Eighty years ago on May 13, 1939, 937 passengers left Hamburg, Germany for Cuba with the belief that they were leaving behind Nazi Europe for a new life beginning. They had visas, tickets on a luxury liner, the MS St. Louis and all was going to be okay.
Among those passengers, was my uncle, Siegfried “Fred” Hofmann — the youngest of my father’s siblings. Little did he know that his life was going to be so dramatically changed by the events that occurred when the ship reached Havana. Not only were the passengers not allowed to disembark, but several took their lives when they learned that they were being sent back to Europe.
The story of those passengers has been documented in Refugee Denied, a book by Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie. It took ten years to locate and document what happened to each passenger on the ship. The United States of America did not offer refuge to the passengers and as such they were sent to four European countries.
Uncle Fred was one of 183 interned to the Westerbork labor camp in Holland.
My father, Benno and his brother Ludwig had sent the National Refugee Service $500 bond for Siegfried when there was still hope that the refugees on the St. Louis would be permitted to dock in Cuba. Fred was interned in Westerbork from June 18, 1939 until April 13, 1940 when he received his US Visa. Affidavits had been submitted on his behalf by his brother Ludwig and my mother’s brother, Erich Hamburger. Siegfried arrived in New York on the SS Pennland from Antwerp on May 16, 1940. With him he brought one suitcase containing some clothes and a Wimpel (Torah Binder) which was sewed by his oldest sister, Paula on the occasion of his Brit (circumcision).
Fred enlisted in the United States Army on October 20, 1942. He was still serving in the army when he became a US citizen on April 4,1944. He was honorably discharged on April 10, 1946. He subsequently moved to Chicago to be close to his family as many of his relatives had relocated there. He married in December of 1964 and worked as a wine salesman with his siblings Ludwig and Irving until his retirement in 1986. After his retirement, he became a regular attendee of the morning minyan at Anshe Emet synagogue in Chicago. There he established a close relationship with Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen, who in 1991 nominated Fred for an award from the Simon Weisenthal Center. This was the first time that he was able to speak about his experience publicly. He passed away three months later.
From the time he left him home in Germany until his death, Fred kept his wimpel with him. It was the one item that connected him to his family and his past.
This past March, 19 of Fred’s descendants gathered at the Jewish Museum in New York City, where that wimple is now being displayed. The Museum has an extensive collection of wimpels, but my Uncle Fred’s journey — from Germany via the St. Louis nightmare and through his service in the United States Armed Forces was found to be beyond unique to the Museum Curators.
May the memory of Shimshon bar Avraham v Miriam be a blessing to all who knew and loved him.