Herb Karliner may have been young, but he’ll never forget what he saw from the
deck of the MS St. Louis in May of 1939: gray ships, painted with number
markers and sporting large bullhorns, the echoes of which still ring in his
He was so convinced that the colors represented the US Coast Guard,
that just a week ago, Karliner – who survived the Holocaust despite a harrowing
reentry into Europe after the St. Louis was turned around from the United States
and Cuba – asked the Port of Miami when they changed its paint
Karliner, along with the only few remaining passengers of the
St. Louis still alive today, found themselves on the defensive after a new book
has challenged their account.
In FDR and the Jews
, Richard Breitman and
Allan Lichtman write that there is “simply no evidence to support accounts that
the US Coast Guard was ordered to prevent the refugees from coming ashore in
In Karliner’s possession is a small booklet, a reprinting of
Captain Gustav Schorder’s original German diary of the voyage published in
“We all know what we saw,” Karliner said. “‘The Coast Guard and
planes came close, and stopped us from landing at the Port of Miami,’” he
translated. “You see? Even he saw it.”
The claim has mobilized a support
group for survivors of the ship’s journey, which ended tragically as it returned
to European shores on the eve of the Shoah.
Carrying 930 Jewish
passengers after Kristallnacht, the ship’s passengers were ultimately divided up
between four unsympathetic Western European nations. Over a quarter of its
passengers ultimately perished in concentration camps.
“I’m not going to
tell survivors what they saw,” Breitman told The Jerusalem Post. “They were not
intended to get into the United States immediately – the American immigration
quota had been filled, and the president had stretched the quota system by
allowing some Eastern Europeans to stay.”
Dr. Sol Messinger was one such
passenger. He says that, within two years, he would have a legal visa – but that
he and his family, along with the rest of the St.
Louis crew, simply
couldn’t risk to wait for the bureaucratic paperwork to go
Indeed, he spent part of those two years waiting in an
internment camp in France. He and his family escaped to a small town called
Savignac sur Ariege where, six weeks after their departure, his former Jewish
neighbors were captured and sent to their deaths.
“The terrible thing
about what happened to the St. Louis was that it told Hitler that nobody wants
the Jews – not the Cubans, the Americans, nor the Canadians.
gave him license to do what he did,” Messinger added.
“It was really the
Breitman and Lichtman’s book doesn’t completely whitewash
FDR, whose relationship with Jews was complicated, even as the Holocaust was in
the process of taking 6 million of them. They simply remain skeptical that an
executive order to turn the St.
Louis around came from the Oval Office.
But they couldn’t find a paper trail.
“I read the transcript between the
secretary of the treasury and the coast guard captain, and he was concerned when
the ship could not be located precisely because they were involved in
negotiations and he wanted to be able to direct the ship to the right place,”
But if not from the president, the passengers ask, then
from whom did the orders come? “The point is, we remember it vividly,” said
Messinger. “And whether the president himself gave the order or not doesn’t
matter – the buck stopped with him.”