“Let’s go for a walk.”
Judith Steel’s father led her by the hand out of the children’s barracks at the German controlled Camp de Rivesaltes — a Jewish internment camp. It was 1942. He said, “Look over there!” She was four, and she looked. He then let go of her hand.
Steel looked back, and he was gone.
Another man was standing in his place. The stranger smuggled her out of the camp to the home of a Catholic French family. She would never see her father again.
Steel, 78, of Queens, told her story at the Oceanside Jewish Center on Dec. 7 at a showing of the film “Complicit,” a documentary chronicling the journey of the SS St. Louis, on which she was a passenger.
Robert Krakow, who wrote and produced the film, brought Steel along as a guest to drive home the film’s message.
Dubbed the “Voyage of the Damned,” the SS St. Louis was a German ocean liner that set sail from Berlin in 1939 carrying more than 1,000 Jewish refugees after much of the country began turning against them.
Its destination was Cuba, but when it arrived, the passengers were denied entry. The ship sailed north to the United States, where it idled a mere hundred yards off the coast of Florida.
There, the passengers were turned away once again, and the ship was forced to turn back to Europe, where many resettled in countries that would be captured by the Germans only a few months later. It is believed that roughly a quarter of the passengers were eventually rounded up and killed.
Though Steel doesn’t remember her time on the SS St. Louis — she was only 15 months old — she does remember what came after.
Her family resettled in France, which fell to the Germans the following year.
One day in 1942, Vichy French police officers knocked on her family’s door. Steel’s grandfather began to cry, and she didn’t know why.
“Kiss Opa goodbye,” her mother told her, as she and her parents were escorted to Gurs, another internment camp, before they were moved to Rivesaltes.
After being smuggled out of Rivesaltes, Steel learned that her parents had been sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
Following the war, she came to the United States to live with relatives, but she never forgot the French family that looked after her. “They hid me and took care of me as if I were their own child,” Steel said.
Later on, she settled in New York City, got married, became a cantor at the New Synagogue in Manhattan and, to honor the Catholic family that took her in, became a minister at the All Faith Seminary, an interfaith congregation.
“I could have had a life where I grew up with my parents,” Steel said. If they had been allowed to enter Cuba or the United States, “it would have been a different story,” she added.
She isn’t bitter about the experience.
“I believe in destiny,” Steel said. “I believe God had another purpose for me. Some of us had to be alive to tell the story.”
Rabbi Mark Greenspan, of the OJC, said having a survivor of the ship talk about her experiences — though Steel was just an infant — was very powerful. He added that Steel’s story took on an even greater importance today, as the United States struggles with the issue of refugees.
“The story must be told,” Steel said, “for fear of it ever happening again.”