fate of European Jews by ensuring that other countries would not be forced to accept them – "was, 'You can't come here.'

"And so we get a St. Louis. And so we get a Wagner-Rogers bill. And so we get restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine."

Wyman goes silent, somber. He is in New Hampshire, at his rural cottage. This is where he wrote "Abandonment of the Jews." Away from the world.

"Why do I work out in the country?" he asks himself.

"You hear the birds sing. You need that joy. You need that trust and confidence."

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Almost all forays into the Holocaust end eventually in education, and so, too, will the St. Louis project: Curriculum materials will be created, a Web site constructed, photo archives utilized. Audio and video interviews of the survivors may be produced. The 60th anniversary next May provides a hook for publicity.

It all comes back to stories. Names. Photos. Voices.

Miller and Ogilvie are sitting in the Survivors Registry, showing off a pilot Web site that has been created for the St. Louis project – the kind they hope to enlarge and make official. There are maps of the St. Louis's voyage. There are photos of the passenger list. There are copies of a passenger's various forms of documentation.

There's a photo of a woman. Gerda Blachmann Wilchfort, the caption reads.

"Click on the woman," someone says.

A voice – cracked, cautious, wise – empties out into the room.

"You can imagine, I was in a terrible mood. Everybody was very depressed. But, you know, humans are always hopeful. You know, we always cling to the hope that something is going to happen. They're not going to let us out on the ocean. I mean, something had to happen to us."


Anyone with information on the fate of any of the passengers on the St. Louis should contact: Scott Miller, U.S. Holocaust Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2150, or call 202/488-0495, fax to 202/314-7888 or e-mail smiller@ushmm.org

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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