SS. St Louis survivors point to Captain Gustav Schröder's name on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations .
(photo credit: TAMARA ZIEVE)
A group of Holocaust survivors whom the SS St. Louis carried back to Germany in 1939 – after being denied refuge by the US, Cuba, and Canada – marked the 77th anniversary of the infamous voyage on Thursday in a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. They issued a proclamation of gratitude to the citizens of Israel for providing a place of refuge to Jews from throughout the world.
About two-thirds of the original St. Louis passengers survived the Holocaust and half of them eventually immigrated into the United States. Eventually the captain landed the passengers in Belgium and all were by accepted by Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The refuge ended for most of them with the advent of the Holocaust, which gave the unofficial name of the sailing as “the voyage of the damned.”
At the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, where the captain of the St. Louis, Gustav Schroeder is honored, five former St. Louis passengers read out the proclamation, which thanks Israeli citizens “for their courage, sacrifice and determination.”
The German transatlantic liner the survivors embarked upon on May 15, 1939, carried 937 Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. On June 6, 1939, it was forced to turn back to Europe, having been turned away by Cuba, the United States and Canada. Schroeder was hailed as a hero for his determined efforts to find refuge for his passengers.
The group of UK and US citizens are here on a four-day visit to gather surviving passengers in Jerusalem, said Robert M. Krakow, executive director of the SS. St. Louis Legacy Project Foundation, which organized the trip. “There was no Israel then, when Cuba, the US and Canada refused to grant them a safe haven,” remarked.
The delegation delivered a similar proclamation at the Knesset earlier this week. “This underscores the centrality of Israel in the lives of the Jewish people,” Krakow said.
New Jersey resident Eva Wiener was 10 months old when she and her parents set sail for Cuba. Though she can’t remember anything from the journey herself, she is encouraged by the fact that there is growing interest in the voyage of the St. Louis on the eve of the Second World War.
She believes it’s crucial that its message be passed down through the generations, “to educate about what prejudice, bigotry, hatred and antisemitism can lead to – that it can fester and grow into another calamity.”
Thomas Jacobson’s history as an infant survivor shaped the course of his life, driving his ambition to fight injustice as a civil rights lawyer. As a former refugee himself, Jacobson is a firm advocate of liberal immigration policy amid the world’s current refugee crisis.
“Syrians are victims of another destruction,” he says. “Both [Holocaust refugees and Syrian refugees] are fleeing from being annihilated. We [the US] are a nation of immigrants, and must allow in immigrants,” he said, remarking that if no country had accepted him and the other survivors in the group, they would likely have been killed.
Survivor Sonja Stenberg from Manchester, UK, also empathizes with today’s refugees, particularly since her own fate would have been uncertain had the UK not opened its doors to her. Nevertheless, she understands concerns surrounding the issue, and by way of example points to Germany, where anti-immigration critics correlate the rise in terrorism with the country’s massive influx of refugees.
However, Wiener described the comparison between Holocaust refugees and today’s refugees as “apples and oranges.” “Though we are both looking for freedom and a secure way of life, unfortunately there are more ramifications to today’s refugees and they must be vetted. But for those legitimately looking for a safe haven, they must be granted that.”
For some of the American survivors, the current climate in the US sounds alarm bells. “Trump should see this,” remarks Sonja Giesman of New York City, as the group viewed graphic images of the Holocaust as they toured Yad Vashem. Ellen Hahn, the granddaughter of a St Louis passenger, agrees. “My parents were from Germany – people got complacent there too,” she warns. “Historically, Jews are the ones who get targeted in the end, but we endure.”