Eva Safier Wiener of Neptune has no personal memories of her trip on what has become known as the Voyage of the Damned. She was 10 months old when she and her parents boarded the MS St. Louis in 1939 en route to Havana. They were among 937 Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. Over time, she has decided that in her experience there is a message that she has to tell.
On April 19, Yom Hashoa, she told her story twice, first to high schoolers and then to middle school students at Golda Och Academy in West Orange.
Wiener was born in Berlin. After Kristallnacht in 1938, her father was arrested and sent to Warsaw; her mother stood on lines “at every consulate, every embassy, and the lines were miles long. Everyone was looking for a way out,” said Wiener.
Eventually, her mother got papers to go to Siam; with her documents, she headed to the police station and gained permission to bring Eva’s father back, but in the meantime kept trying to secure visas to Havana, where an uncle lived, thinking that Cuba, so close to the United States, would be a much better choice as destination. She ultimately succeeded, and booked passage on the ill-fated ship.
The family boarded in Hamburg. “We got to the dock, and there was a party,” she told the students. “There were flags, a band, and the ship. It was a luxury liner and the people were all delighted to be getting out. Not only were we all leaving Germany, but we were going on a cruise ship. How much better could it get?” Wiener still has a photo of herself in her mother’s arms walking up the gangplank.
“There were dances, parties, movies; it was a terrific trip,” she said, relating what her parents had told her. “Until we got to Havana harbor — and they would not let us dock.”
What the passengers did not yet know was that the Nazi government in Germany had made sure the boat would not receive permission to dock in Havana. “We dropped anchor and didn’t move,” said Wiener. “The Cuban government declared our landing permits null and void.”
Germany had staged the event to “prove” that no one wanted the Jews and were doing the world a favor by eliminating the Jews. “Now, we were sitting in Havana Harbor,” said Wiener. “Where would we go? A committee formed on the ship of doctors and lawyers starting contacting different organizations to find someone that would allow us in. The Jewish Agency offered any country that would accept us $500 per person. Today that is like $50,000 per person. But nobody responded. My dad used to say we were so close to Miami you could almost read the license plates on Ocean Avenue. But they sent out the coast guard. They were afraid someone might jump overboard and try to swim to shore. One man slit his wrists and jumped. That’s how betrayed he felt. The captain had no choice but to turn the ship around.”
Ultimately, Belgium, France, Holland, and England agreed to take about a quarter of the passengers. Wiener’s father wisely chose England. “He wanted a body of water between him and the Germans,” she said. “He hoped the English Channel would be enough of a buffer. Obviously, it was a wonderful choice.” She claims that up to 90 percent of those who went to the other countries were murdered. The exact number is not known.
“The trip back was awful,” said Wiener. “My mother told me my first word was ‘nein,’ not the number but the German word for ‘No.’ It was from hearing people on the ship say, ‘No, no, no, we will not go back.”
Wiener’s family stayed in London until 1946, and she well remembers the air raids. “Life during the war was tough. We lived in bomb shelters and we were bombed out many times.”
In 1946 the family moved to Manchester and eventually left for the United States. When they arrived, there was a dock strike and they couldn’t get off the boat. “My parents were frightened, but the strike was settled by the end of the weekend.”
Wiener’s explicit message to the students was this: “Here was a ship of 900-and-some-odd people, denied by the world safe haven only because we were Jews. It was a carefully laid out plot to kill the Jews that started with this little tiny story. When we look at the world today and there is all this talk about bullying, that is just the beginning of what a totalitarian regime can do to anyone they deem not up to their standards.
“If we don’t remember the Shoa, if we don’t remember what happened, you might be doomed to live it again,” Wiener said. “What a calamity! Six million Jews and five million others killed because they had a different outlook, a different opinion, a different idea.”
“I give you an assignment,” she told the youngsters. “Twenty years from now, tell your children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews that you were the last generation to ever meet a Holocaust survivor. You must pass on the message to the next generation.”
Ben Susskind, a 16-year-old 11th-grader from West Orange, was impressed with Wiener’s story. “I’ve never heard from someone who initially didn’t think of herself as a survivor,” he said. But he learned something else.
“I am now realizing that America wouldn’t accept them. We always think of America as the good people, but in this case, they didn’t let the Jews in. I hadn’t heard about that before.”