Ana Maria Gordon remembers nothing about her transatlantic voyage. After all, she had just turned four years old.
“I only know what my parents told me all through the years,” Gordon told The CJN in an interview in her Toronto condo. “They told me I was the only one who didn’t get lost on the ship. I used to tell my parents and aunt and uncle where to go.” She chuckles and shrugs. “I was just a kid.”
This was no ordinary ship. As the only survivor of the MS St. Louis who lives in Canada, Gordon is in a unique position to ponder Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s long-awaited apology, which is due to be delivered in the House of Commons on Nov. 7, for Canada’s refusal to admit the vessel.
The storied ship departed Hamburg, bound for Havana, on May 13, 1939, with 937 passengers who were desperate to leave the Nazi menace that had made their lives a nightmare. Nearly all were Jews, mostly German citizens. Some were freshly released from the Dachau concentration camp, on the promise that they depart Germany promptly.
Denied entry into Cuba, the United States and Canada, which “infamously turned its back,” as Trudeau said last May when he announced the coming apology, the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where 254 of its passengers would perish in death camps.
Gordon will be in Ottawa for the apology. She’s a bit nervous about being in the House of Commons and perhaps being acknowledged by Trudeau when he speaks. She’ll be accompanied by her son, Daniel Gruner, and his wife, Simy; Gordon’s grandson, Gabriel; granddaughter, Ady, and her husband, Adam Jonsohn; and two great-grandchildren, Ellie and Ronen.
Other survivors of the boat, all from outside Canada, will also be in the audience for the prime minister’s statement of regret.
Gordon is a young 83 year old who smiles and laughs often, even when recounting her Holocaust-era memories, which haunt her still. But beneath her dancing eyes is an unmistakable toughness.
She was born in 1935 in the town of Kosice, then in Czechoslovakia. She was the only child of Richard Karman, a travelling coffee salesman, and his wife, Sidonie. The family was semi-observant. Kosice was close to the Hungarian border and in 1938, the town, where the Hungarian language and culture were strong, was ceded to Hungary. Harsh anti-Jewish measures soon followed.
By the following year, “my father decided it was time to leave,” Gordon recalled. Her father had an older brother who lived in the German town of Kemnitz with his non-Jewish wife. All five journeyed to Hamburg, where they went to the Cuban Consulate to obtain visas, and then bought tickets for the St. Louis, a 10-year-old diesel-powered cruiser named after the American city.
“It was the only ship left to get on,” Gordon said.
Instead of memories, Gordon and her son have priceless mementoes from the ship: a photograph showing little Ana and her mother, both wearing coats and smiling broadly, on the ship’s wood-planked deck; a tourist-class ticket stub in her father’s name stamped May 13, 1939; and a paper slip advising passengers to, “immediately on landing, proceed to the letter or section where your baggage is placed on (the) dock.”
Fortunately, Gordon’s parents spoke openly of their doomed voyage.
“It was never a secret,” she said. “All these Holocaust things were openly spoken of in my home. It’s not like some people (who) don’t want to talk about it. It was normal to talk about it.”
At the start of the trip, her parents’ spirits, like those of the others, were high. “I know that in the beginning, they were fine on the ship. Everything was OK. My mother was studying Spanish from a book – A Thousands Words in Spanish. People were hopeful. They wanted to start a new life in a place where they didn’t have the language, didn’t know anything.”
But the mood aboard “changed very quickly” – as soon as they got to Cuba. Or, as soon as the government there changed its mind. Except for 28 passengers who purchased new documents in port and one individual who was carried to hospital in Havana, the rest were not allowed to disembark. The reasons were “increased anti-Semitism, the corrupt sale of landing certificates and recent changes to immigration regulations,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. The ship had put into port on May 27. It departed, under Cuban orders, on June 2.
After it was turned away by U.S. officials, a group of prominent citizens in Toronto lobbied Canada to accept the ship. Away on official business, Prime Minister Mackenzie King directed his justice minister to consult with the now-infamous Frederick Blair, the director of the Immigration Branch. “No country,” Blair coolly replied, “could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe. The line must be drawn somewhere.”
