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Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust

Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust

by Sarah A. Ogilvie

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In May of 1939 the Cuban government turned away the Hamburg-America Line’s MS St. Louis, which carried more than 900 hopeful Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. The passengers subsequently sought safe haven in the United States, but were rejected once again, and the St. Louis had to embark on an uncertain return voyage to Europe. Finally, the St. Louis


In May of 1939 the Cuban government turned away the Hamburg-America Line’s MS St. Louis, which carried more than 900 hopeful Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. The passengers subsequently sought safe haven in the United States, but were rejected once again, and the St. Louis had to embark on an uncertain return voyage to Europe. Finally, the St. Louis passengers found refuge in four western European countries, but only the 288 passengers sent to England evaded the Nazi grip that closed upon continental Europe a year later. Over the years, the fateful voyage of the St. Louis has come to symbolize U.S. indifference to the plight of European Jewry on the eve of World War II. 

Although the episode of the St. Louis is well known, the actual fates of the passengers, once they disembarked, slipped into historical obscurity. Prompted by a former passenger’s curiosity, Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum set out in 1996 to discover what happened to each of the 937 passengers. Their investigation, spanning nine years and half the globe, took them to unexpected places and produced surprising results. Refuge Denied chronicles the unraveling of the mystery, from Los Angeles to Havana and from New York to Jerusalem. 

Some of the most memorable stories include the fate of a young toolmaker who survived initial selection at Auschwitz because his glasses had gone flying moments before and a Jewish child whose apprenticeship with a baker in wartime France later translated into the establishment of a successful business in the United States. Unfolding like a compelling detective thriller, Refuge Denied is a must-read for anyone interested in the Holocaust and its impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The doomed ship St. Louis-carrying German-Jewish refugees and refused permission to dock in Cuba and Florida in 1939-became a potent symbol of global indifference to the fate of European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust. While 288 of the more than 900 passengers found sanctuary in Great Britain, 620 were forced to return to mainland Europe, and close to half of those passengers sent to Belgium, France and Holland were murdered during the Holocaust. Among the survivors, a Miami-area retired baker and Korean War veteran, Herbert Karliner, got through WWII posing as a Catholic and working as a hired hand for a pro-Vichy farmer near Lyon. Another, Hannelore Klein, who in her 70s confesses to still feeling like a displaced person, was 12 when she was sent to Holland, survived Auschwitz (her mother was gassed) and returned to Amsterdam to live with her grandparents, Theresienstadt survivors. Prodigiously researched and generously illustrated with photographs-most from the St. Louis and the Westerbork internment camp-this valuable contribution to Holocaust studies provides emotionally satisfying closure as the authors, staffers at D.C.'s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, track the passengers and give a human face to mass tragedy. (Oct. 20) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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University of Wisconsin Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Refuge Denied

The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust
By Sarah A. Ogilvie Scott Miller


Copyright © 2006 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-21980-2

Chapter One

A Mystery Beckons

Dr. Clark Blatteis-a distinguished, gray-haired physiologist associated with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine-paced the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum one warm spring day in April 1996. The serious, soft-spoken doctor had a certain look, a particular gait and demeanor of the type that veteran Museum staffers had come to recognize. There were many who visited every day simply as tourists. But there were others who arrived with a different purpose. These were pilgrims with a sense of mission. These were searchers intent on rediscovering and giving witness to their turbulent and troubled past. As for Dr. Blatteis, any Museum employee worth his or her salt would have instantly, and correctly, figured him for a pilgrim and searcher rather than a sightseer.

Walking the sometimes narrow and frequently dark halls of the Museum's exhibition space, Blatteis passed greatly enlarged photographs taken at Buchenwald and Dachau. Uniformed prisoners stared out with blank, lifeless eyes. Blatteis returned their gaze, glad his father was not among them. After all, Ernst (Elias) Blatteis-shoe salesman andonce-proud Berliner-had endured and then risen from both these terrible places, hadn't he? In the end, Ernst (Elias) had not only emerged from the camps but had gone on with his wife, Gerda, and his young son to make a life in the United States-a land that at first had wanted nothing to do with them.

