Shoah survivors aboard ‘St. Louis’ fight revisionism

Karliner, and other remaining passengers found themselves on the defensive after new book has challenged their account.

Members of the Heldenmuth family board SS St. Louis  370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Members of the Heldenmuth family board SS St. Louis 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 ears.
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 schemes.
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 Florida.”
In Karliner’s possession is a small booklet, a reprinting of Captain Gustav Schorder’s original German diary of the voyage published in 1949.
“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 through.
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.
And that gave him license to do what he did,” Messinger added.
“It was really the beginning.”
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,” Breitman said.
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.”