The view from David Stiefel’s office on the 34th floor of Bader Martin on Second Avenue sweeps across Elliott Bay. Green-gray waters, dotted by evergreen tufts of islands, run up against a steely sky, muted and sublime, like an Andrew Wyeth. From this height, it’s possible to imagine the Hikawa Maru lumbering up to the old Great Northern Pier, and David’s father, Ernie, emerging at the top of the gangplank, looking up, and taking in the air of his new home.
Ernst (Ernie) Stiefel fled Nazi Germany at 19 and started life anew in Seattle during a narrow window of escape that opened via Russia and Japan. By 1940, routes across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean had been cut off, but the Pacific was still open. Between July 1940 and June 1941, Jews in German-occupied lands who managed to obtain affidavits of support, visas, and money, could go to Moscow and ride the Trans-Siberian Railway to Manchuria. From there, they could travel through China and Korea to Yokohama, Japan, where ships waited to bring them to the west coast of the Americas. Many of these emigrants landed in Seattle — including the Oppenheimers, Seligs, Schlessingers, Reibmans, and Herschels — where they stayed and built families, businesses, and robust lives.
Naomi Newman recently learned the details of her grandparents’ escape on this route from Vienna when she discovered her grandfather’s journal. Ferdinand Weiss recounted his harrowing ordeal in “Mein Krampf” (“My Pain,” a play on Hitler’s Mein Kampf). After seeing their two adult children off to Palestine, Ferdinand and Pauline, running low on money, were blackmailed by the revenue service into paying a fortune in fictitious back taxes. Their plans to flee to Czechoslovakia and Italy were foiled as the war progressed. With American visas in hand, their hopes to leave were dashed again when Ferdinand failed a medical examination for a non-existent eye infection. Then they received deportation orders. This chain of events, whittled down to the barest bones, is the story of so many European Jews — many of whom came within inches of escape only to be held back.
At the Italian shipping offices, where the Weisses went every day for updates, they heard the rumor of a backdoor exit through the Soviet Union. Ferdinand, nearly destitute, borrowed money from a Christian friend. After waiting for hours in the rain for a Japanese transit visa, he was told the trip was closed. “My fury and despair were boundless,” he writes. “I understood how one could lose control and do something desperate.” With this news, they moved in with friends and became reliant on Jewish social services.
Stiefel was in the first group of emigrants to risk reaching America via Siberia. (The only other route was through the Arctic Ocean, which he notes was “not feasible.”) He obtained his Russian, Latvian, and Lithuanian transit visas at 8 p.m. on July 4, 1940. At 10 p.m., he got his passport. By 10:46 p.m., he was on the train from Berlin to Kovno and on to Moscow. He regarded his safe arrival in Seattle on August 3, 1940, as nothing short of a miracle.
When Ferdinand and Pauline Weiss received the surprise news that they could emigrate, they too made it onto the train to Berlin with not a moment to spare. Nearly free, Ferdinand describes the journey to Japan in Wes Anderson-esque style: his ragtag, clumsy travel companions; the contentedness of the Muscovites in spite of their lack of fashion; the wild beauty of the Siberian landscape; their stay at the Hotel Astoria, a dirty shack in Manchuria run by an alleged banished Armenian count; the travel sickness; the descent into China with its rickshaws and open sewers; the welcoming Shabbat meal with the Jews of Harbin; the exquisite “Oriental night under deep blue star studded sky”; and the sight of Mrs. Frieda K. “asleep against a high ranking Japanese officer,” both of them smiling in their sleep.
In Yokohama at last, the travelers boarded one of three passenger liners transporting persecuted Europeans across the Pacific: the Heian Maru, the Hie Maru, or the Hikawa Maru. The Hikawa Maru, commissioned in 1929, had been known for its luxury and for carrying Charlie Chaplin during part of his round-the-world trip. Every two weeks for those 11 fateful months, the Japanese ships let off Jewish refugees in Vancouver and Seattle. When Walter Oppenheimer, who followed his friend Ernst on the Siberian journey, arrived in Seattle on the Heian Maru on October 31, Stiefel was at the dock to greet him. Their families remain close, marking six generations of friendship. “From the first minute I stepped onto United States soil, I felt like a new person,” Oppenheimer writes in his memoir, A Life Relived. “And not only did I feel like a new person, I felt like an instant American, a natural American. It was as if I had been that way all my life.” (Walter’s father, who managed to get released from Buchenwald, got stuck in Shanghai after Pearl Harbor, where he became so popular selling cigarette lighters that he started a business manufacturing them. He also served as the president of the Shanghai synagogue and considered staying in China after the war, but ultimately followed his son to Seattle.)
The United States allowed the shipping lines to run even after it froze Japan’s assets in July 1941, but that only lasted for a few months. The Hikawa Maru left Seattle for the last time in October of 1941, bringing 400 Japanese nationals back to Japan. Pearl Harbor was bombed two months later. The Heian Maru and the Hei Maru were repurposed as war ships and later sunk by American forces. Only the Hikawa Maru survived. Its legacy lives on as a museum in Yamashita Park in Yokohama.