Dr. Sol Messinger’s Biography
Sol was born June 16th, 1932 in Berlin into a Polish-Jewish family, during a time of growing Nazi persecution throughout Germany. Late one night at the end of October 1938 the Gestapo came to the Messinger home and arrested Sol’s father, refusing to disclose where they were taking him. Six-year-old Sol and his mother went to the police station the next day, finding a crowd outside telling that many Jewish men of Polish ancestry had been picked up the night before and deported back to Poland. To make matters worse, Sol developed diphtheria a few months later and almost died. Desperate to leave Germany, the family had been attempting to leave Nazi Germany and immigrate to Palestine, America, or Cuba, but it was difficult due to immigration laws and yearly quotas which Sol says had been implemented after the first few years of Nazism as foreign governments felt “we let a few hundred in, or we let a few thousand in and we have done our part; we don’t want anymore”. There were also many stipulations to visas and immigration to get into America. After screening, successful applicants would be given a number which would determine when they could go to America. Because Sol’s family’s number was high, they were forced to look elsewhere. The Messingers had family in Cuba and decided to try there.
In April 1939 they obtained permission to enter Cuba, and booked passage on the St. Louis, set to sail on May 13, 1939, carrying 937 people escaping Nazi persecution. Sol’s father returned from Poland on a 48-hour visa just before departure. Sol’s mother recognized his father’s knock on the door, even though he had been gone almost 7 months.
The captain of the St. Louis, Gustav Schroder, did not believe in Nazi idealism and ordered all crew members to treat the passengers no differently because they were Jewish. When they reached Havana, Cuba, they remained in the harbor instead of docking, causing much worry throughout the ship. It turned out that a few days before the ship had set out from Hamburg a law had been passed in Cuba changing the requirements for entering the country, which invalidated the visas of those aboard the St. Louis. The American government, fearing that the passengers would be sent back to German concentration camps, sent a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee to Cuba to persuade Cuba to let them land, promising that the US would provide housing and guarantee the refugees would not be a burden on the Cuban economy. Unfortunately, this humanitarian gesture was unsuccessful. As the ship stayed anchored in the Havana harbor, the families of those stuck on board hired small fishing boats to go to the boat and see their relatives, including Sol’s family. Sol’s relatives were right outside the Messingers’ cabin, so Sol and his parents threw the gifts they had brought for them out the window to them on the fishing boat because they did not know if they would be able to give them otherwise.
Captain Schroeder was a decent man, and when they could no longer continue stalling in Havana harbor he told the passengers that instead of heading directly back to Germany the ship would sail along the coast of Florida while asylum appeals to various countries were made, including the United States. Sol later learned in an account included in Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts (Old Saybrook, Ct:1974) that telegrams were being sent to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt pleading for the US to give asylum to these marooned refugees, but to no avail. Although Sol feels it was shameful for America to turn its back on these people, he must not be angry because this is the country that later provided a haven for his family, and for 700 of the 900 that had visa numbers that would eventually allow them to enter. When given no other choice the ship began to sail back to Germany. Days before they landed in Hamburg, they learned the passengers would be split up and taken to England, Holland, Belgium, and France.
The Messingers were sent to Brussels, Belgium, on June 17th, 1939, where they stayed until Germany invaded in May 1940. The day they invaded Sol’s father packed up their most precious belongings and told his wife and Sol they were going to France, even if they had to walk. They were fortunate enough to find a military train with no soldiers, going to Paris. They pushed their way onto the train through the crowd fighting to board, and by evening they reached the French border. They immediately heard an air raid siren, and ducked into a tiny bomb shelter with 1000 people—so many, says Sol, one could barely breathe. When the all-clear sounded they returned to the train platform, but then another air raid siren sounded. Sol’s father said, “we are not going back down there; if we are going to die we are going to die up here.” The next morning they hopped on another train going to Paris, but every hour or so the train stopped as enemy planes attacked and the passengers were forced to take cover in the fields, miraculously spared from the strafing. In Paris, determined to get as far away from the Germans as possible, they boarded a cattle car—their home for the next several days—on a train going to Southern France, a region which the Germans left under Vichy French control. Sol recalls that sometimes when the train stopped people would bring food and water to those on board.
They settled in a small town called Savanaunk, about 20 miles from the France/Spain border. The town was so small that, even though Sol’s family had been unable to work under the conditions of their Belgian asylum, the French townspeople begged him to work. Sol’s father was a tailor and the closest one to their small town in France was miles and miles away. They wanted him to work so badly that one of the townspeople bought Sol’s father a sewing machine. After Paris was captured by the Nazis France was split into two zones, occupied France and Vichy France (Free France). Unfortunately for the Messingers the Vichy government was also anti-Semitic and they rounded up all the Jewish people in Vichy France and put them in a concentration camp near Montpellier, near a town called Ogden. This camp was nothing like the concentration camps run by the Nazis. Lacking furniture, they slept on hay, and had almost no food. The men were separated from the women and children and were only allowed to see one another once a week, leading to the creation of the camp underground to help the prisoners.
With much persuasion from Sol’s father he and his mother fled the camp with help from the camp underground on Christmas Eve. It also helped them that the soldiers were drunk. Returning to their home in the small French town, they were afraid of being caught by soldiers on the noon train, so they waited six hours for the next one when there were no soldiers. They did not know they needed papers and ID to get on, but fortunately no one checked; if they had, the escapees would have been sent back to the camp. The little village they had lived in had no train station, but a little town about a mile away did; however, they did not want to get off there because between the two towns was a police station. So they got off a stop before and had to walk five miles in late December weather. Sol had frostbite by the time they got home, but otherwise had no serious injury. His father escaped New Year’s Eve, under the same conditions, and showed up the next day.
They stayed in their town for the next year and a half without anyone reporting them until their visa number for America was called. If they had not been living in free France they would not have gotten out, though they later found out that the Germans invaded free France four months later, in September 1942, sending the Jews to Auschwitz, where all were murdered. The US had diplomatic relations with free France. But they needed to find a way to get to America. Through his father’s earnings and financial help from family in the US they made enough money to find passage on the Serba Pinta out of Portugal (a neutral nation) and transport to Portugal in May 1942. They had to find transit permits to go through Spain and Portugal. The ship stopped at Casablanca for a few days, then sailed for America. The vessel was small and hot and Sol was seasick the whole time. The Serba Pinta stopped at Casablanca before crossing the Atlantic. It stopped in Bermuda, where everyone was interrogated to find out information on free France and the [g] German lines, and after a week they sailed to New York, where they stayed for a month. Unable to find work there, Sol’s father took his family on a bus to Buffalo, where his aunts had found work. There he found a job and a very small apartment, but even though it was small and basically a slum they no longer needed to worry about being taken to a concentration camp. The rest of his family in Poland never made it. The Messingers settled in the Humboldt part of Buffalo, where they were received well. Sol is now a retired doctor and still speaks about his experiences in hopes that people will learn from them.