WINNIPEG — Eighty-three-year-old survivor Herbert Karliner was one of 936 German Jews who tried to flee Hilter’s persecution by boarding the ill-fated St. Louis ship that sailed away out of Germany toward freedom in America.
Karliner and the other passengers had paid their passage and had their quota numbers for entry into the United States. They were to arrive first in Cuba, and stay there while waiting for their numbers to come up for entry into America. The tragic story of the passengers of this ship was one Hollywood retold in 1976 in the movie Voyage of the Damned.
“We were in the Cuban harbour for one week. The Cuban police stopped us from disembarking. The first Spanish word I learned was manyana [tomorrow], but manyana never came. We were turned away by the Cubans and cruised around to Miami. We sent telegrams to [then U.S. president Franklin D.] Roosevelt to let us in, and then we sent a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt asking her to let in even just the children. But we didn’t get an answer. We sent telegrams to South America and Canada [which went unanswered]. Nobody wanted us,” Karliner said in an interview with The CJN.
He was in Winnipeg as part of a Canada-Israel Friendship Tour sponsored by Watchmen for the Nations and other Christian groups last month.
“I was 12-1/2 years old and I could see Miami from the ship, and I was so impressed with it I knew I wanted to live there,” Karliner recalled.
The Jews on the ship were finally granted entry into various countries, including France, Holland, Belgium and England, but as the Nazis overtook Europe, more than a third of them were killed.
“I came to France, and one year later we were occupied by Germans. On Aug. 26, 1942, I was arrested and taken by the Germans to a camp. All of the boys over 16 were taken to Auschwitz. I was very lucky. It was one week before my 16th birthday and they let me go,” Karliner said.
His sisters and parents “were arrested and taken to Auschwitz and never came back.”
A French Jewish humanitarian organization, the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), offered Karliner “false papers,” and he boarded a ship “to go to Spain and then to Palestine.” But he never got to Palestine.
“After arriving in Spain, I was caught and sent back to France. Then the OSE gave me money to go to Switzerland, but when I got there I was arrested and sent back to France… and finally the organization [OSE] placed me in a village in France, where they [the villagers] didn’t know I was Jewish or German. My papers showed I was born in Alsace-Lorraine. The farmer [I lived with] didn’t know I was Jewish. I went to church and worked like a slave, but at least I had a roof over my head and something to eat,” Karliner recalled.
After being liberated by the U.S. Army in 1944, he reconnected with OSE, and through it he was sent to a displaced persons’ camp in France, along with 450 Jewish boys who had survived Buchenwald.
“Elie Wiesel was one of those boys. [Israeli] Chief Rabbi [Yisrael Meir] Lau was one of those boys,” Karliner said.
He finally made his way to the United States in 1946 and headed straight for Miami Beach.
“In 1950, I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying, ‘I want you.’ In 1939, Uncle Sam didn’t want me, but in 1950 I was drafted into the American army and sent out East [serving as a translator in the Pacific],” Karliner said.
A retired baker, he is married to a woman he met in a children’s home in France. They have two daughters and three grandchildren.