Most of the more than 900 Jews who boarded the St. Louis in Hamburg in 1939 hoped the German luxury liner would take them to safety in the United States. Instead, the “ship of the damned,” turned back by Cuba and the United States, became an agonizing symbol of the indifference of the world to Jews fleeing the Nazi killing machine.
Many passengers were lost to history, their stories swallowed up in the chaos of the Holocaust. But a new exhibit on the St. Louis at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington seeks to restore as much of that history as possible.
Scott Miller, one of two exhibit coordinators, described how it all came about.
“Three years ago — by coincidence or fate — four passengers from the St. Louis came in to the Museum’s Survivors Registry within one week to look for fellow survivors. At that point we began to think it might in theory be possible to trace the fate of every single passenger.”
Miller and fellow curator Sarah Ogilvie began piecing together clues, driven by the realization that the pool of survivors was shrinking rapidly because of old age.
“We started with an international sweep of archives in Europe, the United States and Israel,” he said. “We found it was easy to document those who were deported, primarily to Auschwitz, Sobibor and Majdanek, because of the nature of Nazi records.”
At the National Archives in Washington, they surveyed shipping manifests from the late 1940s, which pointed to a number of survivors who came to the United States.
“After that we hit a wall; there were still a couple of hundred missing passengers,” he said. “How do you find them? They are not on documents anywhere. At that point we decided to do community outreach.”
They contacted Jewish communities around the world, asking for leads, and published the list of unaccounted-for passengers in newspapers on several continents, even in The Japan Times.
“We combined traditional archival research methods with some unconventional ‘detective’ methods that historians typically do not use,” he said.
A week before the current exhibition opened, only 35 passengers had not been traced; a New York Times story produced tips that brought the number down to 30. By this week only 28 remained.
Jewish folklore implies that almost everybody aboard the St. Louis perished. The Museum’s project tells a different story.
“It challenges the myth without detracting from the tragedy,” Miller said. “Over half of the St. Louis passengers survived. Two hundred eighty-eight went to England. Many others actually had waiting numbers for visas to the United States. Most of them planned to go to Cuba as a way station. Some of their numbers came up at the end of ’39 and early 1940. But the ones whose numbers came up in 1943 and 1944 were already at Auschwitz.”
Other passengers were accepted by Belgium, the Netherlands and France — which put them once again in the clutches of the Nazis after Hitler’s conquest of those countries.
The exhibit includes photographs of families who survived and many who didn’t. Some of the images suggest a carefree vacation cruise. Others seem to foreshadow the fate awaiting the subjects.
There were relics carried aboard the ill-fated ship: a perfectly preserved steamer trunk; an expensive looking Leica camera; a cheery-looking sailor doll wearing a St. Louis hat and playing a concertina, a gift to a 10-year-old passenger.
Wandering through the exhibit, Ruth B. Mandel, a politics professor at Rutgers University and vice-chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, stopped short at a picture of a couple holding a little girl with a shock of hair sticking almost straight up.
Several Museum colleagues looked for the resemblance. The girl in the picture was Mandel, and the image was taken just after the war.
Mandel joined in the laughter about the strange hair-do, but then became quiet.
“I’m sort of sorry I’m talking to people. I wanted to look at the exhibit quietly, by myself,” she said.
Mandel was two months old when she boarded the St. Louis with her parents.
Previewing the exhibit a few months earlier, she came across the photocopy of a document containing the signatures of St. Louis passengers.
“It was the same signature that I saw when she signed my report cards and letters and checks,” she said at Sunday’s opening ceremony. “The signature was as familiar as her voice or her smile. All the stories about the past transformed themselves in that instant into the living reality of my mother’s distinctive signature there among the rest. She was there on that ship; she signed that piece of paper. What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Was I nearby, in someone’s arms, while she signed, or was I being held by my father?”
Mandel and her family were among the lucky ones who were accepted by England after the fateful voyage. The lingering stain of the St. Louis, she said, helped shaped her view of the world and pressed her to make remembrance and Holocaust scholarship a priority in her own life.
It’s also affected her view of today’s refugee crises.
“I look a the images of the Kosovo refugees on television and I have an intense reaction. I had the same reaction to Haitians. The issue of people who are wandering the earth or on the sea, without a place to go, with nobody to accept them, is for me one of the fundamental injustices in the world.”
Harry Rosenbach, a retired Baltimore manufacturer who grew up in a small German town, expressed something else — the bitterness many St. Louis survivors continue to feel 60 years after the futile journey.
Asked about the meaning of the St. Louis today, his answer was succinct.
“The message of the St. Louis is that nobody wanted the Jews,” he said. “I remember when we were off Miami Beach, and the Coast Guard ships were around us to make sure nobody jumped off. That was the message.”
He said he was a staunch supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — “until later, when I found out that the reason we didn’t get in was because he thought it wasn’t advisable politically. Nine hundred people in a country this big, and they couldn’t find a place for us?”
He shook his head in obvious disgust.
Rosenbach was 18 when he embarked on the St. Louis. His parents could afford only one passage, and the plan was for him to come to the United States and send for his parents later.
It didn’t work out that way; Rosenbach went from the St. Louis to Holland and then to Baltimore; his 10-year-old brother was evacuated with other children to England.
His parents both went to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
“They wanted to save the children first,” he said. “That is part of my St. Louis story.”