Days of Remembrance
April 13, 1999 — National Days of Remembrance Ceremony, Rotunda of the US Capitol, Washington DC
The occasion for a new exhibition which opened yesterday here in Washington at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the 60th anniversary of the voyage of the German ship, the St. Louis, into the pages of a shameful history. Many people have heard about this ship carrying over 900 human beings whom no one wanted, or have seen newspaper photographs of the refugees crowding the ship’s railings, peering across the short distance between exile on the high seas and rescue on the land. The land, within easy view, was entirely outside of reach. Denied entry by Cuba and shunned by the United States, the ship turned back toward Europe. In a humane and merciful moment, four countries agreed to open their doors. Unfortunately, those passengers who were taken in by Belgium, the Netherlands and France soon found themselves once more trapped under Nazi control. The luckier passengers who were sent to England managed to escape the Nazis and, in some instances, help to wage the war against them.
Several weeks ago, I was taken to a work room behind the scenes at the Museum for an early glimpse of a few of the displays and artifacts being prepared for the new exhibition about this chapter from the Holocaust. I walked around the room looking at photographs of passengers and reading descriptive panels about the plight of over 900 Jewish men, women and children reviled by Germany, repulsed by Cuba, rejected by the United States. I came upon a piece of paper covered with signatures. Apparently this was a “thank you” page to Morris Troper, European director for the Joint Distribution Committee, who had devoted himself to saving the passengers and had negotiated their entry into Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. As a gesture of gratitude for his great efforts and his leadership on behalf of their plight, passengers had signed their names on a sheet of paper for him to keep. And there, right there on that page of signatures hanging on a wall in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there was my mother’s unmistakable handwriting. There was her name, Lea Blumenstock, written in exactly the way she had signed letters and checks, exactly as she signed my report cards from school, our medical insurance forms, her citizenship papers. I stood electrified in front of that name I had seen written hundreds of other times in my life. It was as familiar as her voice or her smile. All the stories about the past transformed themselves in that instant into the living reality of my mother’s distinctive signature there among the rest. She was there on that ship, she signed that piece of paper. What was she thinking? What was he feeling? Was I, an infant, nearby in someone’s arms while she signed, or being held by my father, or in the little stroller they had with them in the photograph of the three of us on the ship’s deck? She signed that paper. My God, we really were there!
Over the years, the St. Louis and its journey to nowhere have taken on qualities of a mythic tale. But for me and about 100 others still able to bear witness (many here in this awesome room today), this story is especially poignant. Its characters and plot line are no fabled product of someone’s heated imagination. WE are the characters, and the plot is the story of what happened to us. The voyage of the St. Louis is my family’s personal life experience. Its outcome determined our fate, shaping my parents’ adult lives and my childhood.
A recognition that the Holocaust itself in all its grotesque horror is about real people in real time — about victims and killers, bystanders and heroes, craven and indifferent observers, self deluded participants, every kind of human being we have encountered in life — this realization that the Holocaust is about real human beings in a civilized world is the reality to which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum bears witness every day. The reality of the event is the Museum’s central educational message: what you see here can happen. And it did happen. It is this reality to which the Museum has already, in six short years, exposed twelve million visitors here in Washington and many more in places where exhibits have traveled or educational materials have been distributed.
Like the disrupted, shattered life histories of millions of Europe’s Jews, my own large family’s experience involved every kind of loss, humiliation and anguish survivors know as well from their Holocaust histories. But our immediate, small family — that is, my father, my mother and myself — we were ultimately much luckier than so many of our relatives.
My childhood was supposed to have played out differently. I was supposed to have grown up as the daughter of a prosperous Viennese family. I was supposed to have had sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, grandparents on both sides. It didn’t work out that way.
In the aftermath of Kristallnacht in 1938, my father was sent to Dachau, and his 24-year-old wife was left with their infant daughter and a mission — to get him out however she could. First, she obtained his release with a single ticket to Shanghai. Not wanting to leave for China without us, he attempted crossing into Belgium only to be caught at the border. Finally, she found a way out — tickets to Havana, Cuba for all of us on a ship called the St. Louis.
“`I am not a traveler” is how my mother always described herself. No matter what the circumstances, motion disagreed with her. It was a family joke that she became ill on their honeymoon in Venice when she and my father took a romantic gondola ride. It is no surprise, therefore, that my mother spent most of the St. Louis voyage seasick in the cabin. Photographs on deck show my father on babysitting duty with me. Gaunt and strained from his months in Dachau, he manages a smile for the camera, holding me in his arms or on his lap, in one instance with my mother looking on, her sad, small, wan face also attempting a smile.