Blatteis paused for an especially long time at the Museum's exhibit showcasing the story of the German liner St. Louis. Designed quite purposely to be tight and claustrophobic, thus mimicking the narrowing of options experienced by German Jews during the late 1930s, the display dedicated to the St. Louis sat wedged in a narrow corner on one of the Museum's upper floors. The exhibit used contemporary newspaper articles, passenger belongings, and original documents together with cutting-edge multimedia to deliver a condensed rendition of the St. Louis saga.

The photos at the start of the corridor presented placid, unremarkable scenes of a typical luxury voyage. Antique black-and-white images depicted young couples playing shuffleboard, grandparents lounging in deck chairs, happy children cavorting, and stylish women sipping champagne at formal dinners. Blatteis also viewed relatively ordinary artifacts, including the hat once worn by Captain Gustav Schröder.

Farther down the dark hall, however, the display turned ominous. Several old newspaper photos, greatly enlarged, showed the desperate scene in Havana harbor. Small boats crowded with relatives and friends circled the sequestered St. Louis. Still more vessels-police boats standing as "suicide guards"-hovered even closer. Near the newspaper photos, a glass case housed the original telegram from St. Louis passengers addressed to the wife of Federico Bru, president of Cuba, pleading the case of women and children aboard the vessel.

Clark Blatteis had himself been one of those children.

Thus, later that same day in the Museum's well-lighted, library-like room housing the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, he took his quest for the past one step further. Launched in 1981 by the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors (an organization founded by the Meeds, two survivors of the Warsaw ghetto), the Registry had been donated to the Museum in 1993. Survivors and family members come from all over the world to search the database for information about lost relatives. But, oddly, the Registry included hardly any of the names for which Blatteis sought information.

After spending some unproductive time at the computers, Blatteis decided to try another tack. "My name is Clark Blatteis," he said, extending his hand to a young woman working at a nearby desk. "I was a passenger on the St. Louis. I'm looking for more information about my parents and some other passengers. Can you help me?"

Sarah Ogilvie had never planned for a career as a Holocaust researcher, curator, and educator. Nevertheless she had long nourished a deep interest in the great catastrophe imposed on European Jewry under the Nazis. She had grown up on tales told by her father, a World War II U.S. Army sergeant who once helped administer a displaced persons (DP) camp in Austria. "It was definitely a defining experience in his life," Sarah recalls.

I was captivated by his stories. I guess it's also important to note that my father was a Presbyterian minister. A lot of our family dinners were spent discussing and dissecting big questions like "How could the Holocaust have happened?" Also, I was a high school student in 1978 when the television docudrama The Holocaust aired, stimulating discussion across the country and generating great interest on the part of students like me who had studied European history but had heard no mention of this cataclysmic event (in class at least). Apparently I was part of a wave of students who went to school the next day after the piece aired demanding to know more. There was a real element of "How can we consider these teachers to be credible if they're teaching us Western Civilization but omitting the one event that seems to make that an oxymoron?"

Much later, during two years in an interdisciplinary PhD program at Emory University, Sarah pursued in-depth studies of the Holocaust's various ramifications-economic and theological as well as historical.

By the summer of 1989, Sarah had long since settled for her master's and was living in Washington, D.C. Ironically, she was not even seriously looking for a job when, casually glancing through the Washington Post, she spotted an announcement for a research post at the fledgling United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a position that sounded as though it had been custom designed for her. Sarah spent the next three and a half years helping develop what would become the Museum's permanent exhibition. Upon the opening of the Museum in April 1993, she received a promotion to deputy director of the Meed Registry, the position she still held when she found herself greeted by Clark Blatteis in 1996.

Blatteis told Sarah he was especially hoping to find information concerning the fates of children with whom, as a seven-year-old, he had enjoyed high, happy times during the St. Louis's journey. Most important, he was interested in finding the whereabouts of Rudi Jacobson, a boy with whom he had become very fast friends. He recalled how one day early in the trip, the two wound up in disgrace after hiding in a lifeboat when they should have been at dinner. By the time they reappeared, their parents and the St. Louis's captain-fearing they had been lost overboard-had organized a search party and were busy scouring the ship. The boys were punished by their parents for inconveniencing the crew and their fellow passengers.

