A Holocaust Survivor’s Journey to Safety in Buffalo
It may seem strange to think of Buffalo in Upper State New York as a safe haven for refugees. But in war-torn Europe during the Nazi dictatorship, the city of Buffalo was a paradise.
During the 1930s, Sol Messinger and his family lived in Berlin. Like so many other persecuted Jews of this era, they experienced hardships and prejudice, but unlike the vast majority of Jews, they were extraordinarily lucky. Several of Sol’s extended family obtained travel visas. On 14 May 1939, they left from the city of Hamburg and set sail on the MS St. Louis for Cuba. It has been called the “Voyage of the Damned”. Not quite 7 years of age, Sol regarded the trip on the German ocean liner as a wonderful adventure. Behind the façade of a care-free, contented life on a cruise ship was the stark reality that no country in North America was willing to grant refugee status to the 900 Jews on board.
“None is too many,” was the haunting, unfeeling reply given by a Canadian immigration official when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the war. With the exception of 29 passengers who managed to disembark at Havana, the St. Louis returned to Europe with all of its passengers. Almost a third of these people were allowed entry into Great Britain. Of the remaining passengers of the St. Louis, almost half would be doomed to misery and murder in a concentration camp.
Sol and his family settled in Brussels. On the eve of Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France, they travelled by train to southern France near the Spanish border in the Pyrenees, living in relative obscurity in the town of Savignac. A few months later their luck appeared to have run its course when the French police arrested them and placed them in the Jewish detention camp of Agde. The Messinger family escaped the camp on Christmas 1940. Returning to Savignac, the family eventually obtained visas from the American Embassy in Marseilles in the spring of 1942. They travelled by train across Spain to Lisbon, and from there, they took a cargo ship to New York City. After a few months with relatives in the large metropolis, Sol’s family moved to Buffalo where his father found employment as a tailor.
Sol Messinger attended the University of Buffalo. He obtained his medical degree, and later served as a pathologist in the United States Army. He has recently retired as a physician.
Dr. Messinger has told his remarkable story on many occasions. Today, on the day of International Holocaust Remembrance, he was a guest of the city of Hamilton, visiting McMaster University Library. He examined documents of the period concerned with the occupation of France and Belgium and the French Resistance.
In sharing his story with us, Dr. Messinger remarked: "Simply the fact that this material exists - it's amazing. I think to myself that there were probably other such documents that were thrown out by relatives who didn't know their significance. It's invaluable to have these documents available - to have proof that these things happened."
by Carl Spadoni
View the 1996 interview with Sol Messinger on YouTube