During a visit last week to relatives who live in the Houston area, the big news story there – besides the grossly overhyped NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center – was the Carnival Triumph. That’s the cruise ship that drifted for several days in the Caribbean Sea.
A fire disabled the engine. The ship was out of power; it was soon out of fresh food or working toilets; and the 4,229 people on board, news reports informed us around-the-clock, were quickly out of patience.
The stories spoke of short tempers and long lines for spoiled food, sewage-soaked rugs and walls, a stink that enveloped the ship, and general dissatisfaction. “A floating hell,” an early lawsuit filed against Carnival Cruise Lines stated. “Unbearable living conditions,” said Sen. John Rockefeller (D – W. Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
It was, in short, a disaster.
It sounded, in a vague way, familiar.
For three weeks in the late summer of 1939, another ship plied the waters of the Atlantic, then the Caribbean. Physically, it was pleasant onboard, but for the 937 passengers, it was a cruise from hell, and to an uncertain future.
It was the SS St. Louis.
Most of the passengers were German Jews, refugees seeking a safe port across the Atlantic. Cuba, which revoked the passengers’ entry visas, then the United States, then Canada, turned them way. Running out of options and food, he ship returned to Europe; France, England, Belgium and Holland agreed to admit the passengers; about a quarter of then died in the Shoah.
What would someone who had sailed on the St. Louis think about the Carnival Triumph fiasco?
“I don’t see any comparison,” Dr. Sol Messinger told me.
He was a kid who accompanied his parents on the St. Louis. A retired physician who settled in Buffalo, I had known him while working there decades ago. I called him this week.
The danger of the St. Louis, Dr. Messinger said, was not what happened on the ship, but what the passengers feared would happen if they were unable to disembark in this hemisphere and had to go back to Europe. Everyone knew about the Nazi concentration camps. As it became clear that all doors in North America were closed to the refugees, everyone was “terrified.”
Although the ship’s non-Jewish, anti-Nazi captain made sure the passengers were treated with respect.
They spent their days swimming and dancing and attending concerts; Friday night services took place in the dining room.
And they worried.
Back in Europe, Messinger’s family disembarked in Belgium. After a series of adventures, they made their way, three years later, to the States.
Over the years, Dr. Messinger, now 80, had chances to go on cruises. He didn’t go. “I never wanted to go on a big ship.”
Finally, about 30 years, he was persuaded to join some other veterans of the St. Louis on a reunion voyage, for a documentary. On a cruise ship. Since then, he’s been on several cruises.
He said he feels for the Carnival Triumph passengers.
He knows what hell on a cruise ship was like.