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Focus on Issues: Researchers Race to Compile Fate of All Jews on Doomed Refugee Ship

Whatever did happen to Charlotte Atlas and Ladislas Bajor? Names. They roll across tongues with ease, but the memories they trigger can cause one’s train of thought to derail.

Since 1996, against all odds, a small core of researchers have sought to find out what happened to all 936 passengers aboard the S.S. St. Louis, the ill- fated refugee ship that Cuba and the United States denied safe haven in 1939.

Many of the passengers — some were permitted entry to Belgium, France, Great Britain or the Netherlands — were returned to Germany and perished in the Holocaust.

The stories of 40 passengers remain unknown. Researchers hope to determine their fate before the 60th anniversary of the ship’s voyage next May.

“By nature it’s easier to find the victims,” said Scott Miller, coordinator of the St. Louis Project. “Survivors are harder to find because one of the reasons they survived is that they were hiding.”

The St. Louis, manned by non-Jewish Germans, left Hamburg, Germany, on May 13, 1939, and arrived in the port of Havana, two weeks later. All but 22 of the 936 passengers held visas provided by the Cuban consulate in Germany, but their entry was denied.

“The first Spanish word I learned was manana,” Herbert Karliner, who traveled on the St. Louis at age 12, said in a recent interview. “The Cubans kept saying, `maybe tomorrow,’ but manana never came.”

Despite protests by American Jewish leaders, the United States also denied safe haven to the Jewish refugees after Cuba turned the ship away.

“It looked so nice,” said Karliner, recalling how the palm tree-speckled shores of Florida were in plain view from the St. Louis. “I said, someday I’m going to come back here.”

And he did. He lives there today. “I wish my family could see it.”

Karliner’s story is a good example of the results of turning the St. Louis away.

The ship returned to Europe just one month after its passengers fled persecution.

Karliner’s family was taken to France, but when Nazi troops advanced toward their town, only Karliner and his brother were sent to a Jewish children’s camp in an unoccupied zone, where they hid throughout the remainder of the war. His parents and two sisters were murdered.

“To imagine, my family went half way around the world to end up being killed at Auschwitz, just 20 miles from where they were born,” Karliner said.

“When we left Germany, everyone was dancing and celebrating. When we were returning, everyone was very much depressed,” said Karliner. “A lot of men on the ship had already been prisoners at Buchenwald, so we knew what the Germans were doing to the Jews. My father’s brother had been killed there in 1938.”

Said Sara Bloomfield, the acting director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is coordinating the St. Louis Project: “The years up to the war are not just part of European history, but also an important part in American history. America had a potential for action between 1933 and 1939, a window of opportunity. The American’s depth of anxiety over 900 people is striking.”

The museum hopes to use the story of the St. Louis to educate visitors about U.S. wartime policies. In a 1997 survey for the museum, only 29 percent of respondents knew that the United States did not grant all refugee requests to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

“People thought it was impossible to find out what happened to each person, but we’re doing it,” Miller said. The passenger list has transformed from a plain list of foreign names into a collage of stories of lives led, deaths faced and lessons to be learned.

“We have the documents, but they aren’t all complete, so the personal, human contact fills in the gaps,” Miller said.

Sarah Ogilvie, director of the museum’s Survivor’s Registry, realized it was possible to learn what befell each of the passengers when, in 1996, four passengers visited the registry in the same week and she traced the paths of their companions easily with the abundance of documents produced in Western Europe.

“After the first year of researching, we began to run out of information,” said Ogilvie. “When Scott Miller came to the registry, he had a lot of connections worldwide and turned this project into an internationally- supported search and a personal one.”

Adding to the challenge is the fact that many passengers married or moved to mandatory Palestine and changed their names to Hebrew ones.

The museum’s message through the St. Louis Project is intended for the bystanders.

“There is no such thing as an innocent bystander,” Miller said. “The majority of the people involved in the Holocaust were bystanders.”

That’s the lesson the museum hopes to carry nationwide once all 936 passengers have been registered into the museum’s database.

Letters, e-mails, phone calls and tips arrive daily and offer a flicker of hope as each could lead to the checking off of more sets of names and families. The fates of Frida and Johanna Gross and of Adolf, Bertha, Horst Martin and Lutz Gruntal are not known. It makes working on the project an emotional roller coaster.

“We’re always one step away from completing someone’s story,” Miller said, “but we have to be accurate.”

Ogilvie said the highlight of the last year for her was a phone call from a physician in Texas who completed an unfinished story she shared on National Public Radio of a 15-year-old passenger on the St. Louis. The teen-ager was the only passenger known to have survived after being deported to a Nazi death camp, Ogilivie learned from his relative. He’d moved to America after the war and built a family and a new life in the Midwest.

While many commend the St. Louis researchers and marvel at the idea that someone took on the task, others are quick to recall their animosity to the United States for turning their families away.

St. Louis passenger Michael Barak, who now lives in Israel and aids the project team in its search, said in an e-mail to Miller last year that it was ironic that the United States is compiling a survivor list.

“If the multibillion country would have let them in, we all could have been spared the tedious work of lists and many tears and pain,” Barak wrote. “I shall never forget this fact and hope that someday I will have the power really to forgive.”

Other survivors do not hold such grudges.

“In 1939, Uncle Sam didn’t want us,” said Karliner, who immigrated to the United States in 1947. “But in 1950 he needed me, so I served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific.”

But where are the rest? What happened to the people preceding Fritz Zwiegenthal (l), the last man on the list?

“It’s so rewarding when we can find the ending of someone’s story,” Ogilvie said. “Especially when that person survived. You see that person’s full history, and once in a while you get to talk to them, too.”

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