Dr. Sol Messinger - Germany / Voyage of the St. Louis
Sol Messinger (center) with Parents on the deck of the St. Louis
Sol Messinger was born on June 16th 1932, in
Berlin, Germany. His father was Polish by origin. Being a Jewish family, things
were different for them than for many other German families. When Hitler came to
power he leveled a number of restrictions on German Jews. They were excluded
from many public facilities. Sol remembers as a very small child seeing the
bright yellow benches that were "reserved" for use by Jews - reserved to set
them apart for disdain and ridicule. Even children were not immune from the
abuse that was now part of life in Germany, and Sol was often threatened and
called a "dirty Jew" on an all too regular basis. Gangs would loot and vandalize
Jewish establishments in the open light of day, while the police did nothing but
When Sol was about six, there was a knock on the door in the middle of the
night, which could only mean one thing - the Gestapo, the secret police. They
wanted to take his father away, and Sol was crying. One Gestapo said "Shut that
kid up or he dies." There was nothing they could do. His father was deported
back to Poland.
Several members of Sol's family had gotten visas out of the country. It was
difficult to gain entry to the United States directly, so another route was to
travel to Cuba and wait there to go to the U.S. Sol's father had applied for a
visa to the U.S. sometime right before he was detained, but they had only
received a waiting number, which meant five or six years before they could
leave. It was decided to leave for Cuba as soon as possible, leaving Sol's
father behind to join them whenever this became possible. The day before they
were to leave Berlin for the port of Hamburg, Sol's father returned on a
temporary pass back into Germany. Such passes were very rarely issued, and it
was very lucky. They left together on May 14th 1939 on the passenger craft
St. Louis .
The St. Louis was a luxury liner, with a large swimming pool, banquets,
dancing etc. The captain, Capt. Schroeder, was German, but not sympathetic to
the Nazis. He ordered his crew to treat their Jewish passengers the same as the
other passengers - there was to be no discrimination on his ship.
It was a two week voyage to Cuba. Sol enjoyed this trip very much. He especially
liked being treated like a real person by the Germans aboard for the first time
he could remember.
There were problems when the ship reached port. They were not allowed to dock,
but instead were kept some distance out in the harbor. They were informed that
the Cuban government had decided to rescind their entry visas, possibly because
they wanted more money in bribes. After several days of negotiation, it became
clear they would have to choice but to return to Germany. Despair was widespread
aboard ship; there were even suicide attempts. Again Capt. Schroeder showed his
humanity by siding with his Jewish passengers. He planned to beach his ship on
the English coast rather than return them to the death sentence of Germany. This
didn't prove to be necessary, as four countries - France, England, Belgium and
Holland - agreed to take in various numbers of the over 900 passengers. There
were conditions to this reprieve, centrally that the refugees would not be
allowed to work, and they would have to be supported entirely by their local
Jewish organizations. The refugees willingly accepted these conditions -
anything was better than returning to Germany.
The Messingers were taken in by Belgium. They were set off in Antwerp and
eventually settled in Brussels. Although out of danger for a time, Sol remembers
this as an unhappy period; he hated school, and felt isolated because he didn't
know French; the family could do nothing but tread water on the little money
they were given to live on.
The Nazi blitzkreig would soon alter everything for them again. On May 10th 1940
the German army struck at Belgium. Within a month Belgium was a conquered
territory of the Reich. Within days, news circulated that the Germans were
within ten miles of entering Brussels. Sol's father threw a few personal affects
into a bedsheet and they left immediately, intending to go on foot to cross the
French border, which was hundreds of miles away.
They were racing to stay ahead of the advancing Germans until they were able to
rush a train headed for Paris. From there the Messingers rode a cattlecar to the
Spanish border, but there they were turned away. They sought refuge in a small
village in southern France - called Savignac - where they rented a tiny,
primitive apartment. Sol attended school in a local one-room schoolhouse, where
he finally was able to learn French.
After three months in Savignac the French police came and rounded up all Jewish
refugees in the area. They were placed into detention camps, which although not
as horrendous as concentrations camps, were nonetheless unpleasant. Food was
severely limited and people slept on beds of straw, which were infested with
lice. The Messingers were in a camp called Agde. Men and women were segregated
and children stayed with the mothers. Sol saw his father just once a week across
a barbed wire fence. It was clear that conditions at Agde were intolerable, and
at their first chance Sol's family escaped with help from the French
underground. They came back to Savignac and laid low.
When their American visa number came up in Spring of 1942, the Messingers
obtained a laissez-passe (transit papers) to leave Europe via Portugal.
They left for America aboard the Serpa Pinto, a very small cargo ship,
which was very different than the last ship they had been on. The constant
lurching of the ship made Sol seasick through the entire voyage, which took
longer than normal due to the intermittent threat of German submarine attack.
The ship docked first in Bermuda, where the passengers were interrogated at some
length by British Intelligence, who were seeking out any information they could
find about Nazi operations. When the Messingers finally arrived in New York
City, on June 24th 1942, they were met by several relatives who had come to the
U.S. through Cuba years earlier. Two of Sol's aunts had settled in Buffalo, New
York, and so Sol's family joined them there. He proceeded to live the life of a
"normal American kid", with school, sports, etc. He never forgot his life in
Europe under the Nazis, and he knows how different his fate might of been. Most
of the refugees who had traveled aboard the St. Louis died in the
Holocaust, because they were denied a safe haven.
MAY 14 1939 - The St. Louis departs from
Hamburg, Germany, with over 900 refugee passengers
MAY 27 - The ship arrives in Cuba. The Cuban government rescinds the entry
visas they had previously issued, leaving the passengers with no place to go
JUNE 3 - Sailing around the coast of Florida, just outside U.S. territory,
the passengers of the St. Louis send urgent telegrams to governmental
officials in the United States, asking for asylum
JUNE 6 - The passengers having been refused
entry, the St. Louis sets sail back towards Europe
|Photograph courtesy of the personal collection of
Dr. Sol Messinger
Related Resources for this Speaker:
Voyage of the Damned
Thomas, Gordon & Morgan-Witts, Max. Motorbooks International, 1994.
The harrowing true story of the passengers of the St. Louis in words
and pictures. The latest edition has updated information and more than 300 rare
photos, documents, and more.
The Double Crossing: The Voyage of the St. Louis
The story of the voyage of the St. Louis told through the eyes of the
surviving passengers. Archival footage and personal interviews highlight the
plight of past, present, and future refugees.