"Generally, I have memories of having had a lot of fun on the ship. I have no great recollection of the consternation that must have been felt by the older ones when we were not allowed to land. So either we, the younger ones, were shielded very well, or it didn't affect us. We were not understanding. I just remember running around and swimming in the pool and having a real nice time." But Blatteis also recalled standing with his father at the ship's rail, looking at the lights of Miami, and hearing his father say that Florida's golden shore, so near, might as well be four thousand miles away for all the good it did them.

Although Blatteis had many other clear recollections, he had never discussed the St. Louis with his parents, a fact that he regretted after their deaths in the 1980s. Nor had he talked with them much about the troubles that afflicted the Blatteis family before and after that fateful journey. It was the outline of this story that Blatteis now shared with Sarah, thus supplying the first piece for a puzzle that she had not yet realized needed solving.

The Blatteis family of Berlin were Ashkenazi Jews, and not particularly religious. They celebrated the High Holy Days but did not regularly attend synagogue. (In later years, when young Clark reached the age of manhood, his parents did not even bother to have a bar mitzvah ceremony for him.) Religious or not, the Blatteis clan became targets of Nazi power in June 1938. During a sales trip to the eastern German town of Cottbus, Clark's father found himself placed under arrest-his only crime being his Jewish descent.

He was due to come back on Clark's birthday, June 25, 1938. "I remember particularly because one of my uncles gave me a gift of a record, and the record was 'The Toreador Song' from Carmen. I don't know if that has anything to do with my lifelong love of opera, but there it is, imprinted in my memory. There was a knock and my mother went to the door expecting to open it to my father, but instead two policemen were there.... A little while later, my mother went to visit him."

Clark's father was first put in a regular prison in Cottbus. Then, eventually, the SS moved him to Buchenwald and, after some months, to Dachau. "It was while he was in the concentration camp that my mother began the work to get us out of the country. And it was during that time that she, I guess, purchased the passes, these permits, for Cuba, where we could wait for our American visas to come up."

The shoe salesman Ernst (Elias) Blatteis was released only after his wife, Gerda, presented the Gestapo with the Blatteis family's visas for entry to Cuba together with their tickets for departure aboard the St. Louis. Meanwhile, Clark's education in German public schools had ended abruptly following Kristallnacht-November 9-10, 1938-with the Reich's November 15 announcement that Jewish children were no longer welcome at institutions of learning.

"I had been, during the time while my mother was busy making all these arrangements, moved to one of my grandmother's-my maternal grandmother's-and stayed with her." But soon the grandmother immigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa, where several other family members had already moved a few years before. "After she left I returned to my mother. Then my father was released-with a shaved head. I hardly recognized him. He joined us in Berlin, but then later my mother and I traveled to Hamburg, and the St. Louis, just the two of us by ourselves. My father came separately. There was a reason for this arrangement, but I forget now what it was. I do recall, however, that we boarded the ship together."

Likewise they disembarked together, at Antwerp, after the grave disappointment at Havana and the rejection off the coast of the United States. "We had hoped to be selected for England, because my grandparents, my father's parents, were there. But that didn't happen." The family eventually settled in an apartment in Brussels, where Clark resumed his schooling and used his knack for languages to pick up French very quickly. "I served as translator for my parents for quite some time, because it took them a whole lot longer. In fact, I don't think my father ever learned to speak French very well. But I did." Clark's mother, meanwhile, wasted no time in applying-actually reapplying, as they had already filed paperwork before the voyage of the St. Louis-for American visas.

