Noted nutritional biochemist Hans Fisher, Rutgers Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Sciences, and his family emigrated from Germany in the late 1930s to escape the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews. He was among the refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939 when the ship was turned away from the United States and Cuba. He later settled in New Jersey, attended Rutgers College of Agriculture and became a professor and administrator at the university.
The Rutgers Oral History Archives interview of Dr. Hans Fisher was done in two parts, conducted in January 2004 and March 2005.
In the excerpts below, Dr. Fisher recounts to Oral History Archives director Shaun Illingworth the impact on his family of the infamous Kristallnacht and their ultimate voyage to Cuba on the ill-fated ship St. Louis. Read the entire interview at the Oral History Archives.
SI: To begin, could you briefly give us a little of background on your family? Where were you born? Where was your family from?
HF: I was born in Breslau, Germany, Breslau, after World War II, became Polish. It’s now called Wroclaw and my, both maternal and paternal, grandfathers came from a little town, which became Polish already after World War I, not after World War II, so, that’s the kind of background. My paternal grandfather owned a mill, a flourmill, in this little town called Kempen, now it’s called Kepno. My father studied law in Breslau, but never practiced as a lawyer. He worked for various large businesses, particularly a big pharmaceutical company in Konigsberg, which is in East Prussia; [I am] trying to think what it’s called now. It’s Russian. It’s one of these really crazy areas. It’s a tiny enclave in what used to be Eastern Germany that the Russians kept. I can’t think of the name.
HF: Yes. Anyway, it still is Russian, even though it’s completely cut off from Russia. It has absolutely no land or any other connection to Russia. It’s bounded on one side, well, maybe on both sides, I’m not sure, by Poland now, but it’s on the Baltic and that’s why the Russians kept it. They used it, … probably, as a submarine base during World War II.
SI: For the record, can you tell us when your birthday is?
HF: Yes. My birthday is March 4, 1928, and as I said I was born there and I went to a Jewish day school, primarily, because by the time I was ready to go to school, Hitler was in power. … Jewish kids were not allowed to go to public schools anymore. So, I went to a Jewish day school, but this day school had existed prior to Hitler’s advent to power. In 1938, on the infamous Kristallnacht, which took place on November 9, 1938 on November 10th, in the morning, my father was picked up by the Gestapo, and taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. … A friend was able to get him a visa, to get out of the country and on the basis of that visa, he was able to get out early in January of ’39, and ended up in Cuba, in Havana. … Then the rest of the family, my mother, my sister and I, left on May 13, 1939 on the equally famous, infamous, ship, the St. Louis for Cuba. … Then, as you and others undoubtedly know, that ship was not allowed to land and permitted its passengers to land, just some very, very few. I think twenty-two people were allowed to get off and these are all people who had very good connections to the guy who owned the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia.
SI: William Randolph Hearst?
HF: No, not Hearst. He endowed the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, very famous guy. He was ambassador to England under one of the early presidents. What’s his name? Walter H. Annenberg. Anyway, Annenberg had friends and relatives, and these twenty-two people were the only ones out of some 950 that were allowed to get off. … The rest of us stayed on the boat, and then the boat was shooed out of the harbor. It never was allowed to dock. It stayed outside the harbor and little rowboats would come around and circle the boat. That’s where we saw my father, way down. … It was a pretty high, big boat and, you know, you couldn’t really make any contact. You couldn’t even talk.
SI: What was the mood like on the boat during those days?
HF: It was very somber and there were some people who tried to commit suicide. Actually, one other person also got off because he tried to commit suicide and jumped overboard, and they took him to a hospital in Havana, so, he also stayed in Havana. But, the mood was pretty bad. … Then when the boat left, they tried first to approach the coast of Florida, Miami. We could see Miami very nearby, but, the Coast Guard chased the boat away. … Of course telegrams were sent to Roosevelt, you know, it’s a well-known history that he refused to let them in.
SI: You were about eleven at this time?
SI: Were you aware of what was happening?
HF: Oh, yes.
SI: And the consequences of going back and so forth?
HF: Sure, very much aware. I’ve been aware of what was going on back in Germany where things, you know, it wasn’t that things suddenly got bad on Kristallnacht. The summer before if I’m not mistaken, the summer of ’38, Jews who had been born in some other country, like quite a few Polish Jews, were suddenly picked up and deported. Poles wouldn’t take them in and these poor people suffered without food or water in this kind of no man’s zone at the border. Many of them died. … Some of these people had children who were in my class in school. So, I knew. I was very much aware of what was going on.
SI: What about the systematic stripping away of rights?
HF: Well, of course, also, my father could no longer work. … All these things we noted. We had tried already to emigrate, maybe as early as ’37, but it was very difficult to get visas, to any country, really.
SI: I’ve heard there were two schools of thought; one, simply, you had to get out immediately, the other we can ride out the Nazis’. Were you aware of debates like that?
