"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.
The ship steamed into Havana Harbor on May 27. Only 22 of the 936 passengers were allowed to disembark. Police patrolled the docks to keep back the crowd of friends and family that gathered. Relatives rowed out in boats, surrounding the vessel. Spotlights were trained on the water to be sure no one jumped off in the night. Two passengers attempted suicide, one succeeded. For five days the people in the rowboats held shouted conversations with their relatives, who pressed against the rails from the deck high above.
For most of them, it was to be their last sight of one another.
Aboard the ship, one 9-year-old girl saw her father waving from one of the boats. While the ship remained at anchor, dockside vendors ran a regular carnival, renting binoculars, selling food, and entertaining the refugees with music and performing monkeys.
When at last the St. Louis did start to move away from shore, the girl felt the lurch and saw her mother start to cry. Going up on deck, she found most of the passengers in tears, some of them moaning in lamentation at what was happening: they were being sent back to Nazi Germany. A suicide watch had to be set up on board.
After the St. Louis sailed from Havana on June 2, Captain Gustav Schroeder defied the Hamburg-American Line officials and delayed his return as long as he could, weaving slowly up the coast of Florida in a meandering pattern, while the passengers' committee frantically wired appeals to President Roosevelt and others in America. The exhibit includes a draft of a cable they sent for help. More than 700 of the refugees were on the American immigration waiting list, and the exhibit makes it clear that they could just as well have waited in this country as in any other.
There was no response. The U.S. Coast Guard followed the St. Louis to prevent anyone from jumping off and swimming to shore. The lights of Miami Beach could be seen a mile or so away.
On June 6 the ship finally headed back to Europe. The passengers were in such a state of despair that Captain Schroeder feared a mutiny or mass suicides. Meanwhile, Jewish groups all over the world desperately tried to get other nations to accept the refugees.
At the last minute, four countries agreed to take them: Belgium accepted 214, including Moritz Schoenberger; the rest were divided among the Netherlands, France and England. Germany soon conquered three of the four nations, and it's estimated that more than 600 of the refugees eventually died in Nazi concentration camps.
What became of Schoenberger? He was sent first to Camp de Gurs in Vichy France and later to Camp des Milles. A commercial artist, he took up painting; the exhibit contains a reproduction of his watercolor self-portrait.
All through the war Helene Schoenberger worked to free her husband. By November 1941 she got word from the State Department that Moritz was approved for an immigration visa. Another 11 months of red tape and official heel-dragging followed before he was released by the Vichy authorities.
Soon after arrival in Long Island, he changed his name to Morris and opened a sign studio. He applied for U.S. citizenship in December 1945 and, in the following year, at last became an American citizen.
To give you an idea of the difficulties he and his wife faced in communicating with each other during a world war, the exhibit features an envelope addressed to Helene Schoenberger in Jackson Heights, Long Island, mailed in Marseilles, France, on April 30, 1942. A Vichy censor opened the letter, taped it shut and stamped it, sending it on through Spain to Lisbon, Portugal, to be flown to the Azores by PanAmerican Clipper and then to Hamilton, Bermuda, where a British censor reopened it and resealed it. Finally it was allowed to proceed to New York.
Schoenberger rarely talked about his experience. He was forever looking ahead, even from the prison camps, which he regarded "with a good deal of humor and fatalism. That is our good luck having such a nature . . . we hope, that the time for our reuniting must be reached gives me the necessary power to endure."
To his daughter he wrote, "Keep our courage and keep first of all further brave, take the life as it is and endeavor yourself to enjoy your young life as well as the circumstances permit."
Schoenberger died on October 31, 1956; he was 52.
It was his granddaughter Julie Klein who discovered the letters and other documents in a box in a closet at her mother's house. She had heard only a few details of her grandfather's battle to be reunited with his family.
"I was only 3 when my grandfather died," Klein recalled last September after the exhibit opened. "The subject was taboo in the family." Her parents didn't let her study German or buy German products, a not unusual reaction by victims of the Nazis, and when she opened the box of mementos —a diary, passports, tickets, telegrams and snapshots —she couldn't understand what most of it said.
Because of Schoenberger's lifelong habit of looking on the bright side, there was little in the way of hardship in the letters. He tells Helene, "I do not know any news, what would be interesting enough for you, although there are some internal matters which are interesting for our further fate." Explaining that everybody under 55 had to work "somewhat" in a labor detachment, whether "in a factory or at the forestry or at the agricultry" —and that if they didn't volunteer for such jobs they would be moved to another camp for quarry labor or road construction —he then adds, "I am content having my occupation which prevents me for such involuntary works."
"But I do not want to trouble you with our internal life," writes Moritz Schoenberger. "I still remain more than ever with good hope and with an imperturbable belief to bring our disaster to a happy end."
He doesn't have to spell out in detail the life in a Nazi work camp. The message we can take home from these quietly optimistic letters is that whatever the circumstances, you must never give up, never quit being who you are.