By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 1999; Page C01
And what became of his little sister, Ruth, beaming in her party clothes?
One word is enough. "Auschwitz," says Karliner.
But that was later. The people in these pictures, all Jews, are on a luxury liner in spring of 1939, steaming away from Germany and Hitler, sailing toward America and freedom. They have seen Kristallnacht, the chaos of Nazi destruction waged against the Jews some months before, and they are getting out. They have paid their passage; they have their quota numbers for entry into the United States. They look thrilled and buoyant.
The photos are part of a small but wrenching new exhibit at the Museum, "Voyage of the St. Louis." Together with newspaper clippings, personal belongings and, most compellingly, the stories of five families aboard the boat, the photos tell of a refuge denied. Sixty years ago, on May 27, the 936 passengers so full of hope arrived in Cuban waters, where they expected to disembark and stay while waiting for their numbers to come up for entry into the United States. Instead, they learned that antisemitism--and corruption among Havana officials--had conspired to keep them out. The ship then steamed toward Florida, and lingered offshore while the passengers pleaded to enter America. But in an episode of bureaucratic indifference that history would judge as complicity, the United States also refused to admit them, and finally, the ship sailed back to Europe.
Unable to go home to Germany, the Jews fanned out into four other countries. There, terror overtook them again only a few months later as war swept through Europe. Over a third of the passengers, who had been close enough to swim toward the shimmering hotels fringing Miami Beach, died in the Holocaust.
The modest exhibit is one whose power comes from knowing the end of this story even while it is retold in the museum. Hollywood told it in 1976 in "Voyage of the Damned." Now, with Europe again engulfed in ethnic annihilation and overwhelmed with a refugee crisis, it is impossible to walk through the show without reflecting on lessons unlearned. And yet more than half of the St. Louis passengers learned that the capacity of humans to inflict cruelty on each other is exceeded only by the resilience of some humans to survive it.
"Voyage of the St. Louis," on view through Sept. 6, is an outgrowth of a three-year museum project to determine the fates of all of the ship's passengers. To date, researchers have established what happened to all but 26.
Along the way, they collected objects the St. Louis passengers clung to for decades--family photos, letters, a foot locker--and put them on display. Here is Oskar Blecher's Leica camera. There is 10-year-old Hildegard Wolff's little sailor doll, with its smart St. Louis cap. With these few exceptions, these possessions are less interesting than the pictures; even in this context they are just things. But the cruise photos snapped by passengers and ship staff are an effective central visual element to the exhibit, because they show a group of people looking almost carefree, off on a great life adventure that turned tragic.
At the ship's rail: children pausing impatiently for the official photographer, their hair tousled by the sea breeze, looking mischievous and ready to dart off on another exploration.
Inside the ballroom: cool sophisticated adults, the men in white dinner jackets, the women in gowns, their lovely throats thrown back for a full laugh, holding their cigarettes just so. Balloons in the air; couples gliding about the dance floor.
On the deck: a man in a sport coat leaning forward on his chair, as a uniformed waiter pours him a cup of coffee from a silver pot.
"Oh, we were treated so well," recalled Alice Oster, 73, who now lives in Kew Gardens, N.Y., in an interview at the museum. "We walked about. We heard Strauss music, and we hadn't heard Strauss for a long time before that." Her sister, Jane Keibel, now 75, met a boy. "I had a terrible crush on him. [Afterward] he was supposed to go to Colombia," said Keibel, but she has never been able to find him, and yet, 60 years later, she has never been able to give up on him either.
"I loved it," said Sol Messinger, who celebrated his seventh birthday during the voyage. "I got out from under my mother's thumb," which kept a frantic grip on a Jewish boy in Hitler's Germany.
No one felt like having any photos taken while the passengers sweltered in the heat outside Havana before the Cuban president ordered the ship to shove off. The exhibit dwindles to yellowed pieces of paper.
"Most urgently repeat plea for help for the passengers of the St. Louis. Mr. President help the 900 passengers among them over 400 women and children," reads the cable sent to President Roosevelt. It went unanswered.
