Talking to survivors of the SS St. Louis

Back in 1989, when I was a reporter for the Miami Herald, I interviewed many of the 27 survivors of the SS St. Louis. They said their story should serve as a lesson to mankind. “People should look after people if they are in need,” said Eric Spitz of Toronto. “History will always repeat itself.”

Here’s the story I wrote:

The Miami Herald
June 5, 1989 Monday 
FINAL EDITION
SURVIVORS TAKE CRUISE OF TEARS, RECALL ORDEAL

BYLINE: DAN FROOMKIN Herald Staff Writer

SECTION: FRONT; A; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 813 words

Fifty years to the day after they were chased off the Florida coastline and back to war-torn Europe, 27 survivors of what has become known as the “Voyage of the Damned” gathered Sunday in Miami Beach for an emotional cruise that was part reunion and part remembrance.

The 27 were among more than 900 Jewish refugees who tried to flee Nazi Germany in 1939 on the SS St. Louis, a cruise ship bound from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba. Denied permission to dock in Havana, the ship wandered off the South Florida coast looking for salvation.

But the U.S. Coast Guard, enforcing rigid immigration quotas, ordered the St. Louis off the coast on June 4, 1939. After the passengers returned to Europe, most died in the Holocaust.

On Sunday, the tiny cruise ship Florida Princess set off on a two-hour cruise from the Miami Beach Marina, heading about three miles offshore before returning home.

On board, jammed in amid about 300 other guests, survivors looked for familiar faces. Some found them; others didn’t. They all swapped stories of having seen the buildings and palm trees of Miami before turning back, and they spoke of what it all meant.

“We were not wanted — abandoned by the world,” said Susan Schleger, 68, of New York, who was 18 when she was on board the St. Louis. She remembers drifting two or three miles off the Florida coast.

“Miami looked very tempting, lovely, glamorous,” she said.

“I think it’s kind of a symbol of what happened,” said Liane Reif-Lehrer of Boston, who was only 4 in 1939 but who has written several articles about the journey. “The German government wanted to make a spectacle of the Jews. They were trying to show the world that nobody else wanted us either.”

Henry Laskau, 72, of Pompano Beach showed survivors a small black-and-white picture of his brother Benno, who was a passenger. Benno, 18 at the time, was later killed in the Auschwitz death camp.

Laskau had watched from Havana as the St. Louis was turned away, and Sunday he was looking for someone who might remember his brother.

He found Hans Fisher, 61, of New Jersey, who recognized Benno. They talked. “It brings back memories,” Laskau said with a sad smile.

Many of the survivors described how they lost family members, separated from them after they returned to Europe. “I’m thinking of the people who are not alive,” said Sofi Aron, 77, of New York, who survived along with her husband, Alfred, 78. “It’s very sad.”

When the St. Louis was forced to turn back, Capt. Gustav Shroeder managed to steer it to Belgium instead of Germany. The passengers were resettled in England, France, Belgium and Holland. Those in England were safe, but when the Nazis invaded the other countries, many of the passengers were deported and killed.

For his efforts, Shroeder became a hero to the passengers. They organized to bring his closest living relative, nephew Ernst Rolf, to the ceremonies from Hamburg.

The story of the St. Louis became famous in 1974, when authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts wrote a book called Voyage of the Damned. The book was made into a movie by the same name in 1975.

A brief religious service on board Sunday stressed the theme of the commemoration. Said Rabbi Barry Konovitch of Miami Beach’s Cuban-Hebrew Congregation: “We pray that, in the intervening 50 years, mankind has learned its lesson: that it should never happen again.”

Survivors threw carnations off the front of the ship in memory of those who died. Then they watched as the battered wreck of the Ostwind, an 85-foot wooden yacht that once belonged to Adolf Hitler, was dumped off a barge into the Atlantic Ocean, destined to become an artificial reef.

Miami Beach Commissioner Abe Resnick, who came up with the idea of sinking the Ostwind, said it was a symbolic act, bringing life from a symbol of death.

But several survivors saw the link between their tragedy and the sinking of the Ostwind as a dubious one. “It has absolutely nothing to do with us,” said Hella Roubicek, 63, who flew in from California.

Some passengers Sunday had watched the St. Louis from the Miami Beach shore. Edward Newman, a Beach resident who was 15 at the time, said he and a friend went out to the St. Louis in a 14-foot skiff, loaded with watermelons and bananas.

“It was heart-rending,” Newman said. “We were crying on the way back.”

St. Louis survivor Gertrude Mendels, 74, of Baltimore said her first trip back to South Florida since that day 50 years ago was an emotional experience.

“When the plane started to land — I am not a very sentimental person, but I started crying,” Mendels said. “It was the same landscape.”

Survivors said the story of the St. Louis should serve as a lesson to mankind. “People should look after people if they are in need,” said Eric Spitz, 64, of Toronto. “History will always repeat itself.”

“Just remember,” said Hans Wolfgang Philippi, 68, of San Francisco. “That’s enough, if you really remember.”