April 12, 2007
Books: Part history, part mystery—the passengers of the S. S. St. Louis
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The work was tedious, but rewarding. Passengers had changed their names. Some Americanized them: Rudi Dingfelder became Robert Felder. Israelis Hebraized their names: Fink became Barak. Synagogue lists were checked, as were cemetery records. Grandchildren spoke for their long-dead grandparents, widows for their husbands, children for their parents.
The search became as central to the book as its results, and the historian detectives became essential to the story. Thus, the book is written by two people, whom I know to be unpretentious, in the third person. This device is odd at first, but as the reader is drawn into the search and marvels at the results, it ultimately works.
In the end, we learn the fate of each passenger. Though many previous researchers -- I among them -- reported that most of the passengers who were not sent to Britain died, that was not the case: Many of these passengers cheated death yet again.
Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, 87 were able to emigrate before May 1940, the month when Germany invaded Western Europe; 254 died in the Holocaust; but 365 of the 620, and almost all of those who were sent to Britain, were alive after the war. The fact that a majority survived startles us, for it cuts against the conventional understanding of the St. Louis.
The fate of each person is now known, but readers of the book and of this review are invited to complete the story, to develop the details. For, in the end, the strength of this work is not its statistics, nor is it the detective work involved in learning the fate of 937 disparate individuals 60 years after they initially cruised together, seemingly to freedom, but instead into a sea of despair and indifference. It is to remind us again that each story is unique, each passenger was a person, and each person had a story.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.
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