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Retracing the SS St. Louis History: A Survivor’s Story

By Ruth Ann Kalish, Phd

Protravel International has partnered with the St. Louis Legacy Project Foundation for a 14-day Crystal Cruise to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sailing of the SS St. Louis. The Nov. 5,  New York departure will feature “Retracing the SS St. Louis History,” the story of the ship which has become a symbol of the world’s indifference to the plight of Jews during WWII.

Crystal Serenity will complete its journey in Miami, a memorable and emotional experience for many who recollect the story of the SS St. Louis, the ship that was denied safe haven by the United States in 1939. The ill-fated ship, carrying 937 Jewish refugees was fleeing growing Nazi persecution and terrorism in Germany.

On this historic Crystal Cruise voyage, passengers will preview the new documentary Complicit: The Untold Story of Why the Roosevelt Administration Denied Safe Haven to Jewish Refugees, and meet and interact with filmmaker Robert Krakow and producer Ruth Ann Kalish. Passengers will also meet SS St. Louis survivors and hear their stories joining withthem sailing through the Straits of Florida and seeing the shore of Miami as they did 75 years ago.

With only 50 SS St. Louis survivors still alive, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from those who experienced what is now viewed as the precursor event that sent Hitler the message that no one wanted the Jews; a signal to initiate the Holocaust.

I had the opportunity to interview Herbert Karliner, the leader of the SS St. Louis survivor group and a board member of the St. Louis Legacy Project Foundation, a nonprofit charity that documents, educates, and preserves the legacy of signal events in America’s history. This interview gives insight into Karliner’s Nazi persecution experiences in 1939 Germany and upon his return to Europe, hiding in France during the war, and his emotions and reflections as he approaches the 75th anniversary of the sailing of the SS St. Louis.

Dr. Kalish:  Herb, you were living in Germany in 1939. Can you describe you and your family’s experiences before boarding the SS St. Louis in May, and tell us why you were on the ship?

Herb Karliner:  My father, mother, brother, two sisters and I were living in a small town in Germany, Peiskretcham, and were frightened after Kristallnacht. My father owned a general store which was ransacked that night in November 1938. Windows were broken, barrels of pickles, herring, and flour were overturned. Police made us clean the glass and sidewalk. My father tried to save the torahs and prayer books the Nazis were burning at our synagogue. The Gestapo kicked him away, arrested him and took him to Buchenwald concentration camp. After three weeks he was released and told he had to get out of Germany in three months. Although we had relatives in Hartford, Conn., we knew we couldn’t get in soon enough because of the quota system and our high number. We were able to purchase a permit to go to Shanghai, the only escape permits available. We realized we should have left Germany in 1934. My father sold his business and our home, then we found out the Cuban Council in Hamburg was selling permits to Cuba. Since our preference was to go to the U.S., we gave up our Shanghai permits and bought Cuban landing permits. So on May 13, 1939 we, other relatives, and friends in our community boarded the SS St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany.

Dr. Kalish: What was your experience and the mood of passengers on the ship as you sailed from Hamburg to Havana?

Herb Karliner:  I was 12 ½ years old and remember feeling euphoric about leaving Germany. Although there were a few rude Gestapo, we were mostly treated well since Captain Schroeder was a kind man. I had a good time on the ship.

Dr. Kalish: What happened when the ship reached Havana Harbor?

Herb Karliner: When we reached Havana we put our suitcases outside our cabin, and then the Cuban police came on board to check our papers. They told us we could leave the ship tomorrow, “manana,” but “manana” never came. Some passengers had family members who had arrived in Cuba on previous ships; they came on small boats which surrounded the SS St. Louis. They encouraged us by trying to keep up our spirits and letting us know they were working on our behalf by sending telegrams and working with the Joint Distribution Committee. After being told our landing permits were not valid, the Joint Distribution Committee tried to negotiate a payment to Cuba to get us released, but the Cuban President kept rejecting their offers. Eventually the Joint Distribution Committee couldn’t raise any more money.

Dr. Kalish:  What happened when the Joint Distribution Committee was unsuccessful in negotiating your entry into Cuba?

Herb Karliner: Captain Schroeder was told to leave Havana Harbor and we weren’t allowed to land.

Dr. Kalish: Where did the ship go then?

Herb Karliner: Our parents formed a passenger committee. The captain told us he would head to the United States through the Straits of Florida. The committee began to send telegrams to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to relatives in America, and a plea to Eleanor Roosevelt to save the children on the ship. We received no replies from the president or his wife.

Dr. Kalish: What happened when the ship reached the Miami coastline?

Herb Karliner: I saw the shore of Miami and the palm trees and I knew I wanted to go to Florida. Then we saw the U.S. Coast Guard grey ships.

Dr. Kalish: Recently two authors Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman published FDR and the Jews, recognizing this event as a symbol of the world’s indifference to the plight of the Jews. However, they also stated there was no evidence that the U.S. Coast Guard sent the ship away from U.S. water rejecting the Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis. Is that what you recall?

Herb Karliner: Absolutely not. We saw the U.S. Coast Guard and heard them blasting their horns telling us to get out of U.S. waters. We saw those grey ships, we heard them and they wouldn’t allow us into America. We never received a reply from FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt, whom we asked to save the children on the ship. Not only did I see and hear the U.S. Coast Guard, but many of my fellow passengers Col.Phil Freund and Dr. Hans Fisher did too. Captain Schroeder wrote a book after the sailing and both in it and in his ship log he spoke of the Coast Guard telling the captain to move the SS St. Louis away from the U.S.

