WASHINGTON (Jan. 19)
“If you find any trace of my brother, would you drop me a note please?”
Leo Stark doesn’t know what happened to his younger brother, Paul. He is fairly certain that he was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 — three years after Cuban and U.S. officials denied him safe haven in 1939 as a passenger aboard the S.S. St. Louis. But Leo cannot be sure without proof.
Researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington have been driven for two years by the same desire to know what happened to Paul Stark – – as well as to the 935 other passengers aboard the St. Louis, most of whom were forced back onto European soil a month before World War II began.
The small core of researchers is racing to meet a May deadline, when the museum plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the steamboat’s journey to nowhere.
Since the project began, the researchers have traced the fate of most of the passengers.
In November, 40 passengers remained on the missing persons list. Two months later, with the help of a Yad Vashem researcher in Jerusalem and with calls prompted by a JTA article, researchers have crossed 20 more names off the list.
At the same time, Scott Miller, coordinator of the Holocaust museum’s St. Louis project, has added 17 names back to the list to further verify their stories.
“We’re being cautious,” Miller said. “We’d rather keep people on the list because it gives us more time to reach people and to fill in the blanks.”
Most of the passengers gained entry to Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which offered visas to many of them when the St. Louis steamer docked in Antwerp. But when the Germans invaded the latter three countries, Jews became their first targets.
Many passengers survived by hiding. Miller said it is unfortunate, but it is far easier to track the fate of a victim than of a survivor because the Nazis kept detailed records. At this point, Miller estimates that slightly more than half of the St. Louis passengers escaped the Nazi’s Final Solution.
But Miller said the goal is not just to determine whether people lived or died, “but to know how they survived.”
The researchers get excited with each lead, so as the search narrows and sources begin to run dry, finding people like Leo Stark makes the task worth every tough moment.
Although Stark couldn’t tell them what had happened to his brother, he did provide information on his grandmother. The story of Helene Spira, who was still a “missing person” when JTA published the list in November, is now known because a woman in Florida called the museum after her friend in Arizona read the JTA article in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.
Miller said the woman’s information led them north to New York’s Long Island, where Stark, Spira’s grandson, lives. Spira’s story of hiding in the attic of a pharmacist near Brussels and secret visits to see Leo in northern France during the war transformed her from a statistic to a person with a detailed, riveting past.
And what about the first name on the November list, Charlotte Atlas? The museum had been told by her best friend on the ship that Atlas caught a boat to Venezuela the day before Holland was invaded by the Nazis.
Miller has been trying to verify that she did indeed catch the boat, but has been unable to reach Abraham Horowitz of Brooklyn, who signed her affidavit to live in the United States in 1939.
Miller’s team wants more than to just collect the stories of the passengers. They want to tell them.
“The St. Louis project team is occasionally able to do what our sponsor, the Survivors Registry, does every day — help the public determine the fate of their relatives during the Holocaust,” Miller said.
The story of the St. Louis will be the theme of the Days of Remembrance showcased in the Capitol Rotunda for a week around Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is April 13. A reunion is also planned for the survivors in May.