Antiques Roadshow features dramatic Shoah escape story

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Antiques Roadshow features dramatic Shoah escape story

Two sisters tell of parents' escape from Nazi Germany on notorious ship, the St Louis

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Siobhan Tyrell, Evie Hill, Diana Barzilay. Pic: PR
Siobhan Tyrell, Evie Hill, Diana Barzilay. Pic: PR

Two sisters whose parents arrived in Britain after escaping from Nazi Germany on the ill-fated ship, the St Louis, are appearing on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow on Sunday (March 24) to tell their family story.

Diana Barzilay, who lives in Poole, and Evie Hill, from London, are both second generation members of the Association of Jewish Refugees. Their parents, Elsa and Selmar Biener, were living in Magdeburg, in Germany, and had been married for just three years when it became obvious to them that they had to leave the country in the face of Nazi oppression.

In conversation with Siobhan Tyrrell, who is head of valuations for the London auction house, Dawsons, the sisters presented several objects relating to their parents. Mrs Barzilay said: “We were asked to bring any items we had from Germany. So we brought a silver candelabra that my mother used to use to light the Shabbes candles, a little silver dish that was always in the china cabinet at home when I was growing up, and my mother’s Art Deco engagement ring”.

But taking pride of place — and what interested Ms Tyrrell the most — was a photo album of pictures taken on the St Louis. “Our parents bought  tickets for the ship because they wanted to go to America.”

Poole resident to appear in Antiques Roadshow Ruth Barzilay with sister Evie Hill (Image: PR)

Sadly, however, the ship sailed from Hamburg in May 1939 with Havana, Cuba, as its first port of call. The 937 passengers were almost all Jewish refugees, but Cuba’s government refused to allow the ship to land. There was stalemate, with the ship moored off Cuba, while various countries debated what to do with those on board. Neither the United States nor Canada was willing to admit the passengers. The St Louis passengers were finally permitted to land in western European countries rather than return to Nazi Germany, though more than 200 of them died in occupied Europe. In June 1939, a small number — including the Bieners — were admitted to Britain.

Both Elsa, then aged 24, and Selmar, aged 33, had three other siblings. The grandparents on both sides perished in Nazi death camps; Elsa’s two sisters and brother all made it to the UK, while Selmar’s brothers had a different fate — one died in Dachau, but the other two made it to Mandate Palestine.

Diana Barzilay family – Antiques Road Show, Swanage

The Biener sisters were both born in the UK but did not know much of their parents’ story while they were growing up, only really learning of their presence on the St Louis after their father died. The sisters both attended a ceremony which took place in Washington DC to mark the 60th anniversary of the St Louis voyage.

Normally Antiques Roadshow objects are valued but Mrs Barzilay said they did not want their items to be allotted a monetary worth. “That’s not what this was about”, she said. Filming took place in Swanage on one of the hottest days of the year last summer.

Michael Newman, AJR chief executive, said: “We are so proud that AJR members Diana Barzilay and Evie Hill will be on the Antiques Roadshow this Sunday, spotlighting the lesser-known story of the SS St Louis.

“In a remarkable story of survival, Diana’s parents escaped Nazi oppression twice when the cruise liner her parents boarded in desperate search for safe harbour in the US, was turned around and sent back to Europe. Like Diana & Evie, today, the children and grandchildren of those original refugees and survivors are joining AJR to celebrate and preserve their family’s culture and history. To sign up, visit”.

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