Ranney Upper School students were able to hear an entirely different historical perspective when Eva Wiener, a Holocaust Survivor, shared her story during Monday’s Town Hall. Eva’s story is different than most, as she was a 10-month-old on the German transatlantic liner, the M.S. St. Louis, traveling from Germany to Cuba.
The morning after Kristallnacht, Eva’s father was given three minutes to pack his things before being sent back to Poland (where he was born). Living in a one-bedroom apartment with 12 men, he was most concerned while there for his wife and baby daughter, still in Germany. Eva’s mother contacted every embassy she could for a visa. With a brother already in Cuba, she secured a “landing strip” for Cuba, and Eva’s father returned so the three of them could travel together. They had to pay a large sum of money for three round-trip tickets on the liner (despite knowing they were not coming back).
There were over 900 passengers on the M.S. St. Louis, and none knew that the seemingly perfect cruise ship was meant to function as political propaganda for the Nazis, who had already infiltrated the Cuban government. When the Jewish passengers were not allowed into the country, the Nazis were able to report that Jews were not welcome anywhere, and thereby justify the genocide.
The captain of the ship refused to bring the Jewish passengers back to Germany, knowing what their fate would be. Instead, he tried to bring them to Miami. When the United States refused their entry, he sent out telegrams to try and find asylum. No one would agree to take on the 900 Jews, even when a substantial compensation was offered for the passengers. His plan to beach the ship in Scotland, ruining the boat on the rocks but saving the lives of those on the ships, was not necessary as eventually four countries agreed to take some of the passengers: Holland, Belgium, France, and England.
Despite having family in the Netherlands, Eva’s father chose England to get as far away from Hitler as possible. His instinct was right, as within weeks, the other three ports were invaded. Although life in London was difficult for those living there during the Germany air raids, Eva said that she knows that it was nothing compared to what her life would have been in a concentration camp.
After the war, Eva’s family finally made it to America and she has lived in New Jersey since the sixties. The United States has since issued an apology for not allowing the boat to dock (in 2009).
She gave the students present a homework assignment – though she let them know it wouldn’t be due for at least 20 years. She tasked the room with continuing to share her story, and the story of others like her, as they are likely the last generation to be able to hear directly from survivors about what they experienced. She urged them to tell their families, their children, and their grandchildren; and, in that way, to do their part to prevent genocide.
“I am a survivor, because I was part of significant history. The message is that simply because I was Jewish, I was force to leave a country behind because prejudice, bigotry, hate, and anti-Semitism created an atmosphere that turned the world upside down. I want to be the spokesperson for those who were not able to tell their stories and who will not be able to tell their stories much longer. We must be watchful and vigilant and careful not to judge others based on our differences,” said Eva Wiener in a recent presentation.