World War II began in September 1939, but Belgium was not invaded until May 1940. "In Europe at those latitudes in the fair weather the nights are short. I think the Germans attacked at about four in the morning. And we heard boom boom boom, the anti-aircraft guns. I remember going to the window and seeing these little white puffs exploding in the air and planes way, way up. Then people came running from upper floors. They knocked on our door, and they were telling us that the Germans were bombing and that we had to go to the cellar, which we did. Soon the bombs began to fall. It was a very frightening noise. I remember I was very, very frightened."

There was a lot of destruction-not right where the Blatteis family lived but around them. Many of the windows in the Blatteis family's building were shattered by the explosions. "My father and I went out sometime later, maybe a day or two later, to see what had happened. And when we returned, my mother had been arrested as an enemy alien, a German, by the Belgian authorities. We had to go try and get her. The Belgians had assembled all the German refugees in a school. It was not the school to which I had been going but another one also nearby. So we went in and we found my mother, and we were all three interviewed and then released."

With the Germans in rapid advance, the only thing for Clark and his parents to do was what everyone else was doing: head south. They could not carry much, so most of what they owned had to be left behind. As the German Wehrmacht (army) closed in on the city, the Blatteis family joined the throng at the Brussels train station, vainly attempting to board what was rumored to be the last train leaving. "That train departed and it looked like there wouldn't be another. Then we and many of the other refugees were thrown out of the station, and the station doors were locked." With no other option, the family began walking south. They had not gone far when, serendipitously, they encountered a friendly Belgian soldier who informed them that another train would depart shortly and that they should hike back to the station along the railroad tracks so as to circumvent the locked doors. "We made that second train, the true last train. And later, when our train caught up with the previous one, we saw that it had been bombed, and they, all the people on it, were dead and wounded: a terrible scene."

Many of the passengers on the Blatteis's train disembarked at Paris. "Nobody thought the Germans would ever get to Paris. That city, for some reason, seemed safe. But my parents knew no one in Paris, so we stayed on the train and continued south to Toulouse near the town of Roques, where we spent about a month, maybe two." Toulouse was pleasant enough at first, but every day, as the Germans moved deeper and deeper into France, it got more crowded. Nevertheless the camp remained a safe place to be-at least for the moment. When France signed its surrender (euphemistically called an "armistice") on June 22, 1940, the document set the demarcation line north of Roques. Thus Clark and his parents were spared from falling into German hands.

Clark recalled that he personally enjoyed life in Toulouse. "There were lots of children to play with, and there were lots of games. It was summer, and we were camping. But my parents were wondering, of course, what to do next. We couldn't stay there forever. Somebody suggested Morocco, which sounded very exotic, far away, and removed from difficulties. Of course, we needed to get visas to travel through Spain, because it was well known that the Spanish-unlike the authorities in some other countries-were arresting refugees traveling illegally. My mother was very ingenious in these things, and somehow she got the appropriate paperwork." Soon thereafter, Clark and his parents went by car with another couple up into to the Pyrenees, crossed into Spain, and then journeyed to Algerciras.

Clark and his parents crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on a ferry to Spanish Morocco and then traveled to French Morocco and beautiful, white Casablanca. There the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and a group of Moroccan Jews helped the Blatteis family find a small studio apartment, which was all they could afford. "My parents started me back at school immediately, and I attended the public school until the Vichy government expelled Jewish children from the schools. After that I went to a local Jewish school." Meanwhile, Clark's father, who had been a salesman all his life, now worked as a common laborer. He learned to cut leather for shoes. His wages were very low, but the family was able to pay its way.

"Every once in a while there would be a panic," Clark remembered. "Rumors would fly round that everyone, all we stateless refugees, all we people without nationalities, were going to be arrested." But it never happened. There were no German occupiers in Morocco, just a token force. "German submariners would often take their leaves in Morocco. They would be wearing civilian clothes, but you knew who they were. They recognized us, too, of course, and realized we were German Jews. But it is interesting, and maybe a bit odd, that they were never unpleasant or impolite. So it wasn't easy for us there, but it also wasn't that bad considering what was going on in other places."


Excerpted from Refuge Denied by Sarah A. Ogilvie Scott Miller Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sarah Ogilvie is director of the National Institute of Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Scott Miller is director of the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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