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Around the Mall & Beyond

In 1939 Moritz Schoenberger, a Hungarian Jew living in Vienna, wanted to join his family in America. His ordeal is told at the National Postal Museum

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"I am very astonished to learn that you have not received my several letters but I hope that meantime you will be in possession of some of these. . . ."

I love letters. They may not tell you much about a historical event, but they can give you a feel for people caught up in that event, a sense of what it was like to be there, and most important, an insight into the people themselves and how they responded to what was going on.

This letter, written in laborious English on May 5, 1942, the last lines cramped as he tried to get it all down, was Moritz Schoenberger's attempt to cheer up his wife and daughter, safe in New York while he labored in a work camp in Occupied France.

Schoenberger had already experienced a bitter disappointment when, three years earlier on May 15, 1939, he sailed from Hamburg, Germany, aboard the S.S. St. Louis, one of 936 Jewish refugees bound for Havana, Cuba. The ever-tightening vise of Nazi anti-Semitic laws had forced Schoenberger, a Hungarian Jew living in Vienna, to abandon his work as a vendor of window decorations. Now, desperate to escape the Nazi terror, he was trying to join his wife, Helene, and daughter, Bianka, who had preceded him to America.

Schoenberger's story —and the chronicle of the St. Louis' infamous voyage —are featured through February in an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum (Smithsonian, August 1993). Ever since the museum opened in the old granite post office building near Washington's Union Station, I have been keeping an eye on its little gem of an ongoing show titled "A Family's History." The first display contained letters of the Madden family of Virginia, from 1790 to the present.

The Schoenberger exhibit, which offers a glimpse of a pretty much forgotten episode that shamed America, and of one family's struggle to cope with its after effects, features documents and images on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In the 1930s, particularly after the repressive Nuremburg Laws of 1935, Germany's Jews by the thousands naturally tried to flee the country. The United States had an annual immigration quota of 25,957 for Germany, but in 1939 there were six times that many visa applications from Germany and Czechoslovakia. A bill to allow 20,000 extra German Jewish children into the country was easily defeated in Congress. A magazine poll claimed that 83 percent of the American public was opposed to changes in the immigration policy.

Most of the refugees on the St. Louis had already applied for American visas but planned to live in Cuba while waiting their turn. What they didn't know was that ten days before they sailed, the Cuban president, Laredo Bru, reacting to rising anti-Semitism in his country, changed the immigration rules: each refugee would now be required to present written endorsements from Cuban officials and $500 in cash —for a total of nearly a half-million dollars —plus a bond of $150,000 that was later upped to $1million.

When, however, an international committee for political refugees urged the steamship company not to send the ship to Cuba because of these new entry requirements, the director of Hamburg-American's Cuban office gave his "personal guarantee" that there would be no problem since the refugees' documents were all dated prior to May 5.

The guarantee proved worthless.

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