San Mateo man recalls fateful voyage on SS St. Louis

Hans Philippi was an 18-year-old former printer’s apprentice in 1939 when he fled the Nazis aboard the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner. He and his father, mother and younger brother were among 937 Jews heading to what they thought would be safety in Cuba.

But the ship was denied entry at the port of Havana and ordered to return to Germany. Desperate to find a safe haven, the ship headed toward Miami, Fla., where the Coast Guard ordered the St. Louis out of American waters.

It seemed the voyage would end not in safety and freedom but death.

Philippi, now 89 and living San Mateo, recently attended the 70th anniversary reunion for surviving passengers of the SS St. Louis.

Passengers board the SS St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany in 1939. photo/jta/u.s. holocaust memorial museum/scott miller

At the December reunion in Miami Beach, Fla., 33 of the 75 survivors — ranging in age from 71 to 91 and coming from more than two dozen U.S. cities, Canada and Israel — were presented with a proclamation from the Senate that acknowledged the refugees’ dire plight decades earlier.

“It was a resolution recognizing that perhaps something was done wrong,” Philippi said with a touch of irony in his voice. “Congress didn’t apologize — just recognized that they might have done something wrong in sending us back.”

Philippi was born and raised in Berlin, where his father owned a wholesale notions company. “We had a good life,” he recalled. “In Germany at that time, we were Germans of the Jewish religion. But when Hitler came to power in 1933, we were Jews living in Germany.”

At first, the Philippi family did not worry about Hitler. “At the beginning, we didn’t think he’d make it. Then we thought he’d last a year or two and be gone,” Philippi said.

But soon Hitler decreed that all Jewish-owned businesses had to post the name of the owner in white next to the entrance, so that Germans would know which stores to boycott. The Nuremberg Laws soon followed, and by 1935, Philippi’s father couldn’t operate his business anymore and suffered a nervous breakdown. Philippi’s mother made children’s clothing to support the family.

They began to prepare for emigration, Philippi recalled. His parents applied for visas, but the situation worsened.

Hans Philippi (at right with kippah) joins other passengers from the SS St. Louis at a 70th anniversary reunion in Miami Beach, Fla.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Nazis picked up Philippi’s father and sent him to a concentration camp. The next morning, when Hans arrived at work, the manager asked, “What are you doing here, you lousy Jew?”

“I told him I had a contract for four years,” Philippi remembered. “He told me I had five minutes to leave.”

A month later, Philippi and his brother traveled to Holland, where they stayed with other Jewish refugees. Philippi obtained a permit to work at a factory in Amsterdam, but after his mother secured visas to Cuba — and was able to get her husband out of  the camp — Philippi and his brother met up with their parents in France.

On May 13, 1939, the family sailed for Cuba along with more than 900 mostly Jewish refugees.

The trip was exciting, Philippi recalled, and the mood aboard ship was upbeat. “We had a country we could immigrate to,” he says. “We were going to Cuba to wait for visas to go to America.”

The ship arrived at Havana harbor in June 1939, but the Cuban government did not allow the passengers to disembark, claiming their visas were void. After five anxious days, the ship was ordered to leave and return at full-speed to Hamburg.

“That meant we were going to concentration camps,” Philippi said. “We sent telegrams to [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt and other leaders asking to be allowed to land. Nobody wanted us.”

The lives of the passengers were in the hands of the captain, Gustav Schroeder.

Hans Philippi

“He did not put the ship on full speed back to Germany,” Philippi said. “He was German and he disobeyed the orders of the Hamburg government. Captain Schroeder risked his life to save us. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Even traveling at slow speeds, however, the St. Louis drew steadily closer to Europe. Two days before the ship was due in Hamburg, negotiations initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee concluded successfully, and the St. Louis was allowed to dock in Antwerp, Belgium.

Some of the refugees remained in Belgium, while the rest were sent to France, Holland and England. At the end of an anxious, roundabout voyage, Philippi found himself back in Holland.

Later that year, Philippi and his family left Holland for Chile. They were among the lucky ones. More than 500 refugees from the St. Louis were trapped in their host countries when the Nazis invaded Western Europe in 1940. Ultimately, 254 of the St. Louis refugees perished in the Holocaust.

In Chile, Philippi got a job painting signs for businesses. His life gradually resumed a more normal, ordinary course. He got married, had a son and two daughters and ran a factory that made mother-of-pearl buttons.

In 1964, he decided to move his wife and their three children (ages 16, 15 and 5) to the Bay Area. After trying his hand at real estate and retail sales, Philippi started a crystal importing business, which he owned for 33 years. He also watched his family grow to include eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Reflecting on starting his life over from scratch twice — first in Chile, then in the United States — Philippi said, “You have to be optimistic. If you’re pessimistic, you’ll never make it.”