Liesl Loeb, 85, a Holocaust survivor who lived through a haunting piece of pre-World War II history and then made history herself by telling of it, died Sunday, Aug. 25.
Mrs. Loeb escaped Nazi Germany as a girl and came to this country with her parents. She lived in Elkins Park for many years, and died of a blood cancer at home in Warminster, Bucks County.
As a 10-year-old in 1939, Mrs. Loeb was aboard the German ocean liner, MS St. Louis, when the vessel carrying 936 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada. The story was dramatized in the 1976 movie based on the book Voyage of the Damned.
Her videotaped testimony is posted on:
Though it appeared the Nazis were allowing the refugees with their tourist visas a new start in Cuba, the Germans knew Cuba and the other nations wouldn't grant them asylum. The Nazis hoped to capitalize on that rejection and use it in propaganda as evidence of a "Jewish problem."
The liner was forced to return to Europe, and some of its passengers later perished in concentration camps.
"Her generation is the last to have witnessed events of the Holocaust firsthand, which is why it was so important to her to speak about her experiences," Mrs. Loeb's family said in a statement.
In an interview on Aug. 20, 1996, she told of a happy childhood in Rheydt, a small city in Germany, with her parents, members of the Jewish intelligentsia.
But when Adolph Hitler came to power, her father, a prominent attorney, was blacklisted and jailed for six weeks because of his affiliation with a party opposed to the Nazis. The family home was trashed.
The Jewish leaders thought the "folly could not last," but after the Kristallnacht in 1938, they realized their mistake. The family decided to leave Germany.
"All we needed was somewhere to go and somehow to get there," she told an interviewer for the USC Shoah Foundation. News that a ship would take Jews to Cuba was "a godsend," she said.
The family sailed from Hamburg on May 13, 1939. The three carried only a few dollars and the clothes on their backs.
Life onboard was "a great time" for the 300 children who roamed the decks while their elders saw movies and enjoyed sumptuous meals and high tea.
When the luxury liner entered the Havana harbor, though, it became clear that Cuban officials would not let it dock. The ship anchored a mile offshore. Relatives living ashore rented boats which drew up alongside the vessel from which they yelled up to the passengers.
"It was a circus all day long," Mrs. Loeb recalled. When the Cubans refused to budge, the boat withdrew, and a committee led by Mrs. Loeb's father, Josef Joseph, pressed for other countries to take the passengers.
"I guess it was one of the saddest days in people's lives when we left Havana," she said.
England, Belgium, France and the Netherlands each agreed to take a quarter of the refugees. Mrs. Loeb and her parents were granted asylum in England.
After 40 days at sea, the ship docked in Antwerp on June 17, 1939, her 11th birthday.
Of the 620 refugees returned to continental Europe, 254 died in concentration or internment camps, or trying to evade the Nazis, according to researchers Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mrs. Loeb's family stayed with friends in York, England, then moved to London. On Sept. 3, when England declared war on Germany, children were evacuated to a rural town, where they lodged with locals. "There was such a spirit with all of this, we were all in the same boat," she said.
When Mrs. Loeb's family was allowed to enter the U.S. in 1941, it settled in Philadelphia. She graduated from Girls High School in 1947 and attended the Philadelphia College of Art.
She worked as a graphic designer for catalogues. After retiring in the early 1990s, she dedicated herself to telling her story of survival. She has spoken in the United States, Canada, and Germany, and participated in film documentaries.
Mrs. Loeb was a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, an officer and board member of the Philadelphia Branch of National Women's League for Conservative Judaism, and a volunteer at Gratz College in the Holocaust Archives Department.
She married Hans Loeb in 1947. He died 1987.
Surviving are a son Joel; daughter Joani; and four grandchildren.
Funeral services are at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapel, 4737 Street Rd., Trevose. Interment is in Montefiore Cemetery.
Contributions may be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society via www.lls.org.
Condolences may be offered to the family at http://www.levinefuneral.com/.