The Safier Family Story

Jakob and Eva on board the MS St. Louis
Out of Germany

At one time, Polish-born Jakob Safier and his family had owned the only kosher bakery in Berlin. They also owned a factory that made boots for Germany’s storm troopers. Safier even owned a taxi cab. His parents and many of his seven siblings immigrated to Palestine by 1937.

As a result of Kristallnacht in November 1938, Safier was deported to his country of origin, to a ghetto in Warsaw. Cypora, his wife, tried to get visas for Siam. Anxious to leave, she accepted landing permits to Cuba that her brother was able to secure for them. Now, together with their nine-month-old daughter, Eva, the Safiers faced a life of liberty first in Cuba, and then, their final destination, the United States. Cypora’s two sisters were already in America.

Says Eva, “My mother was told that if she did have papers out of the country, possibly my father would be able to come back and join them, so that was the premise. She didn’t care where she was going; Siam was fine. She went to the police station and said, ‘Here, I have papers. I’m going to Siam, I booked my passage, everything is fine.’ My father then was able to travel back to Berlin.”

No one knew

Like most St. Louis passengers, the Safiers
held invalid Cuban landing permits that prevented
them from disembarkation in Havana
In the meantime, Cypora’s brother “was successful in paying the right people to get landing permits for the three of us. My mother immediately booked passage on the St. Louis, leaving Hamburg, Germany, and we went to Hamburg by train, carrying what little they were allowed to carry.”

Jakob Safier never wore jewelry, not even a wedding band. But on the day he boarded the St. Louis, he wore a heavy gold ring. He took all the gold he had and had a jeweler melt it down. If he needed to pay for something or use it as a bribe, he was ready.

Eva says, “My mother explained, ‘It was a gorgeous day and the band was playing and the photographers were there, and we thought we were going on this wonderful cruise, as we did. We got on the ship, they had dances and parties and movies, and it was just glorious, and everything was beautiful until we got to Havana. And no one, but no one, even the captain didn’t know what was going on.’”

When the news came that four countries were willing to accept the St. Louis refugees, Jakob had to determine a destination for his family. Although he had a sister in Antwerp, he wanted to go to England.

“For some reason or other,” says Eva, “my father decided the only country he would be safe in would be England, and he said, ‘I want that body of water between me and Germany, and somehow or other I’m going to get to England.’ And my father being as religious man as he was, the thought of telling a story or a lie was unheard of, yet something told him he had to do it to save himself and his family. He made up a story that was so plausible it’s unbelievable.”

Jakob told the authorities that he had a friend, a man who used to live with his family, who went to England. None of this was true, but he gave the man a name, Dr. Horowitz, and an address on Green Street, assuming there had to be a Green Street.

Jakob and his family survived the German bombing of London and came to the United States in 1946 after the war ended. They settled in Queens, New York. His daughter, Eva, says, “I was the youngest girl on the ship. So I have no physical memory of it, but my parents fortunately were very, very generous in their retelling of their own history. I knew exactly where my parents came from, how they got to Berlin, how we got on the St. Louis. This was a fictional story to me until it came out in print, when I realized that everything my father had been telling me and my mother had been reemphasizing to me actually happened.”

Eva moved to New Jersey when she married Howard Wiener. She believes that if Eleanor Roosevelt had been President of the United States at the time of the St. Louis voyage, the boat would have been allowed to land at an American port. She loves to talk to children about the St. Louis.

She presented her father’s heavy gold ring to her grandson, Alex Joshua, who was named for his great-grandfather Jakob, for his bar mitzvah in 2010.