My name is Simon Bohanovich and I am a German Jew.
After the rise of the nazi party, my family and I lived in constant fear. The violence in our nation escalated daily. When my father and I were forced out of work, we sold our valuables and borrowed money for my emigration. I was to find work in Cuba, and use my wages to buy my family’s freedom. All their hopes of salvation rested on me.
The St. Louis was a magnificent German ocean liner. I boarded with apprehension, however, as the nazi flag waved its foreboding welcome, rippling in the wind above the ship. A life-sized portrait of our new state leader, Adolf Hitler, hung in the social hall. Treachery was a common occurrence those days, and I wondered if I was walking into a trap.
Although the aryan Germans were taught to hate Jews, the captain ordered the crew to treat us with respect. All the crewmembers obeyed this order, except one. This cruel man tormented us, stomping across the deck singing nazi songs, and leaving anti-Jewish propaganda within our view.
The official nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer, was left in the social hall. I was drawn to it, like one is drawn to the scene of a gruesome crime. I had to know what was in that paper. The beady eyes of the madman in the portrait bore holes through my soul as I read. The self-proclaimed prophet promised the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
I ripped the paper into shreds as dreadful thoughts consumed me. Maybe it was true. Maybe he would kill us all. And I had left my family there, under the threat of this monster and his demons. How could I be so foolish?
Every day was a struggle as I questioned the wisdom in leaving my family behind. I could not sleep for days. I was a shell of a man, barely eating, counting the days until our estimated arrival in Havana.
The two-week voyage seemed an eternity. We anchored in Havana Bay and immediately knew something was amiss. The landing certificates we had worked so hard to secure were no longer valid. Precious days passed. Immigrant Jews who had previously arrived in Cuba circled the ship in small boats, waving and crying for their family members onboard.
Although Cuba welcomed more Jewish refugees during this time of persecution than any other nation, intensive negotiations allowed only 22 of the 937 Jews onto dry land.
Our captain, an honorable man, encouraged us daily. He steered the ship toward the coastline of Florida, hoping the American government would help us.
The Miami skyline was fantastic, and the white sandy beach, scattered with palm trees, was a beautiful welcome mat. Surely, the land of the free and home of the brave would rescue us.
No rescue came. In desperation, we sailed back to Cuba, only to have our opportunity for safe haven officially closed. Our beloved captain reluctantly turned back toward a continent on the brink of war and mass murder.
A war already raged within me. I wrestled with anger at a world that would rather feed us to German sharks than throw us a lifeline. We were unwanted, dispensable.
Four nations finally offered us sanctuary – Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. I found work in Belgium and lived frugally, saving all I could to rescue my loved ones.
The German army was pounding its iron fist across Europe. All of my shipmate’s places of refuge, excluding Great Britain, were invaded on the same day. As the German noose tightened, I was captured and sent to Dachau. I still do not have the words or the will to write about my survival through the ghastly horrors we call a concentration camp. Maybe I never will.
I will tell you that the land of the free redeemed itself when the brave men of the 45th Infantry Division liberated Dachau and shared their coveted gift of freedom with me. All grievances with America were forgiven.
Hitler’s Final Solution erased most of the Jewish population of Europe from the face of the earth, including my family. I was alive, but my spirit was dead.
As the voices crying, “Never again!” fade into silence, I see the same seeds of hatred being sown in hearts today. After 91 years, I have learned one thing during this voyage called life. There is nothing new under the sun*.
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