The launch of the book, So Near and Yet So Far, is scheduled for 7 p.m., Wed. Jan. 25 at Ben Franklin Place, 101 Centrepointe Dr. The event is open to the public, as Tony Lofaro reports in The Ottawa Citizen.
When Herbert Karliner and his family sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939, they once again encountered the sting of anti-Semitism.
Karliner and his family were among 937 German-Jews on the ocean liner MS St. Louis who had fled the Nazis only to encounter prejudice from other countries that refused to take them in. The long trans-Atlantic voyage was a hardship for the passengers and after 10 days in the Havana port, the Cuban government refused them entry, forcing the ship to return to Europe where they faced an uncertain future.
For Karliner, who was 12 at the time, the overseas voyage was an “adventure” as it promised him and the refugees a fresh start in a country with new freedoms. Or so they hoped.
“In the port it was the first time I saw palm trees and white buildings, it was beautiful,” said Karliner, 85, retired and living in Miami with his wife, Vera.
The story of the MS St. Louis inspired the 1976 movie Voyage of the Damned. And it has now inspired a children’s book, So Near, and Yet So Far, that will be launched in Ottawa Jan. 25 at Ben Franklin Place.
Karliner will attend the launch, along with Ottawa city councillors and members of the Jewish community.
“The first word I learned in Spanish was mañana (tomorrow),” said Karliner. “But mañana never came. Finally, the Cuban president said we had to leave but we sent telegrams to Canada, South America, Central America, the United States, and to President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt to let the children in. And again we didn’t get no answer. Nobody wanted us, that was hard,” he said.
The ship returned to Europe and docked at Antwerp, Belgium, where passengers were separated and dispatched to England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
A large-scale mosaic of the ship by artist Michoel Muchnik hangs in the Jewish Youth Library of Ottawa on Switzer Avenue. Representatives from the library helped co-ordinate the research and publication of the book.
Copies of So Near, and Yet So Far will be shipped to libraries and schools across Canada to spark discussions on issues such as bullying, anti-Semitism, and immigration. The 58-page book was made possible by a $100,000 grant from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The book’s author, Sara Loewenthal, who now lives in London and is a consultant for preschools, will also be at the launch.
“It’s quite difficult to write a book about something that was so devastating to children and not come across as depressing but to give a message as well. I’m hoping that when children read the book they will understand more about acceptance,” said Loewenthal.
After the ship’s passengers were dispersed, the Karliner family ended up in France; his parents and his older sister in a small village in Mirabeau (Vienne), while Karliner and his younger sister and brother were sent to a Jewish home for children in Montmorency.
He was later separated from his siblings and he never saw his parents and older sister again after they were sent to an occupied area of France, captured and sent back to Germany. Karliner was helped by the French Resistance movement, given a new identity and boarded for some time with a family on their farm.
“The farmer didn’t know I was Jewish. I had to go to church every Sunday. I didn’t know what to do but I was smart enough to stay there and hide out. I had a very strong German accent, and thank goodness my papers showed that I was born in Alsace-Lorraine where they speak German and French. So, I got away with it,” he said.
After the war, Karliner eventually moved to the U.S. and joined an uncle in Hartford, Connecticut. He worked at low-playing jobs while he learned English. He was also drafted in the U.S. army and served in Korea and also in Japan.
When a friend told him he was going to Miami Beach, he followed him there. He said he remembers first seeing Miami in 1939 while aboard the MS St. Louis. He thought the city beautiful and vowed to return.
He settled permanently in Miami Beach in 1954 where he worked as an assistant pastry chef at the famous Fountainebleau Hotel and later opened his own pastry business. He has been married for 50 years and raised two daughters, Michelle and Debbie.
Karliner is involved with the Holocaust Center in Miami and regularly talks to schoolchildren about his own experiences. He said he’s not bitter about what he went through, but worries that history may repeat itself.
“I feel it can happen again. You see what the situation is all over the world, anti-Semitism is still prevalent,” he said.
The book launch, which is open to the public, is Wed. Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. at Ben Franklin Place.