The ship was forced to return to Europe, where four countries agreed to accept the desolate passengers: Great Britain, France, Holland and Belgium. The latter three came under Nazi occupation within a year. Gordon and her relatives were among 214 passengers who disembarked in Antwerp.
From there, it was on to Rotterdam, Holland, for quarantine and, eventually, to Westerbork, which was then a Dutch refugee camp, but later gained notoriety as a Nazi transit hub to extermination facilities.
“We lived in Westerbork for a while,” Gordon remembers. “My mother’s brother made it to Panama and sent us papers to come. But by then, it was too late because the Germans were there sooner. We couldn’t get out.” Germany invaded Holland in May 1940.
But because they spoke Hungarian and since Hungary was a Germany ally, the family was allowed out of the camp to live in Amsterdam. Asked what memories she has of Nazi-occupied Holland, including having to wear the yellow Star of David stitched to her clothes, Gordon said, “Too many.”
But the worst was yet to come. When Hungary itself was invaded by Germany in March 1944, Gordon’s father was deported to Buchenwald and Gordon and her mother to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp north of Berlin that was mostly for female inmates.
Her mother toiled in a Siemens factory, making electrical products. Asked what she did, Gordon replied, “I did what they told me to do … odd jobs.” It was mainly cleaning and carrying things. There were just six girls in the camp.
At the camp’s liberation in late April 1945, the Swedish Red Cross came and Gordon recalls hearing the cry, “ ‘All the Dutch women out!’ My mother pushed me and said, ‘You give the names,’ because I spoke Dutch.
“We didn’t know that we were going to be liberated. We didn’t know where they were taking us. They took us to the gates of the camp. Then, the white trucks came.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but Gordon, her mother and the other inmates were rescued in an operation called White Buses, a collaboration between the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government that transported freed camp inmates to Sweden.
But first, the buses had to go through Germany and the convoy was bombed. “Some people died right there in the bombardments,” Gordon recalled. “It was awful.” Survivors were taken to Denmark and from there, to safety in the Swedish port of Malmo.
Upon learning that her father had survived Buchenwald and was back in Holland, Gordon and her mother returned to Amsterdam. Less than a year later, the family decamped to Mexico, where the uncle who had gone to Panama had since settled. Gordon’s parents would go on to run a silver shop in Mexico City. She got married in Mexico and had four children. Her father died in 1980 and her mother in 2008, at over 100 years of age.
Gordon married her second husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, and moved to Los Angeles in 1983. She came to Toronto in 2009 to be with her son and his family. She’s not a Canadian citizen – yet. “I’m in the process,” she said.
Today, she has 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She’s fluent in six languages: English, German, Hungarian, Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish.
She ended up living in two of the three countries that had refused the St. Louis passengers haven – “which is very interesting, isn’t it?” she queried.
Does she bear a grudge against the United States or Canada? “I don’t think I’m angry,” she reflected. “It happened. Politics. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”
But does she struggle with bad memories? “Very many,” she said. “I have learned to cope.” In Mexico, she couldn’t bear to see anyone in uniform. “Any kind of uniform. I couldn’t even see people with boots … the big dogs … I couldn’t watch a war movie. I still have a hard time watching (them).”
Gordon is straightforward about how today’s refugees should be treated.
“I think we should help them, in any way we can – as individuals, communities, countries. We have to,” she said.
She credits her attitude to her upbringing and has tried to pass it on to the next generation.
“My parents taught me and I try to teach my children (that) the most important thing in this life is adaptability. My parents always looked forward. They never hid what happened. It’s not like they didn’t talk about (it)s. They always looked ahead and didn’t cry about the past,” she said.
“But the scars are there, you know? And the memories are there. They come up every so often.”
As for Trudeau’s apology, it has met with mixed reactions, from those who welcome it, to those who have rejected it as too little, too late – and another example of the prime minister’s excessive contrition.
Gordon, who can rightly speak from a position of authority, called it “a great thing, because it acknowledges that this happened and then apologize for it, even if it’s 80 years later. I think it’s a very good thing. I find a lot of meaning in it because we tend to forget. We think that history is about the past. But history repeats itself.”
For more in our St. Louis apology series, please click here.