Monday, September 26, 2022

New Milford—Dr. Sol Messinger told Solomon Schechter Day School Middle School students this week that he was 6 years old when, as one of more than 900 German Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis seeking asylum from Nazi persecution, the ship was turned away first by Cuba and then by America. Before the ship earned its moniker as the “Voyage of the Damned,” the S.S. St. Louis was the last hope for Jewish refugees trying to escape the anti-Semitism that was gaining momentum in Europe in 1939.

The only child born to Polish-born Paula and Zolman Messinger, Sol and his parents obtained a visa to Cuba and departed Germany on board the S.S St. Louis. As the ocean liner neared Havana, Sol’s family and hundreds of other Jewish refugees were informed their visas were invalid and they would be sent back to Germany. He vividly remembers sailing along the Florida coastline watching the city lights of Miami fade into the distance.

“Miami might as well have been the moon to me,” recounted the retired physician from Buffalo, New York, and a family friend of Schechter student David Gerber, who celebrated his bar mitzvah this past Saturday. “Nobody wanted us,” Dr. Messinger said. “We were Jews, we were expendable …”

Multiple requests for entry into other countries were denied. Sol told SSDS students that the day before they were scheduled to anchor in Hamburg, passengers were told that Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands had each agreed to accept a percentage of the refugees into their countries.

Sol and his parents were sent to Belgium in June 1939, where they settled in Antwerp and later moved to Brussels. Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, so Sol and his family fled to France and hid in the Spanish-border town of Savignac, which later became part of the territory controlled by the Vichy government.

Several months later, Sol and his family were arrested by the French police and taken to Agde, an internment camp in southern France near Montpellier. With the help of an underground organization, Sol and his mother escaped and returned to wait for Sol’s father. Two years later, Sol’s family obtained documents to immigrate to the United States and boarded a ship in Lisbon, Portugal that arrived in New York on June 24, 1942.

“Since that day, I celebrate two birthdays—the day I was born and the day my life began again in America,” he said. “Just remember not to take for granted that most of you in this room were born an American.”

Messinger’s visit is part of the school’s inquiry-based teaching strategy to bring “Experts, Eyewitnesses and Role Models” into the classroom who, through their professional or personal experiences, can give students a first-hand look at a topic of study.

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