Sol Messinger remembers standing on the deck of the S.S. St. Louis with his father, peering at lights in the distance.
Their ship, a luxury liner, had left Havana a few hours earlier. It was inching northward through the Atlantic. Its destination was still uncertain.
"What are the lights?" Messinger asked his father.
"It is an American city called Miami," Sam Messinger told his 6-year-old son, then a German refugee.
Fifty years later, Sol Messinger, now a Buffalo pathologist, remembers the incident vividly.
"I was close enough to see Miami, but it might just as well have been the moon," he observed, conveying the hopelessness that pervaded the decks of the St. Louis.
Messinger, along with his late father, a tailor, and his mother, Paula, were among the passengers on the bizarre odyssey of the St. Louis. The vessel took 930 Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany to Cuba, to the United States and then back to Europe.
Because no nation would accept the refugees, many eventually died in Nazi concentration camps. That's why the cruise across the Atlantic and back again became known as the "Voyage of the Damned."
The 50th anniversary of the St. Louis' voyage will be commemorated next Sunday (June 4), when about 20 survivors take an abbreviated cruise in the Atlantic to remind the world of the inhumanity that greeted the would-be immigrants.
The group of survivors and 100 guests will sail from Miami Beach on the Florida Princess to the spot a few miles off shore where the St. Louis was turned back to Europe. They will remember and weep. Then they will return to the Miami Beach Marina in triumph, escorted by a Coast Guard cutter and flotilla of private boats.
Messinger said the ceremonial gesture will remind the world "that you have to be open to those who are fleeing persecution."
The doctor will not participate in the Miami commemoration because he attended a 50th anni versary reunion of St. Louis survivors just last month in Chicago.
Messinger made it clear during an interview last week in his Allentown home that he was talking about his experiences on the St. Louis with great reluctance.
"It is unpleasant to think about. It brings up painful memories," he said. "It's not the most comfortable thing to talk about."
He consented, he said, out of a sense of obligation to his own people and to all the refugees of the world so that no one ever forgets what happened in 1939.
"It must never happen again," he said.
During the interview, his mother sat beside him, listening as he related his experiences. Frequently, she nodded agreement. Now and then, she removed her glasses to wipe away tears.
"I don't like to think of it. When I think of it, I cry," she said.
For Messinger, boarding the St. Louis was like stepping into a world he had only dreamed about. It was a relaxed world in which little boys could romp freely, a world in which people could gather in groups to exchange pleasantries -- without fear.
"I remember the contrast between what life had been in Germany. I wasn't scared all the time," he said.
Messinger was born in Berlin six months before Hitler came to power. His parents had fled Poland because of economic conditions and growing anti-Semitism. As a young boy, he had seen conditions in Germany deteriorate to the point where living in fear was a way of life. He had seen Jews beaten in the streets. He had watched as their stores and synagogues were attacked. He had learned that Jews, even little ones, could only walk in certain places and could sit only on the yellow benches in the parks.
When he was 6, the Gestapo came in the night and took his father away. In time, Sam Messinger was sent back to Poland. Sol and his mother remained in Berlin, fearful that they might never see him again.
Early in 1939, the Messingers managed to get a "number" to emigrate to America. Soon afterward, Sol and his mother were informed that they would be able to board the Havana-bound St. Louis and that Sam would be allowed to join them. In Cuba, they could wait in safety for their immigration number to be picked. Before long, they had hoped, they would be in the United States.
It is no wonder then, that the passengers of the St. Louis were jubilant as they began their voyage. It was May 13, 1939.
"Very lovely" is how Messinger describes the first leg of the cruise.
"It was very relaxed. We started living again," he said.
As the St. Louis neared Cuba, rumors began to circulate that there might be a problem with the Cuban "landing certificates" that had cost them $150 each.
Impossible, the passengers thought. Cuba's director of immigration himself had signed the certificates.
But the rumors proved to be true.
Docking in Havana Harbor on May 27, the passengers were informed that the certificates had been invalidated. No one would be allowed to land except for 22 Jewish refuges who had taken the extra precaution of obtaining Cuban visas.
Messinger clearly remembers the tearful scene on ship and on the dock as husbands and wifes, parents and children, realized they would not be reunited.
"Many of the relatives on shore hired little fishing boats to take them close to the ship," he said. "My two aunts, two uncles and a cousin came out in one. They got close enough to our cabin that we could talk to them without screaming."
Messinger said his mother had brought gifts for them and threw them to the boat "just in case" she would be unable to give them to them personally later.
"It was not pleasant," Mrs. Messinger said.
With frantic negotiations going on between the Joint Distribution Committee, an international Jewish organization, and Cuban officials, the St. Louis was ordered out of Havana on June 2. Captain Gustav Schroeder, the ship's German skipper, guided it slowly toward the United States, hoping the negotiations with Cuba would be successful or that the United States would agree to accept the refugees.
"About two-thirds of the passengers had U.S. immigration numbers to enter the country eventually. They (the numbers) meant that within two or three years we would be issued visas," Messinger explained.
So while negotiations continued in Cuba, the U.S. government and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were being bombarded with telegrams from passengers on the St. Louis and from around the world, urging that the refuges be allowed to land.
"The only response (from the United States) was that they sent out a PT boat (patrol torpedo boat) to make sure no one jumped overboard to swim to shore," Messinger recalled.
Messinger said he is grateful that America eventually took in his family. To him what happened in 1939 was an aberration -- a radical departure from the response the Jewish refugees had expected.
"If you look at the history of the U.S., it was so out of character," he said. "It was a country built by immigrants. Here we were coming in the same way, and we were turned away."
After all efforts to land the refugees in Cuba or the United Staes had failed, the St. Louis set a course for England on June 6, 1939.
"We all thought we were going back to concentration camps in Germany to die," Messinger said.
But through the efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee and Schroeder, England, Belgium, Holland and France agreed to accept the refuges.
On June 17, 35 days after they had left Germany, the Messingers landed at Antwerp, Belgium. Eleven months later, with the Nazi threat growing stronger, they fled to France. Later, they were placed in a French concentration camp but escaped after two months. Eventually, they made their way through Spain and Portugal and obtained passage on a Portuguese fishing boat. They arrived in New York City in June 1942, moving to Buffalo a month later.
"It was a miracle," Mrs. Messinger said.
Once in Buffalo, the Messingers found an apartment on East Ferry Street. Sam went to work in a tailor shop. Paula got a job selling clothing in a women's store. Sol enrolled in the public schools and eventually graduated from the University of Buffalo Medical School.
"We were very poor. When we came here, my parents had nothing but debts. But we were helped by relatives and my father worked very hard -- very long hours," said Messinger, a staff pathologist at Millard Fillmore Hospital. "If I had not had a state scholarship and worked summers I would not have been able to go to college."
Sam Messinger died in 1962.
Although he never intentionally thinks about the voyage of the St. Louis, Messinger said, sometimes he is reminded when he is least expecting it.
Recently, some friends said they were going on a cruise.
"Would you like to join us?" they asked.
His response was quick.
"No," he replied. "I've been on a cruise."