Dr. Sol Messinger

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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 look on.

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:

Books

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.

 

Videos

The Double Crossing: The Voyage of the St. Louis

29 minutes

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.