In May of 1939 the Cuban government turned away the Hamburg-America Line’s MS St. Louis, which carried more than 900 hopeful Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. The passengers subsequently sought safe haven in the United States, but were rejected once again, and the St. Louis had to embark on an uncertain return voyage to Europe. Finally, the St. Louis passengers found refuge in four western European countries, but only the 288 passengers sent to England evaded the Nazi grip that closed upon continental Europe a year later. Over the years, the fateful voyage of the St. Louis has come to symbolize U.S. indifference to the plight of European Jewry on the eve of World War II.
Although the episode of the St. Louis is well known, the actual fates of the passengers, once they disembarked, slipped into historical obscurity. Prompted by a former passenger’s curiosity, Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum set out in 1996 to discover what happened to each of the 937 passengers. Their investigation, spanning nine years and half the globe, took them to unexpected places and produced surprising results. Refuge Denied chronicles the unraveling of the mystery, from Los Angeles to Havana and from New York to Jerusalem.
Some of the most memorable stories include the fate of a young toolmaker who survived initial selection at Auschwitz because his glasses had gone flying moments before and a Jewish child whose apprenticeship with a baker in wartime France later translated into the establishment of a successful business in the United States. Unfolding like a compelling detective thriller, Refuge Denied is a must-read for anyone interested in the Holocaust and its impact on the lives of ordinary people.
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Sarah Ogilvie is director of the National Institute of Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Scott Miller is director of the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The doomed ship St. Louis—carrying German-Jewish refugees and refused permission to dock in Cuba and Florida in 1939—became a potent symbol of global indifference to the fate of European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust. While 288 of the more than 900 passengers found sanctuary in Great Britain, 620 were forced to return to mainland Europe, and close to half of those passengers sent to Belgium, France and Holland were murdered during the Holocaust. Among the survivors, a Miami-area retired baker and Korean War veteran, Herbert Karliner, got through WWII posing as a Catholic and working as a hired hand for a pro-Vichy farmer near Lyon. Another, Hannelore Klein, who in her 70s confesses to still feeling like a displaced person, was 12 when she was sent to Holland, survived Auschwitz (her mother was gassed) and returned to Amsterdam to live with her grandparents, Theresienstadt survivors. Prodigiously researched and generously illustrated with photographs—most from the St. Louis and the Westerbork internment camp—this valuable contribution to Holocaust studies provides emotionally satisfying closure as the authors, staffers at D.C.'s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, track the passengers and give a human face to mass tragedy. (Oct. 20)
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