Voices from doomed St. Louis haunt researcher, he says here

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Scott Miller of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum couldn't stop moving. As he discussed the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution aboard the ill-fated ship St. Louis, Miller's forehead glistened with sweat, his hands punched the air for emphasis, his body rocked back and forth.

And he pointed to the guilt of the countries that refused to let the ship discharge its passengers 60 years ago, sending them back to Europe. One child survivor of the St. Louis, he said, holds the Unites States accountable for his father's death at Auschwitz.

In Miller's talk Thursday of last week at San Francisco Main Library's Koret Auditorium, he led the audience on a journey though changing landscapes. From ancient European shtetls to modern-day metropolises. From yellowed and decaying documents to e-mails. From Germany to Israel to Cuba to New York to Los Angeles. And finally, to San Francisco.

Here, speaking on "Refuge Denied," the researcher from the Washington, D.C., museum told the audience of 200 that he had a name to reveal. And a story behind that name. A local angle, it turned out.

"Max Herz," Miller said, "survived the St. Louis and the Nazi regime, and eventually made his way to San Francisco, where he passed away 20 years ago."

Then Miller paused. He let the audience savor the happy ending with a home-town twist.

The clues had been unearthed, another voice had spoken, another name had been rescued from anonymity. There was closure.

But the joy was fleeting. Of the 937 passengers on board the St. Louis, Miller and his co-worker Sarah Ogilvie knew the fates of 926. That meant 11 names were missing — 11 names "deprived of their voices, of their history and humanity," he said.

The story of the St. Louis is an ignominious and often overlooked chapter in the history of the Holocaust and World War II. The ship departed from Hamburg, Germany, in the spring of 1939 and set sail for Cuba. After various anti-Jewish rallies prevented the refugees from settling in Cuba, the ship sailed for the United States.

There, too, the ship was turned away, despite the State Department's awareness of the severity of the situation. The ship later disembarked in four European ports after more than a month at sea. More than 300 of the passengers eventually perished in the Holocaust.

Miller and Ogilvie became interested in documenting the fates of those on board the St. Louis three years ago, when four survivors of the ship requested information on their fellow passengers during a visit to the museum. Thus began the search through endless stacks of deportation lists, concentration camp records, displaced persons lists and phone directories. And thus began Miller's constant shifting, the endless dance between the living and the dead, spanning more than a half-century of history.

Time was the natural enemy of the project, Miller told the audience. The adult passengers who managed to outlive the Nazi regime and survive to the present were all at least 70. Those who died of natural causes may have changed their names, or may have been reluctant to talk about their experiences. And those who perished in the Holocaust were long ago rendered incapable of bearing witness to their histories.

And yet even the names of the long-deceased, perhaps especially the names inscribed on the registries of Auschwitz and Sobibor, had voices that needed to be heard.

"Curiously enough," Miller said, "the first voice from the past spoke to me through e-mail." Miller read an online communication that he received in 1997 from Michael Barak, who lived in Israel. The name didn't ring a bell, according to Miller, until Barak wrote that in 1939, his name was Michael Fink, a 5- year-old passenger aboard the St. Louis with his mother and father.

"This just blew me away," Miller said, "because while we were aware that the Finks were on board the St. Louis, the last clue we had to their whereabouts was that they had been deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto near Prague."

"Well, Michael Barak is alive and well in Israel. His mother died almost three years ago at the age of 86. Unfortunately, his father died almost 50 years ago in Auschwitz.

"Michael Barak holds the United States government responsible for the death of his father," Miller said. "Mr. Barak asked me how this could happen in America. How was it possible?"

The question hung over the room, long after Miller responded that he didn't think such a scenario would likely occur today, if only because people seemed to be less willing to openly express their prejudices.

The question lingered in the lobby, where the Philippi brothers, Wolfgang and Gert, both survivors of the St. Louis, swapped stories about their 50-year reunion held 10 years ago in Miami. It seems that another survivor of the ship, a woman, had shown Wolfgang Philippi a picture of herself as a very young girl on the ship. Wolfgang Philippi smiled and told the woman that they had met. He was the one who took the original photo, and he had brought it to the reunion.

Perhaps the Phillipi brothers were just as Miller had imagined them: quietly confident, impeccably tailored, hair perfectly in place. They were here, in person, telling their stories. No longer two names in a list of hundreds.

Ernest Weil, a San Francisco resident who was 15 when he boarded the ship, was also at the event, remembering the voyage and his own escape from Europe.

But Miller was still sweating. Still pacing and shifting, even during what should have been a time of celebration. Because there were 11 voices out there, whispering to him. Eleven names unaccounted for. Eleven names keeping him running.