When she was a very young girl, Eva Wiener and her parents undertook an epic ocean journey in order to escape Nazi-era Germany and the persecution of Jews like themselves.
They and several hundred Jews crowded a cruise ship that took them across the Atlantic Ocean and to Cuba, where they were refused asylum simply because they are Jews.
Thursday last week, Wiener came to Golda Och Academy in West Orange, a private Jewish day school, to talk about her experience on that ship, the Holocaust, and her life after to high school students. She was the invited speaker of the 20th Annual Sala Elbaum Yom HaShoah Memorial Lecture, according to school officials.
"You are the last generation to meet a Holocaust survivor," she told the audience in the school's assembly hall. Wiener spoke twice at the school, once for the high school students and later for the middle school students.
Wiener started off her remarks by setting the stage in prewar Berlin. Her father's family at the time owned the largest kosher bakery in Berlin.
"Berlin and Germany was a wonderful country - very cosmopolitan and things were fine," she said, recounting her parents' memories.
But as Adolf Hitler rose to power and the persecution of Jews became more common, her family tried to find a way out, she said. Wiener's parents managed to snag a berth on the SS St. Louis in 1939, whose journey was later immortalized in a 1970s movie, "The Voyage of the Damned."
"I have a photograph of my mother carrying me up the gangplank," said Wiener, who was a toddler back then and hardly has memories of that fateful trip.
The journey was wonderful, Wiener said. There were movies and dance to keep the ship goers entertained and plenty of food for everybody. But when they docked at Havana, Cuba, they were denied entry.
The whole journey was a propaganda plot set in motion by Nazi German officials, Wiener said. They were to go back to Germany, where an uncertain fate awaited them. Instead, the captain, Gustav Schröder, refused to go back to Germany, according to historians, and tried his best to alleviate the plight of his passengers. In the end, negotiations enabled the refugees to go to four countries: Belgium, Holland, France and England.
"My father was a very smart man," Wiener said. "He wanted a body of water between him and Germany."
It was a smart move, Wiener said, because of the passengers who chose to go to countries in continental Europe, only 10 percent of them survived. The rest perished in the Holocaust, she said.
Wiener went onto survive the bombings of England during the war and immigrated to America in 1946. She lived in Queens with her family until 1961 when she got married and moved to the Jersey Shore.
These days, Wiener lives in Neptune Township with her husband. They have two daughters and two grandchildren, according to school officials.
"It's not like the stories you hear from other survivors but I have a message and that's why I came to speak," she told the students.