HF: Well, I would say that in my immediate family we felt we had to get out. My grandparents’ generation was among those who felt, I remember my grandfather saying, “What are they going to do to me? I’m an old man.” He was eighty years old already. “What are they going to do to me? I lost four sons in the German Army in World War I.” He lost four sons and that ought to count for something. … So he figured he can ride this out. But, he didn’t. He died in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. They were all deported from Breslau later. So, the boat eventually, again as you probably know, went back and eventually landed in Antwerp, Belgium. … There the passengers were mostly, arbitrarily, divided up into four groups. One group went to England, another group to Holland, a third group stayed in Belgium, and the fourth group, on which my mother, my sister and I were, went to France. We were sent to France. My mother and my sister joined most of the others and … they were sent to a little town in Central France called Laval, in the province of Mayenne. … Children over ten, which included me, were sent to some children’s camps near Paris, which were actually very nice. … These camps were supported by an organization called OSE, which means help, but, …actually the letters stood for something else. … I was in this camp from July, we left in May, and … by now it had gotten to be July, until about November I would say. The war broke out on September 1st, and by October the Germans were bombing the outskirts of Paris. … We spent more time in air raid shelters than above ground. … So, by that time they decided to send some of us, not all of the children, but many of them were sent back to their families, so, I was sent to Lavaland I spent from November, about, roughly, two months, until towards the end of December in Laval. … Then, we were very fortunate; my father was able to get us visas again to go to Cuba. … This time we actually made it. There are many interesting tales. I’ll tell you one. When we were about to leave on that ill-fated first trip to Havana, we had to pick up permits, which cost 500 dollars per person. … My mother and I went, my sister stayed with a friend in Hamburg, and we went to the Cuban Consulate to pick up these permits. … You know, it was a typical consulate I guess, and [we] went up to a counter. … I don’t remember whether my mother paid the money, my guess is that that had been paid before. … She really just came to pick up those permits. … This didn’t take but a few minutes, and she put those permits in the passport. … She turned around and we were about to walk out, and next to the door, the exit door from this consulate, there was a little desk. … There was a young woman sitting behind that desk and she accosted my mother and said to her, “Ma’am would you like me to stamp a visa in your passport?” My mother was completely taken aback, and then she kind of collected herself and said, “Oh, I don’t really think we need that because I just picked up these permits.” So, that was that, and we walked out. If she had gotten that visa, they would have let us off the boat. Of course, I imagine that if everybody had gotten the visas they would not have, because there were only these very, very, few people who were let off. So, that was one of these incredible tales. Now, when we left the second time, again, it left some very interesting memories, we took a train from Laval, this little town, to I think Le Havre, a big port, and we arrived by train. We had just gotten off, we were still on the … what do you call that?
HF: … On the platform, in front of the tracks where the train was still standing, with whatever, a couple of suitcases, perhaps, … at that moment, there was an air raid and the locomotive of the train from which we had just gotten off was hit. It was a steam engine and the sheer noise from that explosion, you know, the steam escaping was so strong that we were all thrown with great force to the ground. We all had bruises, you know, it was a cement platform. But fortunately, nobody was hurt because, you know, the engine was way up in front and we were way in the back someplace. … We stayed in a hotel overnight. Again, there were air raids all night long. I only remember, we didn’t even bother going out. We were so inured to these air raids all the time [that] we didn’t bother anymore. … The next day we boarded this ancient French boat called De Grasse, that had been taken out of mothballs. It had already been discarded, but they weren’t going to risk any modern or newer boats. … This boat was full of Spanish loyalists, refugees, because the Spanish Civil War was just over. … We were probably the only non-Spaniards on that boat. Everybody spoke Spanish. … The boat just crossed the Channel, to the British port, Southampton, and we stayed there for two weeks until a convoy of about 200 ships assembled. Most of these, of course, were merchant ships escorted by several British destroyers and cruisers. … This was the end of December, beginning of January, 1940. … After two weeks this convoy left for New York because that was the period of the great submarine warfare. Germans were sinking merchant ships right and left. And I remember two things; number one, it was an extremely stormy passage. My mother was so deathly seasick, and so were most of the other people. For some reason I wasn’t seasick at all. But, I still remember playing Ping Pong at one end of the boat, and the ball would remain suspended in midair, you know, it was going up and down like that. It was very, very stormy. … Most of the people, who were not too seasick, were just walking around with life vests all day long. They saw submarines everywhere. Again, you have to remember these were people who had just escaped from the Spanish Civil War, and so they were very paranoid about this kind of thing. But, the voyage was completely uneventful and I don’t remember whether it took five days or seven days to reach New York. … Then, we had the pleasure to be interned for four days on Ellis Island, because we didn’t have any visas for the States, and we had to wait for a boat to Cuba. So, we were on Ellis Island, and I remember it very fondly because the thing that really sticks out in my mind is to get fresh milk to drink. I hadn’t seen fresh milk in a long time. … Then we were on one of the luxury Grace Line boats from New York to Havana, which was like being in a paradise of food, and the quantity of food, and all that. … Then, we were reunited with my father in Havana and stayed in Cuba for about a year, until February 1941. … At that time we were able to get visas for the States. It was a very rigid quota system to come into the States. … My mother, my sister, and I could have come almost immediately because we were German quota, but my father was Polish quota, because the little town where he was born in, Kempen, had become Polish after World War I. … These immigration laws were absolutely crazy. I don’t know if you know how they operated. It went by the nationality in 1924 of your place of birth. So, even though he was born in Germany, because when he was born in this town it was German, but that didn’t matter. In 1924 it was Polish. So, he was Polish quota. … The Polish quota was tiny, tiny, tiny because the United States kept out Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, no Italians, no Poles, and so on. But, by this time the war was in full bloom, and so people, even the small contingent, couldn’t come from Poland anymore, so, even that quota opened up and there weren’t that many people on the Polish quota that lived in Cuba. So, we were able to come to the States.