Last week, Yad Vashem had the honor of welcoming six survivors who were passengers on the SS St. Louis, the ocean liner that departed Hamburg in May 1939 carrying hundreds of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. To the passengers' dismay the over 900 passengers, many of them Jewish, were denied entry twice, first by the Cuban authorities and subsequently by the American government who, despite intensive lobbying efforts by the local Jewish community, refused to allow the passengers to disembark at Havana, Cuba and Miami Beach, Florida. Captain Gustav Schroder tried to persuade Cuban and American authorities to allow the passengers to enter; however, he was eventually left with no choice but to turn back to Germany. Nonetheless, thanks to his courageous efforts and determination, the passengers were able to enter Belgium, France, Holland and the UK.
Almost 77 years later, a group of six survivors and family members traveled to Israel to meet and participate in ceremonies commemorating this pivotal event. This momentous visit was the first time a group of survivors of the St. Louis had visited Yad Vashem together. The group, including survivors and family members, toured the Holocaust History Museum, where they saw the exhibition dedicated to the story of the St. Louis. Additionally, they visited the Visual Center where Robert Krakow, head of the SS St. Legacy Project that initiated the mission, donated the documentary film Complicit , which tells the story of the St. Louis and features eyewitness testimonies of several survivors from that faithful voyage. The tour concluded with a ceremony in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, where they paid their respects to Captain Schroder, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in March 1993 and is inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden.
Sonja Geismar was a young girl on the passenger ship along with her parents, paternal grandparents and three great-aunts. She remembers waving goodbye to cousins when the ship reached the port of Havana; she sadly also remembers that she never saw those family members again. After the ship was refused entry into both Havana and Miami, she eventually disembarked in England. Later, she immigrated to New York. Sonja remarked that her visit to Yad Vashem was very meaningful and different from her previous visits because she had the opportunity to meet with fellow survivors. "Seeing the exhibition in the museum on the St. Louis is a reminder of how fortunate my family and I are," she explained.
Sisters Gisela Feldman and Sonja Sternberg, 93 and 90 years old respectively from Manchester, UK, were both young girls when they boarded the SS St. Louis with their mother. Sonja will never forget the moment the ship was forced to turn around and head back to Germany, and how difficult this was for her mother. They remember parting from several of their family members in Berlin who they never saw again. "We were very lucky to have gotten out," recalled Sonja, now 90. "We lost our father and 31 other close family members."
Today the surviving passengers of the SS St. Louis dedicate themselves to ensuring that the world knows the story of the doomed voyage, and of the horrors of the Holocaust. With this in mind, they organized and produced a documentary film, which has been entered into several international film festivals.
For more information about the SS St. Louis please visit the Yad Vashem website.