b. Hamburg, Germany, 1928
For most of my life I have not considered myself a Holocaust survivor—not a real survivor, anyway. After all, I was not in the camps or the ghettos. I had no experiences of torture or starvation, of cold, of forced labor, of hiding, of seeing loved ones brutally killed before my eyes. Yet I have come to realize that I am indeed a survivor, though there may be a difference of opinion as to just when I actually survived.
Was it when my head came out of the water and I grabbed onto a log? It was instinctive. A few seconds earlier I had been standing on the deck of the Simon Bolivar, holding my parents' hands. Now I was alone, an eleven-year-old boy. My parents were nowhere in sight among the oil-stained waves and floating debris.
It was Saturday, November 18,1839, two and one-half months after the start of World War II.
We were Jewish refugees from Germany, some of the 260 survivors among the 400 people on board. We had been passengers on the Simon Bolivar, a Dutch vessel headed for Santiago, Chile, which was to become our new home.
I do not remember the ship's crew conducting any life-saving drills. No one was told where the life jackets were or how to get into the lifeboats. The Netherlands were neutral, we were assured, and thus there was no danger.
It was revealed later that we had hit two German mines, deliberately laid in neutral merchant shipping lanes. With the second explosion, a few minutes after the first, there was only confusion. Some people who had managed to get into a lifeboat were tossed overboard with the force of the explosion. I had been on the deck with my father, and he had noticed German planes following us. Somehow we were reunited with my mother. There was nothing to do but wait as the boat fairly quickly listed and sank. The three of us held hands as we slid into the water.
In retrospect, I suppose we were among the lucky ones who got out of Germany. We were spared the agony and almost certain death in ghettos and concentration camps. My father had been among those in Hamburg who were arrested during Kristallnacht. He was released two months later, perhaps in part because my mother had been able to make arrangements for us to leave the country.