Hella Roubicek, survivor, dies at 74

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Hella Roubicek, one of 937 Jewish refugees on a ship that was turned away from this country's ports and sent back to Nazi Germany, died April 14 at age 74.

Roubicek, a Berkeley resident, was born in Frankfurt-on-Oder, Germany, and lived for a short time in Belgium before immigrating to the United States.

She married a fellow refugee, attorney Frank Roubicek, who had been prohibited by the Nazis from practicing his profession and survived internment in four concentration camps. The couple raised two daughters here.

The Roubiceks met at U.C. Berkeley International House.

"She had just come from Tacoma, where she had been teaching, and I was taking summer classes to become a social worker," Frank Roubicek said.

It was love at first sight, he added: "First sight and last sight. I am totally devastated."

Hella Roubicek taught languages in the Richmond Unified School District.

She was only 12 when she boarded the stately S.S. St. Louis, which she described in an interview with the Jewish Bulletin last year as elegant and comfortable. She and her mother had planned to disembark in Havana.

Her father had fled to Cuba already, having been arrested on Kristallnacht and warned to leave the country within six months.

"We only had three bucks in our pockets, but the trip was paid in full," she told a reporter. "It was a very comfortable journey."

Meanwhile in Havana, an immigration chief had pocketed the refugees' money and abruptly revoked their landing visas.

When Cuban authorities refused to allow the voyagers to disembark, terror turned to panic: One man slit his wrists and threw himself into the water; several parents tried to toss their babies overboard.

As the ship coasted into Miami, members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began negotiating frantically with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow them to come ashore.

Roubicek learned many years later that a lawyer had run the talks aground by haggling over a few thousand dollars.

She and her mother settled in the Netherlands, where they stayed with a Frenchwoman in an arrangement secured by the JDC.

Her father made it to the United States, sending for Roubicek and her mother just six weeks before Nazi tanks rolled into Belgium.

On a trip to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to Holocaust victims, Roubicek was deeply shaken when she was abruptly confronted by a wall-size photo of her mother pointing to the Cuban shore.

Roughly half the passenger's on the S.S. St. Louis perished. But hundreds of others, dropped off in four Allied countries, survived.

Roubicek participated in a 1999 commemoration of the St. Louis' ill-fated voyage in Washington, D.C.

"If there is one word that describes her, it is love," Frank Roubicek said of his wife of 40 years. "She loved everybody and everybody loved her. She was loving, generous, full of compassion."

Services were held at the Home of Eternity Chapel in Oakland. A memorial service will take place at a later date.

She is survived by her husband, her sister, Rita Hubbard of Davis; her two daughters, Eva Schmidt of Concord and Lisa Eden of Moraga; and three grandchildren.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.