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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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.


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