Hampstead survivor of doomed Jewish refugee ship the St Louis looks back 75 years on
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
In May 1939 a luxury cruise liner set sail from Hamburg on a journey that, 75 years later, one passenger remembers as a holiday adventure that became a voyage of doom.
On board the ship, the St Louis, were 937 people - more than 900 Jewish - bound for Cuba, most fleeing the fearful shadow of the Nazi regime.
But the liner never docked in Havana and its passengers, cast adrift without a port to offer haven, were eventually sent back to an uncertain fate in Europe.
One of those on board was six-year-old Rolf Altschul Allan, now a successful businessman aged 80 who has lived in Hampstead for most of his life. He was travelling with his nine-year-old brother Gerd and their parents Hans and Lotte Altschul after leaving the family home in Hannover.
Perhaps because Rolf’s father had already been interned in Buchenwald concentration camp for six weeks in 1938, the family’s mood was upbeat as they departed on May 13.
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“I do remember that it was quite a happy atmosphere for the first two weeks of the journey,” says Mr Allan, as he talked to the Ham&High at his Hampstead home surrounded by photographs and memorabilia of the St Louis voyage. “It was in fact not dissimilar to a cruise, because the passengers were leaving Germany and travelling, effectively, to freedom. It was all, as far as I was concerned, a great adventure, and that also applied to my brother.”
After Kristallnacht just months before, when more than 7,000 Jewish businesses and homes were looted and some 30,000 people sent to concentration camps, many of Germany’s Jews were seeking refuge abroad.
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Rolf remembers that his father returned from Buchenwald, where he had dug his own grave, in a dilapidated state and with shorn hair.
“Great efforts were made from then onwards to leave Germany and to eventually get a passage on the St Louis, which I believe was difficult and expensive to obtain,” says Mr Allan.
The brothers were sad to say goodbye to their grandfather’s brown boxer dog, a treasured pet, but among their parent’s possessions as they set sail were four immigration cards for Cuba and the promise of safety.
Life on ship was pleasant. Rolf and Gerd played with other children, attended tea parties and became friendly with a young German sailor and crewman named Hein.
However as the St Louis approached Havana the atmosphere on board changed.
Unknown to the passengers, the Cuban government had retroactively invalidated their landing certificates eight days before the St Louis set sail.
The ship’s captain Gustav Schroder was the first to learn that disembarking in Cuba might be impossible and, at his urging, a passenger committee was formed of which Rolf’s father was a member.
On arrival in Havana harbour on May 27, 1939, the passengers learned that only 28 of them, who had valid Cuban entry visas, would be allowed to disembark.
“The ship stayed in Havana harbour for I believe three days and negotiations were going on for passengers to be allowed to leave, but only a few did manage to get off the ship,” says Mr Allan.
“Although I at the time wasn’t aware of this, the captain - he was a very, very decent person - was instructed to return to Germany with the ship.
“That would have meant the passengers, who by that time had given up their homes, would probably have been transferred to concentration camps. But that never happened.”
The passenger committee made appeals to foreign officials from Cuba but they went unheeded and, after a week anchored in sweltering heat, the St Louis was ordered out of Cuban waters on June 2.
Captain Schroder piloted on to Florida in the hope that the United States would accept the passengers, but progress was halting and uncertain.
“Once the ship had sailed from Havana I recall, even at my tender age of six, sitting for dinner with my parents and brother, and my parents pointing out to me that in the near distance there were twinkling lights which were Florida,” says Mr Allan. “And my parents said ‘We will not be allowed to land in America’.”
As the ship approached the Florida coast, the passenger committee sent telegrams to President Franklin D Roosevelt and other world leaders pleading for refuge but even the United States, with its restrictive quota system of immigration, was unwilling to grant entry.
The voyage to Cuba had been full of celebration and hope but as the St Louis sailed for Europe the return journey was clouded by anxiety, as negotiations to find a safe place to disembark continued.
Eventually it was agreed that Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland would each take 25 per cent of the passengers and, after being at sea for more than a month, the ship docked in Antwerp on June 17.
Although they had not returned to Germany, many passengers were soon at the mercy of the Nazi regime again when war broke out and it now believed that some 254 died.
“I think the statistics say that something like 25 per cent overall perished in the concentration camps,” says Mr Allan.
“Those that were in France and Belgium and Holland - those countries were overrun by the Nazis. It was only Britain that wasn’t. That’s why my father made every effort for us to leave Brussels when we did do.”
Rolf’s family were not among those sent to Britain and instead they found themselves again fleeing mainland Europe.
On August 26, 1939, just one week before the Second World War began, the family arrived in London, first living at Arkwright Mansions opposite Finchley Road and Frognal Station and many other addresses in Hampstead and St John’s Wood during the war.
Rolf had attended 10 schools by the age of 16, but he and his brother quickly learned English and settled into their new life in north London. Their parents found the transition difficult for many years.
Rolf, who changed his name by deed poll as a teenager, went into the metals industry aged 16, later setting up his own business, which he sold in 1981. He married wife Goldie in 1953 and they have two children and six grandchildren.
He has run a residential property company, based in Hampstead, with his son since 1986. He has remained fond of cruises throughout his life and still has the family’s four immigration cards for Cuba.
“My childhood up to the age of probably 12 or 14 was pretty varied and exciting, yet pretty daunting as well, particularly when you see your mother under severe stress” says Mr Allan. “I think it makes you quite hungry to succeed, to see so much poverty and hardship around you, it was my ambition to make a success of life.
“I can fortunately say things have worked out pretty well. Not without worry and hard work, but it’s worked out well.”
* Mr Allan will attend a film screening to mark the 75th anniversary of the sailing of the St Louis at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green next Tuesday at 7.30pm.
Tickets cost £12 in advance or £15 on the door.
Call 020 8457 5000 or book online at ljcc.org.uk