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Voyage of the St. Louis

Tracing the Fates of the St. Louis Passengers


[Sarah Ogilvie] When the Holocaust Museum opened, I think no one knew exactly what would happen in the Survivors Registry. We knew a lot of survivors would come, but there wasn’t a real clear understanding of what they would want. But it was clear from day one that after registering their own names, what they really wanted to know was what happened to their family members who didn’t survive. Many people don’t realize that 50, 60 years after the event, many Holocaust survivors still don’t know with any precision what happened to their family members. So that was the overwhelming question when survivors came to the Registry. So we educated ourselves to find out what sources there were, what books, what archival collections, what databases, and we also went about systematically collecting those materials to help survivors find out the answer to the questions they brought to us. When the project started, it was really just me and my interest, and what was different about it was that it was looking for people who had participated in an event together, following up my own sort of hunch that it might be possible, that there was enough documentation, to allow us to answer this question that really was unanswered: what happened to this group of people that were off the coast of Miami, who were traced in the American press? This story made headlines in the New York Times and other major American newspapers. Then the war began and nothing more was known. But this group of 937 people shared this period of time on a ship, returned to Europe, were dispersed to various experiences and locations. Could we, using the resources that were available, reconstruct case by case what happened to each person? I don’t know of another example of a project that’s ever been done like that.

[Examining document] It’s interesting, she doesn’t really have very much luggage either, if you look at some of these... I guess those are others with families.

[Scott Miller] Right. We should find out for sure if she’s a widow.

[Sarah Ogilvie] But I’m pretty sure that’s what that means.

[Scott Miller] Could be.

[Sarah Ogilvie] Marital status.

[Scott Miller] In late 1996 Sarah Ogilvie asked me if I would like to join her team effort to trace the fate of all the passengers on the St. Louis, and I said, flat out, no. I wasn’t interested. I was skeptical (a) as to whether it could even be done, such a project, (b) like most people I believed they all perished, so what story are you telling, (c) I thought it would consist of exclusively archival work and looking at shipping manifests, and I didn’t want to do that all day, and (d) even conceptually I didn’t understand at that point how you could tell a story of an event in the Holocaust, particularly one dealing with American refugee policy, through the stories of individuals. Basically I just thought it could not be done. What turned me around was my first success in finding the fate of a missing passenger. What had happened was I’d seen the list of passengers that had been located by the Survivors Registry, and who were still alive. In fact I noticed that almost all of them lived if not in the United States, in England and/or in Australia. And I said, this is impossible, there has to be, demographically speaking, statistically speaking, there has to be a St. Louis passenger, at least one, who went to Israel. And I placed our list of missing passengers in a newspaper in Israel, and this was in April of 1997. I got to work at 9 that morning, and this was an afternoon daily newspaper so it was already being sold on the streets of Tel Aviv at 4 in the afternoon that day. I turn on my e-mail, and I see a message from an M. Barak, and the e-mail said as follows, it said: “Dear Mr. Miller, My name today is Michael Barak but in 1939 on board the St. Louis it was Michael Fink. I was 5 years old.” Five-year-old Michael Fink was one of the passengers we were looking for. He was on the St. Louis together with his mother, Herta Fink, and father, Manfred Fink. We knew that they had been among the passengers sent to Holland and from there deported to Theresienstadt. That was the end of our paper trail. He and his mother Herta Fink were liberated at Theresienstadt, though his father was deported to Auschwitz and presumably died of some disease on the way. But it was this first “find” of mine in Israel that made me realize that the project was not just about sitting in archives looking at lists, but it was looking for people, live people, not their names on lists from 50 years ago, but looking for people.