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'St. Louis' survivors recall voyage from Florida

MIAMI BEACH — Before the 6 million, there were the 937.

They were German Jews aboard the trans-Atlantic liner St. Louis seeking safe haven from the Nazis in Havana and Miami four months before World War II broke out.

Refused entry first by the Cubans, then by the United States, the stateless refugees returned to Europe, where 254 died in the Holocaust.

In a 1976 box-office smash, Hollywood called their story Voyage of the Damned.

Sunday, at a reunion in Miami Beach, passengers called their ordeal the Third Reich's "green light" for genocide.

"The signal to Hitler was that nobody cares about the Jews," said Col. Phil Freund, U.S. Army Reserve, retired. He turned 8 aboard the ship as it languished in Havana Harbor in May 1939.

"There was tremendous anti-Semitism at the time, so the message was: 'Let them do to you what they want to do.' "

The Nazis did, and by war's end in 1945, 6 million European Jews had died of starvation and torture, gas and gunshot, in degradation and despair.

Freund, 78, came from Whitefish Bay, Wis., for the reunion, which drew 33 St. Louis passengers, about half of those still alive.

They met at the Eden Roc Renaissance Resort in Miami Beach, the palm-lined wonderland that many recalled seeing from the deck of their doomed ship. Most held valid U.S. immigration applications; only 28 came ashore.

"The Coast Guard drove us off," Freund said. "Then we went to Fort Lauderdale, where there was a little Coast Guard station, and they drove us off from there, too."

The United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland and France accepted most of the passengers, though some died anyway after the Nazis invaded all but Britain.

History has judged the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt harshly for a failure of political will in the St. Louis affair, a failure finally noted by Congress this year in Senate Resolution 111.

Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the ship's return to Europe, it acknowledges that "the St. Louis is only one tragedy out of millions from that time, but … it still haunts us as a nation and deserves recognition."

Copies of the resolution, signed by surviving passengers, were presented Sunday to representatives of various institutions that plan to display it, including the National Archives, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach.

The Boca Raton-based National Foundation for Jewish Continuity hosted the event, which the Miami Herald co-sponsored. Foundation president Howard Kaye said he worries that Jewish youngsters don't know enough about this period in history, and that presenting it through the arts might capture their imaginations.

"I want people to understand the value of their birthright," said Kaye, 44. "The life I lead today is a result of what our ancestors endured."

Though only 12 years old at the time, Herbert Karliner, a retired Aventura pastry chef, remembers gazing at Miami Beach from the ship and thinking he would live there one day.

Now 83, he said that the first Spanish word he learned was manana during the ship's 12-day idle in Cuban waters. "But manana" — tomorrow — "never came."

The passengers — with the aid of a sympathetic captain — "sent telegrams all over the world" seeking asylum.

"To Roosevelt — no answer. To Eleanor Roosevelt asking that the children be allowed in — no answer. We knew what would happen to us," as did the president, Karliner said.

Egon Salmon, 85, of Delray Beach and his sister, Edith Salmon Smith, 76, of Boynton Beach recalled how the passengers' mood changed "drastically" in Havana from upbeat and hopeful to frightened and depressed.

They were literally within shouting distance of their father, who had gone ahead to Cuba and had booked passage for the rest of the family, certain they would reunite on the island and then proceed to the United States.

Instead, he could only call to them from the dock, unsure of their fate.

For Salmon, a retired Staten Island real estate broker and combat veteran of World War II, Sunday's gathering proved to be emotional.

"You feel that this is the last reunion," he said, wiping away tears.

'St. Louis' survivors recall voyage from Florida 12/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2009 9:52pm]
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