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Survivor Recalls Voyage Of The Damned 78-Years Later

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- This weekend, there's a solemn anniversary in South Florida. It's been 78 years since a ship full of Jewish refugees trying to escape Adolf Hitler was turned away from Port Miami, also known as the Voyage of the Damned. But one young boy would eventually come back and make Miami his home. This is his story.

CBS4 News Anchor Rick Folbaum was with Herb Karliner recently on South Beach as he recalled what it was like the first time he saw it.

"I promised myself when I was 12-years-old, when I can make it, I'm going to come back here and live here," recalled Karliner.

It was 1939.  He was a passenger on board a German luxury ocean liner called the M.S. St. Louis.

"We had a wonderful trip.  We had movies, we had dancing.  The food was delicious."

Karliner traveled with his parents, his sisters and his brother.  But this was no family vacation.  This was an escape.

The St. Louis was carrying 937 Jewish refugees, fleeing the Third Reich. Hitler's government was forcing Jews out of Germany. The Karliner's scraped the money together to buy tickets, they thought, to Cuba.

"Cuba was beautiful," Karliner remembered. "We had all our suitcases in front of the door and then the Cuba police came on and said we have to check all the papers."

But the Cubans kept increasing their demands. They wanted more documents and more money.

"After 8 days, we had to get out of Cuba. And the captain said, 'We're going to go to the Florida Straits'."

Steering the St. Louis towards Port Miami, the ship got close enough for Herb, using his dad's binoculars, to see the coast.

"I saw the sand here, I saw palm trees, I saw the wall here. And then behind the wall, the cars.  The white hotels," Herb recalled vividly. He knew without a doubt it was Miami Beach. He was so close, and yet so far.

President Roosevelt and his state department refused to let the St. Louis dock, fearing the Jewish refugees could threaten national security.  Other countries did as well.

They were turned away from more places than most people have even tried to visit.

So back to Europe they sailed and disembarked in France.

The following year, under German occupation, Herb's parents and sisters were taken to Auschwitz.  By luck, he and his brother were spared.

"They took only boys over 16 and it was two weeks until my 16th birthday, so they let me go. All my friends, they were over 16, so they all got taken and they never came back. Same for his parents and his sisters.
He still thinks about them, a lot, but eventually he came to Miami along with a lot of other refugees just like him.

It took him nearly a decade to get here after he first saw its shores.

He fought for his new country in the Korean War, came back to Miami and learned to bake, working his way to assistant pastry chef at the Fontainebleau Hotel.  Eventually, he opened his own bakery on Biscayne Boulevard and 127th Street in North Miami.  At one point he had three shops.

He and his wife Vera raised their two daughters in South Florida. They have three grandchildren. Everyone's local.

"Every morning, I get up and look through here and think of how lucky I am to be here," he said.

Herb recalls fondly the day he made a promise to himself to one day return to Miami.

He says he definitely feels like a Miamian.

"I'm a native. 78 years here." But has it lived up to his expectations?

"It certainly has. I love it here."

Herb Karliner will celebrate his 91st birthday on September 3rd, which is also the 78th Anniversary of the start of World War Two.

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