Dr. Kalish: What happened then?

Herb Karliner: The atmosphere on the ship changed immediately, the passengers became depressed, sad, and about 300 passengers planned to jump overboard if we returned to Germany. The captain was ordered by the shipping line to return to Germany. So we headed back to Europe. When the Captain heard about the passenger’s plans he promised not to return to Germany, but promised to scuttle the ship off England rather than bring the passengers back to Germany. During the trip back the captain worked with the Joint Distribution Committee and arranged for four countries to take the passengers: England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Dr. Kalish: Where did you land?

Herb Karliner: We landed in Antwerp, Belgium on June 13, 1939. The passengers were pretty equally divided to go to the four countries. Little did we know, although we suspected, Germany would invade Belgium, France, and the Netherlands within the next year and all the passengers who were placed in those countries were at risk of Nazi persecution. Over the next few years more than one fourth of the passengers who went to those countries would be shipped to Auschwitz.

Dr. Kalish: What happened to you and your family when you disembarked from the ship in Antwerp, Belgium?

Herb Karliner: We went to France. My brother and I were separated from my parents and sisters. A Jewish organization agreed to take us boys. Within the year, France was occupied by Germany. A farmer took me in and I worked on the farm. Eventually I worked at a bakery in Nancy, France. One day the French police came and picked me up and took me to a camp. They kept only boys, we were 16 and it was one week before my 16th birthday so they released me. My friends over 16 who were taken never came back. Jewish organizations tried to get us out. Once I was given false papers to go to Spain where someone was supposed to meet me and take me to Palestine. When I got to the Spanish border I was told that if I got caught by the Gestapo I would be executed. Since I didn’t speak Spanish and spoke French badly, I decided to go to Switzerland. I got caught by the Swiss and was told they had too many refugees so I was sent back to France. A Jewish organization found a farmer to take me who asked my religion. I told him I was Catholic. Although I worked hard, I was safe until I was liberated. I saw my parents and sisters only once more. When I was 15. I asked the farmer to let me see them for a week and I took trains to where they we staying, hid in the woods, and finally found their village. I spent two weeks with them and never saw them again. As I found out after the war when I went to search for them, they were taken away by the Nazis in 1942 in a roundup and were deported to Auschwitz. In 1944 I was liberated by the American Army. I wanted to join them, but one soldier told the army captain I was a German spy. So I went to the Jewish organization and asked if I could help. They put me to work helping to find hidden Jewish children who were put in convents and with French families during the war. Some children grew up not knowing they were Jewish.

Dr. Kalish:  When and why did you come to the United States?

Herb Karliner: After I saw Miami in 1939 I always wanted to go to the U.S. I wrote to my uncle in Connecticut and told him my brother and I survived. We came to the U.S. on Dec. 26, 1946. I spoke no English. I stayed with my uncle for a week then went to work as a dishwasher in a coffee shop. I went to night school to learn English, the only education I would have after 1939. A year later I met a German man who was in the concentration camps. He was a butcher, had a car and told me he was going to Miami. I went with him; I finally arrived in Miami. When the season was over I went to the Catskills. But in 1950 I got a letter from Uncle Sam, in 1939 America didn’t want me, but in 1950 it did. Although I passed the interpreter test for French and German, they sent me to Korea and Japan.

Dr. Kalish: What has your life been like in the US?

Herb Karliner: Like many other survivors, I served in the American military. I eventually became a baker at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, using my hard-earned baking skills developed in France. I married a French woman, had children, was successful. More recently I’ve dedicated myself to lessons I’ve learned being a survivor of the SS St. Louis. I’m a docent at the Miami Holocaust Museum, I’ve helped the U.S. Holocaust Museum with documenting the SS St. Louis story, and I even gave them Captain Shroeder’s cap which was given to me by his son. I’ve represented our survivor group a number of times when Canada and groups of Christian Canadians honored the SS St. Louis survivors and apologized for their refusal to help us in 1939.

Dr. Kalish: Last September, the U.S. State Department invited you and a delegation of SS St. Louis survivors to an historic ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Tell me about that experience.

Herb Karliner: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Hannah Rosenthal, director of Global Anti-Semitism for the State Department led a delegation of foreign service staff in apologizing to a group of 14 SS St. Louis survivors. They told us “welcome.” They were sincere and tearful as we were. It was a long overdue apology.

Dr. Kalish: Was there any other American recognition of the significance of the SS St. Louis?

Herb Karliner: In 2009 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution acknowledging the U.S. role in rejecting the ship and passengers. It wasn’t an apology though. I’m happy to say that 35 of the surviving passengers signed that resolution in 2009 at our 7oth anniversary reunion in Miami. We gave a copy of that resolution to the National Archives; and Richard Hunt, the curator, gave a moving acceptance speech and has been our friend.

Dr. Kalish: What message do you want to convey to future generations?

Herb Karliner:  When I approach Miami during the sailing of the Crystal Cruise in November, I think I will see myself as a boy of 12 realizing my dream to come to Miami came true. But I know I have never stopped thinking and being sad about why my parents and sisters and other family members couldn’t be with me and why they had to perish so horribly. Goebbels propaganda opened the door to the final solution. It can happen again.

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