A page of the Miami Herald features several news photographs of the ship anchored off the Florida coast, with "suicide watch" patrol boats floating alongside, but the newspaper saved its considerable editorial muscle for a topic of true interest to its readers: Adjacent to the photos, in a cruel juxtaposition, the community service column "The Town Cryer" begins, "Those ash trays that Friday's contributor to this column said were so badly needed in Jackson Memorial Hospital have been provided and cigarette butts will not have to be tossed on the floor by the patients and visitors."
The United States already had filled its 1939 immigration quota from Germany and Austria when the St. Louis went looking for a haven, and while Americans were sympathetic to the plight of the passengers, public sentiment also was against relaxing the quotas.
"Remember the garbage barge?" asked Oster, referring to the trash-piled vessel that wandered the Eastern Seaboard for months in 1987. "We were the human garbage barge."
Even families who escaped from Nazi-occupied countries intact often endured arrests, deportations, terror and malnourishment before they landed in America, their lives changed forever.
The refugees' own words are chilling. Middle-class Viennese merchant Franz Blumenstein was arrested and sent to Dachau. His wife, Else, got him released by paying a large bribe and promising that he would emigrate. He went to Venezuela, then Cuba and secured landing permits for his mother, Else and their 3-year-old son, Heinz George. Eager to join Franz, the three set sail on the St. Louis, then upon returning to Europe disembarked in Amsterdam and lived there for three years, while Blumenstein the businessman struggled to build a farming commune in the Dominican Republic.
"Only our dear child helps me to survive," Else wrote in 1941 to Franz. "Our Golden Boy is in every respect, mentally and physically, a splendid fellow. From 7 in the morning when he wakes up, he starts chatting; from 9-12 he is in school; and then he comes home and the house is alive again." Mother and son later went into hiding, separately. Else did not survive Auschwitz, and Heinz eventually was reunited with his father in the United States.
After their journey to nowhere on the St. Louis, Jane Keibel and her sister, Alice Oster, went to a children's home in France. Later, they rejoined their parents and immigrated to New York, where their father, a successful store owner in Germany, took a job manufacturing cheap ladies' compacts with "Lake Placid" inscribed on them.
Herbert Karliner, 72, the protective brother of the photo, began a seven-year cycle in Nazi Europe--hide and flee, hide and flee, hide and flee. Carrying his family's documents and photos all the while, he survived on wits and reflexes and finally landed in America in 1946. He headed straight for Miami Beach, where he lives today, a tanned, tough, white-haired man with a German accent. He is married to a woman he met in a children's home in France, and they have two daughters and a grandchild. His brother is a dentist in Connecticut. Their parents and sisters perished in the camps.
"I saw Miami Beach," he said. "I have to come back." As a St. Louis passenger who became an American, against all odds, he lives with a paradox. "In 1939, the U.S. didn't want us," said Karliner. "In 1950, I was drafted into the Army," where he served, he proudly notes, as a translator in the Pacific.
And Sol Messinger, the boy who turned 7 on board the St. Louis, came back to America with his parents when he was 10, after a series of harrowing escapes. He vividly remembers a conversation between his parents in one of the camps, where husband and wife could meet only once a week, through a fence. As Messinger clutched his mother's hand, his father leaned in, close enough to feel the razor wire on his cheek, and whispered that mother and son must escape that night. "I don't know if I want to leave without you," his mother told his father. And his father replied, in a low hiss, "If you don't go, you'll have your son's blood on your hands." They left that night.
Messinger, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., and became a pathologist who served in the Army, thinks often of that day as he watches news coverage of sobbing Kosovar children in refugee camps. For him, NATO's struggle to do the right thing is personal.
"The United States has been very good to me and my family," said Messinger, "but there's a 'but,' and the but is that what happened with the St. Louis was so opposite to what happened in the history of this country. And that is a very painful part of me as an American."
"You know what I can't understand," Karliner said hotly as he and Messinger stood together in the museum. "We were not allowed in Cuba, and then in 1980, 125,000 Cubans were let into Florida without a question, and some of them were criminals, too, and here we were, 900 people running away from Nazis, and we could not come!"
"Herb," said Messinger, and he paused, perhaps considering that what he wanted to say might come more easily to him, because his mother and father had lived to a ripe old age. "I like to think because of us is why they let them in."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company