Testing the waters
A passenger on the St. Louis reflects on refugees’ quest for safe haven
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Last month I wrote a column for which I surveyed several Holocaust survivors about whether they felt some kinship with refugees from war-torn countries who were temporarily prohibited from entering the United States after an executive order from President Donald Trump. My questions focused on the S.S. St. Louis, the ship carrying hundreds of Jews that was refused entry to the United States in 1939 and was forced to return to Europe, where 254 Jews later died at the hands of the Nazis. Did that tragic story influence their opinions about accepting the refugees?
In the process, my wife suggested I try to find a former passenger on the St. Louis in the NJJN coverage area to interview. I felt that was a longshot. After all, I figured that even if some of the passengers who survived the war — somewhere between 570 and 650 Jews — eventually made it to the United States and settled in New Jersey, what were the chances any of them were still alive almost 80 years later?
Well, like many of my journalist colleagues, math is not my strong suit. Days after the piece was published, this email appeared in my inbox:
Dear Mr. Kahn,
Your article in NJJN that compares Trump’s refugee ban to the voyage of the St. Louis is most personal since I was a passenger of this ill-fated ship. I am a resident of Monmouth County and have been an active speaker on the Holocaust by using my family’s experiences to convey the message. Your comparison of today’s refugee issue to the plight of those like us in 1939 is extremely complicated. Although comparisons can be drawn, the climate and circumstances are much different today.
Shortly thereafter I contacted Wiener to hear her story, and what she really thought of the ban on refugees.
“I usually compare it to apples and oranges,” she said. “Both are fruit, but they’re different fruit.”
She was 10 months old at the time of the voyage, just two months older than the youngest passenger aboard. She was born in Berlin to Polish parents who came to Germany in the early 1900s. Following Kristallnacht in 1938, Wiener, who was then four months old, along with her parents and many more in the Jewish community, frantically tried to leave the country. Her father was deported to Warsaw, where he shared for several months a one-bedroom apartment with 12 other men.
Her mother’s brother, who was then living in Cuba, was able to procure visas for their family, and they booked passage on the St. Louis. Wiener’s father was even allowed to return to Germany to travel with them, provided they left immediately. Though she has no memory of the voyage, her parents told her that the first leg of the journey, which embarked from Hamburg, was enjoyable, with parties, dances, and even movies.
“They were very excited and everyone was having a good time,” she said. “No one realized the Germans were using the ship as a giant pawn in the chess game they were playing.”
They soon learned. The Nazis had allowed the St. Louis to leave Europe only because they suspected that neither Cuba nor the U.S. would allow the influx of refugees into their respective countries. Hitler was literally testing the waters, gauging international reaction to his treatment of Jews. When the ship arrived in Havana, Cuban president Federico Laredo Brú deemed its paperwork worthless and refused to let the passengers off the ship. The United States refused entry as well.
Panic set in among the passengers. Some threatened mutiny, others suicide. Wiener’s father told her that one evening a man confided in him that he would rather die than return to Germany.
“The following day when it was clear that they were committed not to get off the ship, [the man] slit his wrists and jumped overboard,” she said. “One of the cabin boys jumped over and saved his life. My father was a witness to that.”
Just before the St. Louis arrived on its return to Europe, four countries — Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and England — agreed to split up the passengers and allow them to seek safe haven within their borders. Wiener’s father requested England, because he wanted to put as much space as possible between Germany and his family. It was a wise choice. His sister lived in Belgium and was waiting at the dock in Antwerp to try to convince them to stay instead of continuing to England; eventually Germany invaded Belgium, and Wiener’s aunt, uncle, and baby cousin perished in Auschwitz.
The Wieners’ stay in England wasn’t pleasant — they had to move after their home was destroyed in an air raid — but they all survived and came to the United States in 1946, first to Belmar, New Jersey, and then to Astoria, Queens. Wiener found her way back to Monmouth Country when she got married, and today she lives in Neptune, a retired budget analyst and packaging specialist at Forth Monmouth.
Circling back, I asked how she, as a former refugee refused entry by the United States, feels about the tensions surrounding today’s refugee crisis?
“The similarities are obvious, the fact that religious freedom is what is sought in both places,” she said. “But with the world’s problems today, we have to be more cautious to whom we grant asylum.
That said, Wiener cannot go along with the president’s attempts to keep these refugees out.
“We need caution but we should not let it blind us,” she said. “Once they have been deemed to be sincerely looking for safe haven with no adverse background…I don’t think we have the right to say no when there is a legitimate reason to say yes.”