1st Thusday [9]: “Refuge Denied” by Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller

[Makeup post for Oct. 1]

Here is another post about the Holocaust, inspired by a topic that piqued my interest during my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. It is a story about a ship that shared a name with my hometown, St. Louis, and set out for Cuba carrying hundreds of passengers fleeing Nazi dangers in Europe.

St.LouisSarah and Scott worked for the museum when they set out on their own journey to discover the fates of all the passengers of the St. Louis. The vast majority of them, it turns out, did not have valid passes to disembark in Cuba when they got there, so the island nation turned them away. The ship circled for days in the waters of the Atlantic, off the coast of Miami, waiting for the land of liberty to instead welcome them, with open arms.

But America had a process, and people had to wait their turn. Exceptions would not be made. The original passengers who remained on the ship would return to Europe, accepted by half a dozen countries. The Germans invaded most of those countries.

Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust is the story of a meticulous investigation, revealing the presumed fates of all 937 passengers who left their homeland full of hope for a better life across the sea.  I expected the book to be about the rigid policy of the US and President Franklin Roosevelt that turned a blind eye to a thousand people seeking asylum. Instead it was about those people, and the people that knew them. In some cases there wasn’t much of a record or story left to be told, as though the people themselves washed away with the waves that carried the St. Louis back to a continent at war.

New York City became home to the highest number of European Jewish refugees in America. One of those was Moses Hammerschlag. Moses was one of the few St. Louis passengers to actually make it into the United States later. He disembarked in Belgium upon his return to Europe, but was already in line to receive a visa to the US. His number came up and he arrived in America just weeks before Germany invaded Belgium. He had become separated from his wife when she chose not to travel with him on the St. Louis, instead staying behind to take care of her ailing father. Two years after his arrival, he stopped hearing from her, and later found out that was the year she was deported from Germany to Poland.

The Fink family returned to Europe, disembarking in the Netherlands. Michael Fink was just four at the time, and remembered little of the St. Louis Voyage. The family eventually fell into the hands of the Nazis and were deported, but at the time he was located by Scott, Michael’s mother had just passed away at the age of 86. However, he maintained that the United States was responsible for the death of his father, who died of sickness while on his way to Auschwitz.

It seems that every St. Louis survivor was somehow touched by the cruel death of a loved one. But many stories were much more tragic The Dublon family traveled as a group of five. Willi and Erna Dublon and their children Lore, 11 years old, and Eva, five, were joined by Willi’s brother Erich. Every single one of them perished, in two different Nazi camps. An entire branch of a family tree stopped cold, cut off forever.

A year after I read this book, I met Scott, when he spoke at a CSPAN-televised event held at Kansas City Public Library. It was fascinating to hear still more details about the lives of the book’s subjects and the research by its authors, through the retelling of interviews and other aspects of the process.

I even got him to sign my book.

20151008_222342[1]But of course that was not why I went. My thirst for understanding of this bloody chapter in world history demanded it. I continue to wonder how the Jewish Holocaust happened, why the world let it happen, and what we can do to prevent another one.

No country can accept countless refugees, but the St. Louis was so close that its wake may have left waves on Miami shores. How close is too close to look away?

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