Liesl Loeb, a Holocaust survivor whose travails with other survivors aboard the ill-fated S.S. St Louis was truly a Voyage of the Damned — the title of a 1976 movie that charted the doomed ship on its aborted way to freedom — died Aug. 25.
Loeb, whose international sojourn began in sorrow and ended with a grant of asylum in England, died at age 85 in Warminster.
Loeb, along with her family, settled in Philadelphia in 1941. She made it a life’s mission to speak out about her infamous voyage, which left Germany for the port of Havana, Cuba, only to be denied entry there. It was then rerouted to the United States, but was rejected entry rights there, too.
The ship returned to Europe, with many of the passengers eventually taken away by the Nazis to concentration camps and inevitable death.
In Philadelphia, Loeb attended Girls High and the Philadelphia College of Art. As she told the USC Shoah Foundation in its oral history project, “My American classmates didn‘t have a clue” as to the suffering she had gone through.
And Loeb didn’t want to tell them. “I wanted to fit in,” she recalled.
But later she found the world her canvas, painting stories as a speaker, detailing her trying and troubled attempt to escape Germany on the heels of Kristallnacht, and the shattering experience aboard the S.S. St. Louis.
She became one of the most popular speakers requested by groups from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia Speakers Bureau.
Loeb traveled the globe, describing her experience as one of 300 children aboard the S.S. St. Louis, cavorting and playing as their parents watched movies and were treated to the lifestyle accorded by a luxury cruise.
But as the ship roamed from port to port, seeking entry, Loeb’s father, Josef Joseph, a prominent lawyer in Dusseldorf, headed up a committee on board trying to negotiate a port of safety for the abandoned passengers.
In her oral history, Loeb referred to her father as her “buddy, my hero,” and to the existential status of fellow passengers without a country as “a circus.”
She also told the Shoah Foundation how extraordinary it was to be able to set sail from Germany at the time. Any ships departing had little room for Jews, she said, “and here was a ship entirely for Jewish refugees; quite something.”
Coming to America was no smooth sailing, however. When her family was finally granted permission to immigrate, the convoy making the trip ran into trouble; both the ship in front and ahead of Loeb’s vessel were sunk by German U-boats.
In Philadelphia, Loeb worked for a while as a graphic designer before taking the speaker’s route. Despite a busy schedule, she found time for activities at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park and she served as an officer and board member of the Philadelphia branch of the National Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. She also was president of Chevrath Tikvoh Chadoshoh — a Philadelphia synagogue for German Jews founded in the ’40s — and volunteered at Gratz College in its Holocaust Archives Department.
If the world dealt her a bad deck as a child — she “celebrated” her 11th birthday docked in Antwerp after 40 days at sea searching for a country willing to accept the ship’s passengers — she took life into her own hands and years later became an ace at cards, playing with other Holocaust survivors who found roots in Philadelphia. They comprised the aptly named The Card Group.
The former Liesl Joseph, she was married to Hans Loeb, a German refugee and American veteran of World War II whom she had met at a German-Jewish club in Philly. They were married for 40 years until his death in 1987.
She is survived by a daughter, Joani; a son, Joel; and four grandchildren, who called her “Schatzi,” Hebrew for “Little Treasure,” a name accorded her by her late husband.