'Voyage of the damned' sisters honoured by Queen

  • Published
Gisela Feldman and Sonja SternbergImage source, BBC/Sternberg family
Image caption,
Gisela Feldman and Sonja Sternberg say it is vital young people learn about the Holocaust

Two sisters who fled the Nazis on a ship that was then forced back to Europe have been honoured for their Holocaust education work.

Gisela Feldman, 96 and Sonja Sternberg, 93, from Manchester, have spoken all over the world about their experiences and the plight of modern refugees.

The sisters, who won the British Empire Medal (BEM), were among more than 900 Jews on the SS St Louis, in 1939.

The story of the fateful ship was told in the movie Voyage Of The Damned.

"It is a great surprise and a great honour [to get the medal]," said Mrs Feldman.

Image source, Sternberg/Feldman
Image caption,
Gisela Feldman (front left) and Sonja Sternberg (front right) said they were too young to appreciate what was happening on the voyage

Mrs Sternberg noted she and her sister "won't be around much longer".

"It is important that the next generation learn about the Holocaust because what happened to us is still happening today and not just to Jewish people," she said.

'Hate grows underground'

Mrs Feldman continued: "We are the last generation of eyewitnesses - people cannot deny what we experienced.

"I always say hate is like a weed. It grows underground and by the time you see it, it can be too late to uproot it."

The climate of hate in Berlin saw the girls and their mother setting sail with the other refugees from Hamburg on 13 May 1939, on a luxury liner hoping that by landing in Cuba they could travel to the USA.

Their father who had been deported to Poland had initially pleaded with their mother to wait.

The girls never saw him again or more than 30 of their relatives, who all perished in the Holocaust.

The ship was anchored off Havana for seven days after the Cuban authorities refused to let them land.

The US authorities also blocked entry and the ship returned to Europe where Belgium, France, Holland and the UK agreed to take the refugees.

Two hundred and fifty-four of the passengers were later killed by the Nazis when Hitler's forces swept across Europe.

The movie that dramatised the story in 1976, starred Faye Dunaway and James Mason.