The SS Disaster

Nonfiction

By Andrew Cohen

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust

By Sara A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller

University of Wisconsin Press, 192 pages, $21.95.

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In the years after the MS St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany onboard, was denied entrance to Cuba and the United States in June 1939, it became a symbol of the way the world in general, and the United States in particular, turned its back on European Jewry during the Holocaust. Sometimes lost in the symbolism of the event, however, have been the individual stories of the refugees, and it wasn’t until the publication of the 1974 best-selling book “Voyage of the Damned” (subsequently turned into an Oscar-nominated film) that their personal experiences were first brought to life in vivid detail. But even that account ends when the refugees returned to face uncertain futures in Europe; though a brief epilogue sketches some of their fates, most remain a mystery, and the authors themselves acknowledge that “no one can say with any certainty how many of the passengers eventually perished.”

Now, thanks to the publication of “Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust,” the world knows with certainty the fates of each and every passenger onboard, often in heart-wrenching detail. The book is the culmination of nearly 10 years of research conducted under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by Sara Ogilvie and Scott Miller, two long-term Museum employees. Their search began in 1996 when Ogilvie was approached by Clark Blatteis, a child survivor of the St. Louis, who came to the museum seeking information about the fates of other children onboard. Blatteis then told Ogilvie the story of his family’s journey after they disembarked at Antwerp — a journey that saw them narrowly escape German bombs in Brussels, and German soldiers in France, before they fled to Morocco and ultimately immigrated to the United States in 1948.

After listening to the story, and considering how many hundreds of St. Louis passengers who had arrived in Belgium, France and Holland were still unaccounted for (it was assumed that those who had been sent to Great Britain survived), it struck Ogilvie that “out there, somewhere, were hundreds of individual stories waiting to be uncovered, hundreds of human dramas that deserved … recognition.” Thus began the quest to “track down the fate of each and every St. Louis refugee and to write the final chapter of the infamous voyage.”

Not surprisingly, many refugees, including the hundreds who eventually died in gas chambers and in labor camps, were far less fortunate than the Blatteises. And, of course, many who “survived” physically did not survive emotionally, as is poignantly evident in the story of Ilse Marcus, now nearly 90 years old and living in New York City’s Washington Heights. Despite her lovely views of Inwood Hill Park, however, she says: “I only see the faces of my family. I have been in this apartment more than 50 years, and every single night I have sat in that chair and have gone over and over again in my mind the events of the past.”

Yet for every tragic story, the authors discovered an equally remarkable one. Take, for instance, the story of Rudi Dingfelder, who, having lost his glasses on the train to Auschwitz, narrowly avoided selection simply because “nearly all the people wearing glasses were sent to the line for death.” Later, facing almost certain death, he and three captive Russian soldiers jumped an SS guard and ran for miles without shoes until they happened upon an American tank.

In some ways no less remarkable is the authors’ own journey to uncover the fate of each passenger — a journey that took them to Europe and Israel many times over, and which involved combing through countless wartime records for Belgium, France and the Netherlands; concentration camp records; immigration and naturalization files; the Social Security Death Index, and the like. When those sources dried up, they interviewed hundreds of survivors as well as friends and family members of St. Louis passengers, conducted a worldwide media campaign, spent thousands of hours cross-referencing personal testimony with historical data and even scoured decades worth of old phonebooks. It has been a staggering undertaking that is no less a tribute to the “St. Louis” passengers than the actual retelling of their stories.

Only the authors’ perplexing choice to recount their search from a stilted third-person perspective undermines the power of the book. But this is a minor quibble with a genuinely moving and intimate document that not only helps lay to rest the story of the St. Louis, but also, more importantly, finally offers refuge to those for whom it was denied.

Andrew Cohen is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Ore.






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