It was like a cruise, then the suicide attempts began

Gisela Knepel was just 15 when she boarded the SS St Louis as a refugee fleeing the Nazis for asylum in Cuba. Seventy years on, now Gisela Feldman and living in Manchester, she recalls how a voyage of hope turned into a nightmare


December 9, 2009
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Gisela Feldman on board the St Louis. She was enlisted to watch out for her fellow refugees who would rather try to kill themselves than be returned to Nazi Germany

Gisela Feldman on board the St Louis. She was enlisted to watch out for her fellow refugees who would rather try to kill themselves than be returned to Nazi Germany

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the ship. It was a luxury liner and we were kids, thrilled to see there were cinemas, comfortable cabins and a swimming pool. It was such a contrast to the misery of our life in Berlin.

My parents were originally from Poland and, in the middle of the night on 28 October 1938, the SS raided our flat and arrested my father. My younger sister Sonja started shouting at them and they told my mother they’d take her away as well if she wasn’t quiet. I just went into the kitchen and made sandwiches for him. It was a reflex. I suppose I felt that it was all I could do for him. He was deported back to Poland.

Then came Kristallnacht in November. I remember walking on broken glass and seeing the smashed shops and the burning shul. It was very frightening. We were evicted from our home — the flat was given to a German family and we moved in with our aunt whose husband had also been deported.

My mother, Chaja, tried repeatedly to get visas for us to leave the country, to anywhere. Looking back now, as a mother and grandmother myself, I understand her desperation but am amazed at her determination. She heard that the Cuban embassy was selling entry visas and went there again and again. Eventually she managed to get four visas which we received the day before the ship sailed.

Father’s transit visa to return from Poland hadn’t arrived. He was able to phone and pleaded with my mother not to leave without him. It must have been a very hard decision, but she was determined that her children had to be saved. She managed to get a berth for him on a ship leaving two weeks later, hoping his papers would arrive by then.

Family and friends came to see us off on the train to Hamburg. I think I knew in my heart that we would never see them again. I still get choked whenever I see someone off at a station.

I felt a mixture of relief and awe when we boarded the ship. I was a teenager and couldn’t help feeling excited at sailing on a luxury liner. Teenagers take advantage of the present; we didn’t think of tomorrow. I shared a cabin with Sonja. The meals were wonderful and we were served by waiters! We’d never experienced such luxury. We played games on the sports deck, enjoyed films in the cinema, shows in the theatre and dances. There was a holiday atmosphere and we enjoyed the fun. I got friendly with a boy from Czechoslovakia, but it wasn’t romantic in the way that youngsters get together today.

My mother just sat in a corner. Remember, she’d left her husband behind and we had no money. We’d been allowed to take only 10 marks, about £1, with us when we left. She didn’t join in the fun.

The captain did everything he could to make the journey enjoyable. He let us take down Hitler’s portrait in the room where we held Shabbat services. Most of the women had brought their candlesticks and there was a wonderful family atmosphere on Friday nights.

Gisela (front left), her sister Sonja (front right), her mother (third left) and other passengers in holiday mood. The atmosphere changed when they were barred from disembarking at Havana

Gisela (front left), her sister Sonja (front right), her mother (third left) and other passengers in holiday mood. The atmosphere changed when they were barred from disembarking at Havana

We arrived in Cuba the day after Shavuot on May 27. We’d had a nice party the evening before and all of us stood on deck ready with our suitcases. At first, we just thought the liner was too big to enter the harbour. The launch police told us there was “a bit of a problem”. They kept saying “mañana” — “tomorrow” — but mañana never came. We remained in the harbour for almost a week. The shore looked beautiful. We saw the palm trees and little boats buzzing around. But the pleasure we felt at the view was soon overtaken by anxiety. Many of those little boats contained relatives of passengers. They called out names as they circled the ship. I remember one man shouting to his wife: “Throw my son down. At least I will have him.”

Just a handful of people were allowed to disembark. The captain tried to keep our hopes up by putting up notices and told us that someone from the American Refugee Committee was negotiating on our behalf. Eventually, one of these negotiators came on board and told us they were trying to prevent our return to Germany. At the mention of Germany, the atmosphere changed completely. Some of the passengers had been in concentration camps and all of us had witnessed Nazism. I saw one passenger walk towards the railings with blood dripping from his wrist. He jumped overboard but was rescued by a sailor.

“The passengers formed a committee. Even we youngsters helped to patrol the ship to watch out for suicide attempts. There was talk of scuttling the ship if it returned to Germany. On June 2, we left Havana harbour and spent four days sailing between Havana and along the beautiful Miami coast. We stopped in sight of Florida. But whenever we got near the American coast, a gunboat was sent out to prevent anyone swimming ashore. Many of the passengers had USA quota numbers for eventual entry to the country, but nobody was allowed off. All our pleas were ignored. A telegram was sent to President Roosevelt and, when that failed, a plea to at least save the children was sent to Mrs Roosevelt. She never replied. By the time we left Miami on June 7, we were running out of food and water. There were no more games, dancing or fun. Just anxiety. We felt helpless, hopeless, unwanted. When we realised we were heading back to Europe, people were actually plotting to scuttle the ship. The captain tried to calm us by saying that, whatever happened, he would not take us back to Germany. On June 10 we learned that our cause had been taken up by the Refugee Committee in Paris. Belgium, Holland, France and Britain responded and agreed to divide the passengers between their countries.

I was amazed that a telegram came from my father who had managed to take his berth on a ship two weeks after we left, only for the captain to turn back to Hamburg when he learnt of the fate of the St Louis. There were only two words on the telegram: “Choose England”. After five-and-a-half weeks at sea, we finally docked in Antwerp. Nearly 300 of us were then crammed into a cargo ship, sleeping on bunk beds in the hold and sharing two toilets. What a contrast to the liner — but we didn’t care. We felt safe. We arrived at Southampton on June 21 to be greeted by bunting and fireworks. Of course, it was not for us. It was a rehearsal for the return of the King and Queen from America the next day.

I often wonder why father was so insistent that we choose England. He couldn’t have known that at least half the passengers who went to the other three countries were to perish, like him, in the Holocaust.

Stranded at sea

The SS St Louis set sail from Hamburg on May 13 1939. On board were over 900 Jewish refugees with entry visas to Cuba. When the ship arrived at Havana, they were not allowed to disembark. Pleas to the USA and Canada to take them in were rejected. After over five weeks at sea, the ship returned to Europe, where the refugees were accepted by Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. Now, 70 years on, over 30 surviving passengers are attending a reunion in Florida, where they will make up the jury in a mock trial of US President Roosevelt. Gisela Feldman will be there. “We’ll show the world how little people cared about those passengers,” she says.

Gisela Feldman was talking to Gita Conn

    Last updated: 3:20pm, December 9 2009