Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

A Holocaust Refugee

- Beatrice Bonne Sichel ‘51

In 1939 Beatrice and her family were among a small number of passengers permitted to disembark from the St. Louis in Havana. Hundreds had to sail back to Nazi-occupied countries.

My family lived in Nuremburg, Germany. My father was a furrier. He sold skins to people who made fur coats. It was a family business.

On September 29, 1938, a few weeks before Kristallnacht, my father left for Havana Cuba. By that time it was common knowledge that the German police would arrest men and then release them on their promise to leave Germany with their family. This was one of the ways the Nazis used to make Germany “Judenrein,” free of Jews. I was four years old. My brother was only 14 days old, and my mother’s doctor advised her to wait a few months, that travelling with an infant, especially to a tropical country, could be harmful to the baby. My father left us with great reluctance.

My mother then booked passage for herself, my brother and me on the infamous ship St. Louis that was to sail from Hamburg in May 1939. In the interim she sent me to stay with a cousin in Antwerp, Belgium. The plan was that we would meet father in Havana, where we would all wait, until our immigration number for entry to the United States came up. I stayed in Antwerp until it was time to leave. In May 1939 we boarded the ship and sailed to Cuba.

The ship was filled with about 900 refugees, many of them women and children. All the passengers had bought landing permits from a Cuban official. Unfortunately, when the ship arrived in Havana harbor, due to a number of circumstances, the Cuban government would not honor these landing permits and refused permission for the passengers to disembark. Only a few passengers who had valid visas were permitted to get off the ship. Fortunately, we were among those lucky few, and we were allowed to disembark and enter Cuba.

The story of the ship is detailed in the book, Voyage of the Damned. The St. Louis tried to get permission from the United States, Canada, Mexico and other Latin American countries to land the passengers, but all refused. Eventually they were forced to return to Europe. The fate of the returned passengers is described in a recent book titled Refuge Denied by Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie. Two hundred and eighty-eight passengers were accepted by England and survived the war. A total of 620 passengers were distributed among Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Two hundred fifty-four of them perished in the Holocaust.

We met up with our father in Havana and lived there for six months, until our immigration number was accepted. We arrived in New York City in November 1939. Since I was now 5 years old, I was accepted in the kindergarten of our local school. Of course, I spoke no English, but I assume I picked it up pretty quickly, as in the first grade I started to learn to read.

We were embarrassed to speak German; although war had not yet been declared, in the U.S. Germany was already deemed to be the enemy, and we wanted to Americanize as quickly as possible. My family had a difficult time financially, and we struggled to keep our heads above water. Eventually, my mother went to work to help supplement the family income.

I became a good student, which resulted in my being admitted to Hunter College High School. It was then and still is one of the best high schools in the country, where I received a superb education. I hold degrees from the City College of New York and Brandeis University and was a science librarian at Western Michigan University for many years. I am now retired.

Since I was only 5 years old when I came to the U.S., I don’t remember much. My mother who was still in Germany on Kristallnacht did not talk to me about it. I do not consider myself a survivor, since I never suffered any trauma other than relocation. I am a Holocaust refugee.

- June 2008

Beatrice passed away in 2013.

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