After Cuba’s betrayal and America’s rejection, my parents and I were among those passengers blessed with the good fortune of being taken in by England as political refugees. After a brief stay in London, my parents were evacuated to the countryside, to a little town called Spalding, away from the bombing, although I remember well the sounds of sirens warning us of trouble coming, and I remember nights in air raid shelters. Later we moved to Leicester. At first my father worked in the fields — picking potatoes and tulips, I think — but then he was drafted into the British military, and he served throughout the war. He and my mother liked the British and were forever grateful to England for taking them in. Nonetheless, after the war, when my father’s quota number came up (he had a longer wait than my mother because he had been born in Poland), we left England for the United States because family was always the central force in my mother’s life and she wanted to be reunited with her parents and one of her brothers who had made it here.
For most of my life, I could not have stood at a podium and spoken about the St. Louis. It was a subject for the privacy of our family, not material for exposure to public view. For many years, I would have refused an invitation to make a public statement about my family’s personal history. It would have felt like a violation of the most sensitive, most private areas of our lives. My family had enough to do dealing with terrifying memories, with the murder of their relatives, the loss of their homes, and their businesses, their way of life, with the wandering to new lands, the relocation and the humiliation that came with boarding in the homes of strangers, the indignities they experienced in depending on the kindness of distant relatives, their struggles to speak, read and write in a new language, earn a living and begin everything all over, reconstruct their lives in foreign places. All of that was the essence of daily life inside my family. It was our struggle, our history, our wounds and adjustments, our lives behind the door of our apartment.
Yet now I do speak in public. I talk to students who call with questions for their class essays and term papers. I answer journalists’ queries. I do so because I have come to respect the power and cherish the value of memory, both individual and collective memory. I have come to believe in the importance of preserving memory, bearing witness, educating new generations about the events of history, and trying in whatever ways one can to bring the lessons of the past to enlighten present behavior. I do not know for sure that we learn from the past. I have my doubts that recalling evil can make people good. But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try.
My own memory of the St. Louis is mediated memory, mediated through my parents as they talked for the rest of their lives about those days. The messages and themes I heard repeatedly became my St. Louis voyage. The hotel in Hamburg where we stayed before boarding the ship requested that Jewish guests refrain from entering the dining room, stay out of the lobby and hallways, remain in their rooms. The ship’s captain treated us with dignity and respect; my parents always said he was a fine, decent man, an example of a good German. People on board were distraught, suicidal. Roosevelt would not let us in; it was incomprehensible, and a “disgrace.” England was good to us. And over and over again, etched in my brain was the message that others had not been so lucky, that we had survived and benefitted because chance was on our side.
These days I often think about my mother and father in Vienna in the early years. I strain to imagine what it must have been like for them then, at that moment in their young lives. They had it all — love, strong families, health, economic success, and high hopes for the future. Life seemed to be promising them the best one could imagine, until history’s nightmare overwhelmed and blotted out their private dreams. They spent the rest of their lives recovering from that nightmare and coping with its effects. And yet they were the lucky ones. They never forgot that.
My mother had the strong, enduring belief that sheer good luck had saved us. Of course, many people with great power over us had much to do with determining our fate; but we had virtually no ability to influence them. We were a ship of homeless souls wandering the seas at the mercy of forces and powers that had no knowledge of us as individuals and whose interest in us was shaped by their own power dynamics, parochial pressures and prejudices. The voyage of the St. Louis took place after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), when thousands of Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues were vandalized as people were terrorized), but before the onset of World War II. Nine hundred and thirty-seven people who thought they had escaped were sent back to encounter the War. Those who went to continental Europe experienced the Holocaust the way the rest of its victims did. For one brief moment they had seen the shores of America and glimpsed freedom. The clarity of hindsight tells us that at that moment people could have been saved, action could have made a difference.
As a human community, how can we develop reliable foresight, the will to act, and the skill to move in the right direction, in the right way, at the right time? Today, tens of thousands of people in great distress stare at us from the front pages of newspapers and from television screens. Victims of humankind’s evil impulses and behavior cry out at the last moment of this twentieth century. Their agonies testify to the continuation of a blind and vicious inhumanity we human beings visit on one another. Today, as we gather here to honor the dead, let us cherish the living. As we memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, let us call on the dictates of conscience and morality to find a better way to end this brutal millennium. The great challenge to the civilized world is to remember the past, to learn from it, and above all — above all else — to do better.
Source: Congressional Record, Volume 145, Extensions of Remarks,, Part 7 (Washington DC: US Government Publishing Office), pp. 9219-9220.