BY KATHY CHANG
EDISON — It took a longtime for Eva Wiener to consider herself a Holocaust survivor.
“When you think of a Holocaust survivor, you may think of a number on one’s arm, concentration camps and someone like Anne Frank,” she said.
Wiener, of Neptune, said there are many stories of the Holocaust and her story does not fit the norm; however, her story plays an integral part in the history of those dark days from 1939 to 1946 when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about six million Jews.
Middlesex County College (MCC) served as the host to Wiener at Parkview Room in the college’s new West Hall for a program called “The Plight of Refugees: The Voyage of the St. Louis and the Holocaust” on Nov. 3.
Wiener was just 10 months old when she became part of history.
She was one of 937 passengers on the refugee ship, St. Louis, attempting to flee Nazi Europe in 1939. It departed from Hamburg, Germany, bound for Havana, Cuba.
The passengers have become a symbol of the world’s indifference to refugees and the plight of European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust.
Denied entry by multiple countries, the ship was ultimately forced to return to Europe where hundreds of passengers were eventually killed in the Holocaust.
Holland, Belgium, France and England were the only countries that agreed to take a number of the passengers on the ship.
“My father, my mother and I were fortunate to be allowed on the list to England,” said Wiener, who said shortly after the passengers went their separate ways, the Nazi’s invaded the other three countries. “The fate of those passengers was different from us.”
Wiener said she has no conscious recollection of being on the ship having been one of the youngest passengers.
“There was a boy who was two months younger than me,” she said.
Wiener said her mother and father left Poland in the early 1900s and traveled and settled in Berlin, Germany, a cosmopolitan, modern city with many museums and theaters.
“They grew up in Berlin and attended public schools there,” she said. “Everything was wonderful until the Nuremberg Laws.”
Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws on Sept. 15, 1935. The laws provided the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.
“This became very difficult for the Jews in Germany,” said Wiener.
She said her father was one of eight children and their family owned the largest bakery in Berlin. She said her mother, one of four children, was a dress maker.
“Things became extremely dangerous on the night known as Kristallnacht,” said Wiener.
On Nov. 9 and 10, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses.
“They broke glass,” she said. “That night turned the tide and was the beginning of World War II.”
Wiener said her parent’s siblings including their parents separated, some to Palestine, now known as Israel, some went to the United States and her mother’s brother traveled to Havana, Cuba.
The night after Kristallnacht, Wiener said her father was taken from their apartment and sent on a train to his country of origin.
“He found himself in Warsaw [Poland] sharing a one bedroom apartment with 12 other men,” she said.
Wiener’s mother on the other hand found out if she could someway purchase visas out of the country, then her father could come back and leave with them.
“My mom started standing in lines to embassies and consulates,” she said.
Wiener said her mother eventually was able to get visas to Siam, which is now known as Thailand in Asia.
“She was delighted,” she said, “It was a means of leaving the country.”
As they got ready to leave, the family learned the visa to Havanna, Cuba was approved.
“It wasn’t a hard decision between a third world country and paradise,” said Wiener. “We didn’t know anyone in Siam and my mother’s brother was already in Cuba.”
Wiener said her parents packed the little belongings and money that they were allowed and departed on the St. Louis.
Through stories, Wiener said the passengers were treated fairly and were respected like anybody traveling on a cruise ship.
However, things changed when the ship was about to dock in Havana.
“What we didn’t know at the time was the ship was chosen as propaganda made by the Nazi government showing that nobody cared about us or what would happen to us,” she said further feeding into the minds that their solution to eliminate all the Jews was legal.
Wiener said fortunately for the passengers, the ship’s captain, Gustav Shroeder, did not agree with the Nazi ideology and turned around to travel 90 miles to the coast of Miami, Florida.
“We were so close to Miami that we could almost read the license plates on Ocean Avenue,” she said.
At the time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided against allowing the refugees to find haven in the United States.
Wiener said the Jewish agency in France was asking countries to take in refugees and would pay $500 per passenger, which was an astronomical amount of money in 1939.
She said they were out at sea for a month.
Wiener said her life in England was difficult, but she said if her family was put on the list for France, Belgium and/or Holland, she believes she would not be here today.
Her family lived in London and Manchester, England before immigrating to the United States in 1946.
Wiener noted that three years ago, the United States, and five years ago, Canada, publicly apologized for their refusal to let the refugees into their countries.
She said with immigration a hot topic in the news today, it is important to reflect and learn from the past.
“If we do not learn from what led up to the Holocaust, we are doomed to see it again,” said Wiener. “To see genocide [or] another Holocaust would be a tragedy.”
Wiener gave the crowd of students a homework assignment, which involved sharing her story of the Holocaust with their family and later on their children and grandchildren.
Dr. Shirley Wachtel, professor of English at MCC and Terrance Corrigan, professor of history and social sciences, organized the event.
“This is the opening of our [Holocaust and Human Rights] center and we’re starting a student club,” said Wachtel.
Corrigan said with a $20,000 grant that they received from Action Grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities; they will be able to do a lot more with bringing awareness of genocide and human rights.
In the near future, the center will hold speakers for the Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1917 and the Bosnian genocide in 1995.