Eva Wiener was only 10 months old when her family, after surviving Kristallnacht in Berlin, set sail on the ill-fated S.S. St. Louis.
“I never considered myself a survivor,” she said during a Nov. 9 program at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. “I have no number on my arm. I was never in a camp, and my name isn’t Anne Frank.”
Then the book The Voyage of the Damned came out in 1974, to be followed in 1976 by the movie.
“Suddenly all the stories my parents had told me became real,” said Wiener. “On Shabbos afternoon between sunset and Havdala my mother would tell me stories all the time. It was like hearing fairytales. Those stories became part of my life and then suddenly they had meaning.”
Concurring with much of what was in those stories, the book and movie told of the ocean liner that left Hamburg for Cuba on May 13, 1939, with 937 Jewish passengers fleeing Nazi Germany.
Cuba denied them entry, and multiple countries, including the United States, refused to allow the passengers to disembark.
Eventually, France, Belgium, Holland, and Great Britain agreed to divide up the passengers; 254 ultimately died in the Holocaust.
Wiener, a Neptune resident, spoke on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, considered the unofficial start of the Holocaust, when synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were attacked and burned throughout Germany and Austria and 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps.
Her parents, native Poles, met in Berlin where Wiener was born. Wiener’s father owned the largest kosher bakery in Berlin, and her mother was a couturier dress designer.
By the time Wiener was born, the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Jews of citizenship and political rights and forbade them from doing business with Germans.
“Life became very difficult, and everybody was desperately looking for any country in the world that would accept them,” said Wiener. “After Kristallnacht, life became unbearable.”
Her father was deported to Poland. Her mother began petitioning foreign consulates, finally securing a visa to Siam, now Thailand.
“That permitted my father to come back from Warsaw to join us, on the condition we leave Berlin within three months,” said Wiener, who often shares her story with schoolchildren.
In the interim, her mother, who had a brother in Havana, sent him money to secure documents to allow the family to enter Cuba. They booked passage on the St. Louis.
The St. Louis left “with great hoopla and bands playing” as part of a plot Wiener later learned was devised by the Nazi propaganda machine. Many passengers had assigned quota numbers for the United States, which then limited the number of Jewish refugees, who planned to wait for their number to come up in Cuba.
When the Cuban authorities balked, her uncle rode out in a boat and yelled to her parents that things would be fine.
Wiener said the captain and representatives of the Jewish Agency went ashore to negotiate.
“My mother said the captain came on the public address system and said, ‘I am not taking you back to Germany. I would sooner beach my ship in Scotland than take you back because I know what your fate would be,’” she said.
The Jewish Agency desperately offered to pay $500 a person — an “astounding” amount in those days — to any country that would take the passengers.
‘I can’t complain’
With no takers, the captain sailed to Miami, only 90 miles away, in the hope the United States might relent. However, President Franklin Roosevelt bowed to public opinion in the States, which, according to an assessment by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “continued to favor immigration restrictions.” The Great Depression, according to the museum, “fueled anti-Semitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism.”
Back in Germany the Third Reich was reveling in the refugees’ fate, with newspapers trumpeting, “‘See — no one wants them. We did you a favor by getting rid of them,’” said Wiener.
When the four countries finally agreed to split up the passengers, Wiener’s father decided to go to England, because “he wanted to put a body of water between him and Germany.”
Wiener’s younger years were often spent in bomb shelters in London. To escape the Nazi blitzkrieg the family moved to Manchester, where they shared a single-family house with two other Jewish families.
“I can’t complain about my life in London,” said Wiener. “It was a piece of cake compared to what my life would have been in the other countries.”
The family came to the U.S. in 1946 on another ship that came legally into New York Harbor and settled in Astoria, Queens.
“I spent my very first summer in America in Belmar, NJ, with my cousin’s family, who left Germany shortly before we did,” said Wiener.
She later married a friend of her cousin and moved permanently to the Jersey shore. The couple has two children and two grandchildren.
Wiener called up from the audience a fellow St. Louis passenger, Cantor Judith Steel of Kew Gardens, Queens, whom she met and befriended in adulthood. Steel came to New York in 1946 through the French relief agency OSE on a ship carrying 68 war orphans.
The women made a startling discovery during the program — they both sailed into New York on the same day.
“I can’t believe it,” said Steel.