What We’ve Learned from the St. Louis
Talking to survivors and thinking about Israel’s recent immigration decision
One of the most grievous emblems of the world’s indifference to the rise of Nazi Germany and its persecution of European Jews is the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner that brought nearly 1,000 Jewish passengers across the Atlantic, only to be denied entry by the United States, Cuba, and Canada. As it’s well-known, the St. Louis had little choice but eventually turn around and return to Europe, where roughly a quarter of the passengers perished. By many accounts, it was June 4, 1939, when the refugee ship was officially denied entry to the United States while it idled near the coast of Florida, taunted by the lights of Miami.
Earlier today, I spoke with Herbert Karliner, a passenger on the ship, who was 12 years old at the time.
I remember it very well and I saw Miami Beach, and believe me when I tell you this, I was so impressed, I said ‘Someday, I would like to live here.’ I made it, but my parents and my sisters didn’t make it.
Back in Europe, Karliner survived in France in a children’s home. He was caught once, but only the boys over 16 were sent away.
“I was one week before my sixteenth birthday, believe me, but all my other friends were over sixteen were taken. Not one came back.”
He ran around France with forged papers and worked on a farm, where no one knew he was German and Jewish, where he went to church. In late December, 1946, Karliner came to the States, went to night school to learn English, and met a butcher who had a car and was headed to Miami. And off they went, arriving in 1949.
But in 1950, I got a letter from Uncle Sam. ‘I Want You!’ In 1939, he didn’t want me. But in 1950, he grabbed me, put me in the army. I passed my interpreter test for French and German and where did you think he sent me? To the Far East. So I came back in 1952 and came back to Miami and live here in Miami.
I asked him how he likes Miami.
“I love it.”
Fred Buff, who is almost 92 now and lives in Paramus, New Jersey, ended up in Antwerp, Belgium after the ship returned to Europe.
“I was there for six months and I was lucky enough to get out of there before the Germans came in. They came in May and I got out in December. Our casualties [of the ship], who didn’t get out when the Germans overran Holland and Belgium and parts of France, 260 we lost. 260.”
Historical analogues are dicey propositions, but as I prepared to speak to the survivors of the St. Louis, I couldn’t help but dwell on yesterday’s report that Israel, which absorbed 1.5 million Jewish refugees after World War II, will begin to send some of its 60,000 African migrants out of the country. The immigrants, who escaped violence and genocide in the Congo, Sudan, and Eritrea, risked their lives to sneak into Israel.
According to the document, a state lawyer told the Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday that a deal was reached with an unidentified country to absorb some migrants and that Israel was in talks with two other countries to secure a similar agreement. The details of the arrangement were not disclosed, although the state’s lawyer, Yochi Gnesin, said the return of migrants would be “gradual.”
A few years back, I reported on the community of African refugees in Israel, one of whom, named Ephraim, told me of his escape from Eritrea:
The trek itself was a life-risking gambit. He paid smugglers to take him north through a maze of menace filled with unceasing obstacles. Those who don’t die of fatigue, starvation, or dehydration on the way must make it through the Sinai Desert where an Egyptian policy of shoot-on-sight claims dozens of lives yearly. Women making the journey are frequently raped, sometimes by their handlers, and refugees often face financial extortion by a cast of profiteers.
Once the refugees enter Israel, they begin the daunting task of acculturating to life in a new country, looking for jobs and shelter. Some of the women who arrive widowed or pregnant with the children of their assailants end up sleeping in places like Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv’s seedy Neve Sha’anan neighborhood.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by his own boasts, has managed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, leaving the numbers of the extant community more or less the same. In the meantime, organizations have devoted themselves to helping the immigrants learn Hebrew, receive an education, and get jobs. So why send them back?
For those who believe that Israel maintains a moral obligation to give shelter to those fleeing genocide, it is a simple question. For everyone else, it’s much more complex.
I asked Herbert Karliner, who built a life for himself in Miami and served his country, if he ever sees his fellow survivors from the St. Louis. He told me that they gathered in Washington, D.C. for a conference last year. What happened at the conference?
“The State Department finally acknowledged that it was the wrong thing to send us back. It’s too late now.”