Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

In Israel, Famed Pre-WWII Ship Survivors Relate to Refugees

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

In Israel, Famed Pre-WWII Ship Survivors Relate to Refugees

Article excerpt

JERUSALEM * While the European refugee crisis has captured the world's attention, Sol Messinger is one of the few who can personally relate to the harrowing images of desperate families fleeing to safety by sea.

Messinger, 84, a retired pathologist from Buffalo, N.Y., was aboard the 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 along with his parents, is among a half-dozen surviving passengers who are in Israel to reflect on their past and discuss what can be learned from their experience to cope with the influx of refugees escaping conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

"They 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 recent conference on the topic 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 in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogroms against them. 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 their annihilation instead.

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 and lights. For three days it lingered as passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt, begging for refuge, and Jewish advocates waged a high-profile campaign on their behalf.

After 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 movie "Voyage of the Damned," and the SS St. Louis Legacy Project, which documented the history of the voyage and arranged this week's conference, successfully pushed for an apology from the U. …

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