The story of the St. Louis unfolds the way most Holocaust histories do, with periodic glimmers of hope overshadowed by our own knowledge of the Jews' horrific fate. In May of 1939, with the onset of World War II, 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution boarded the ocean liner St. Louis in Germany and sailed to Cuba, where they hoped to stay until the U.S. called their quota numbers. When they arrived in Havana, however, authorities deemed their landing permits invalid and denied them entry. Due to strict immigration quotas in the States, the ship was subsequently turned away from the Florida coast, where passengers pleaded for sanctuary with the lights of Miami in view. The ship had to return to Europe, where the governments of Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands granted its passengers temporary entry. Though the story could have ended there, if not happily, on a note of relief, Germany's invasion of Western Europe sent refugees into hiding, forced labor, and concentration camps.
If there is an uplifting side to this story, it's that some of the passengers survived; many of them wound up in California. On the 60th anniversary of the voyage, Holocaust Memorial Museum researchers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller reveal their findings in the multimedia presentation "The Search for Survivors of the St. Louis."In their three-year investigation, which has accounted for all but 12 passengers, Ogilvie and Miller found people like Ernest Weil, a San Francisco baker who boarded the ship when he was 15 and wound up in a French orphanage before obtaining a U.S. visa. Weil and other local survivors tell their stories at the presentation, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Koret Auditorium of the Main Library, 100 Larkin (at Civic Center), S.F. Admission is free; call 557-4277.