The St. Louis was a German luxury liner carrying more than 930 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba in May 1939. When the ship set sail from Hamburg on May 13, 1939, all of its refugee passengers bore legitimate landing certificates for Cuba. However, during the two-week period that the ship was en route to Havana, the landing certificates granted by the Cuban director general of immigration in lieu of regular visas, were invalidated by the pro-fascist Cuban government. When the St. Louis reached Havana on May 27 all but 28 of the Jewish refugees were denied entry. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) dispatched Lawrence Berenson to Cuba to negotiate with local officials but Cuban president Federico Laredo Bru insisted that the ship leave Havana harbor. The refugees were likewise refused entry into the United States. Thus on June 6 the ship was forced to return to Europe. While en route to Antwerp several European countries were cajoled into taking in the refugees (287 to Great Britain; 214 to Belgium; 224 to France; 181 to the Netherlands). Only those who were accepted by Great Britain found relative safety. The others were soon to be subject once again to Nazi rule with the German invasion of western Europe in the spring of 1940. A fortunate few succeeded in emigrating before this became impossible. In the end, many of the St. Louis passengers who found temporary refuge in Belgium, France and the Netherlands died at the hands of the Nazis, but the majority survived the war.
Walter Karliner was born in Peiskretscham (Silesia), Germany on August 11, 1924. He was the second of four children born to Joseph and Martha Weissler Karliner. He had an older sister, Ilse, (b. 1923), a brother, Herbert (b. 1926) and a sister, Ruth (b. 1927). The family owned a grocery store, which Martha managed much of the time while Joseph was engaged in the horse trade. On Kristallnacht the store was destroyed and Joseph was sent to Buchenwald. He was released two months later after Martha secured a visa for him to travel to Shanghai. Since the visa was for Joseph alone, the family sought other means to emigrate. The Karliners booked passage on the St. Louis to Cuba. When the ship was forced to return to Europe in June 1939, the Karliners were given refuge in France. Walter and his two younger siblings, Herbert and Ruth, were placed in an OSE children's home near Paris called the Villa Helvetia, where they remained until September. After the outbreak of the world war, the children were removed to the Chaumont home in Creuse. There, Walter worked for a cabinet maker and Herbert, for a baker. Ruth returned to her parents and older sister in Mirebeau. In 1941 Walter moved from Chaumont to Montintin, another OSE home, where he would be able to study cabinetry. In August 1942, however, he had to leave abruptly when French gendarmes informed the home that all boys over the age of sixteen would be sent to Germany. Walter spent the next two years in many settings, including a mental asylum in Narbonne and a farm in Castelsarrasin. In 1943 or 1944 the Eclaireurs Israelites de France underground sent Walter to Saint Junien [Haute Vienne] to live at a home for boys run by the Vichy paramilitary youth movement, Moissons Nouvelles. Approximately six hidden Jews lived among the eighty boys at the home. After the liberation Walter was reunited with his brother in Paris. They were the only survivors of their family. Their mother and sisters had been deported to Auschwitz via Drancy in October 1942; their father met a similar fate a year later. The brothers went to live at the Hotel du Moulin, a home for boys run by the Eclaireurs Israelites in Moissac, where Walter worked as an instructor in cabinetry. In December 1946 the two brothers immigrated to the United States.