From an article By Mike Lanchin
On 13 May 1939, more than 900 Jews fled Germany aboard a luxury cruise liner, the SS St Louis. They hoped to reach Cuba and then travel to the US – but were turned away in Havana and forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 were killed by the Nazis.
“It was really something to be going on a luxury liner,” says Gisela Feldman. “We didn’t really know where we were heading, or how we would cope when we got there.”
At the age of 90, Feldman still clearly remembers the raw and mixed emotions she felt as a 15-year-old girl boarding the St Louis at Hamburg docks with her mother and younger sister.
“I was always aware of how anxious my mother looked, embarking on such a long journey, on her own with two teenage daughters,” she says.
In the years following the rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi party, ordinary Jewish families like Feldman’s had been left in no doubt about the increasing dangers they were facing.Jewish properties had been confiscated, synagogues and businesses burned down. After Feldman’s Polish father was arrested and deported to Poland her mother decided it was time to leave.
Feldman remembers her father pleading with her mother to wait for him to return but her mother was adamant and always replied: “I have to take the girls away to safety.”
So, armed with visas for Cuba which she had bought in Berlin, 10 German marks in her purse and another 200 hidden in her underclothes, she headed for Hamburg and the St Louis.
“We were fortunate that my mother was so brave,” says Feldman with a note of pride in her voice.
Tearful relatives waved them off at the station in Berlin. “They knew we would never see each other again,” she says softly. “We were the lucky ones – we managed to get out.” She would never see her father or more than 30 other close family members again.
By early 1939, the Nazis had closed most of Germany’s borders and many countries had imposed quotas limiting the number of Jewish refugees they would allow in.
America imposed those quotas too. The person in charge of visas at the US State Department, during this time was Breckinridge Long. He denied visas to Jews when they should have been issued. Click HERE to find out about his biography.