Milwaukee resident Phil Freund had a choice to make when, as an United States soldier, he returned to his native Germany about a dozen years after his family escaped from Nazi persecution.
He could get off the ship angry, seeking revenge, or have a good time and improve his German language skills.
He chose the latter.
“To this day I do not harbor any hatred toward Germany,” Freund told seventh-graders at Beloit Turner Middle School Thursday morning.
English teacher Marshall Reese, who first heard Freund's story last September during the Wisconsin Educators' U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Trip and Educational Seminar, invited him to the school.
“I think a firsthand story personalizes the Holocaust,” Reese said.
Freund agreed, saying he shares his story as a way to memorialize his father, who gave up his life for his family, and his mother, who went to great lengths to get the family out of Germany.
His father joined the German army before the first World War and earned an Iron Cross, an honor comparable to the Bronze Star in the United States.
He floundered after the Treaty of Versailles reduced the army to a fraction of what it was. Getting a job was difficult, and inflation was terrible, Freund said, explaining the price of bread could double between breakfast and dinner.
His father eventually found a job with a printing plant. He began smuggling money out to open a branch in another country. The Nazis killed him after they found out.
“My mother was devastated,” Freund said. “She lost the love of her life at 31.”
The Nazis began cracking down on Jews with government-sponsored riots and the destruction of synagogues.
Jews, Freund said, were not allowed to travel, go to the park or own a gun, short-wave radio and second home. Their bank accounts were blocked, so they had to beg the Gestapo for money.
“Literally we were punished for something we had no control of,” he said.
One day, as Freund played with a toy train, the doorbell rang.
A member of the Gestapo asked for his father because they were taking every Jewish man older than 16 to concentration camps. The man beat him when Freund said his father was dead. He left after Freund's mother showed him the death certificate.
Panicked, his mother sought help from his father's platoon sergeant, who let the family stay with him for about a week.
His mother soon heard a ship was leaving for Cuba. The family had to buy round-trip tickets even though they had no intentions of returning, Freund said.
In May 1939, 7-year-old Freund boarded the S.S. Saint Louis in Hamburg, Germany, with more than 900 Jews.
Each passenger was allowed to bring two suitcases, Freund said, but they couldn't carry contraband - jewelry, watches and cameras.
Freund's family became violently seasick, so he went to the dining room alone despite not knowing how to read the menu or cut his meat. An employee, a German, agreed to help him each time he dined.
“I thought that was very nice,” Freund said.
He recalled the ship's captain was kind and concerned for his passengers because he knew the Nazis would execute them if they were to return.
“We were scared to death we were going back to Germany,” he said.
Their destination, Cuba, denied them entry.
The United States and Canada did the same, forcing the vessel to return to Europe.
It docked in Belgium. It, along with Britain, France and the Dutch, agreed to take the refugees. Freund's family went to England.
“At least the English Channel was between us and Europe so we felt safe,” Freund said.
The family migrated to the United States in December 1939.
Freund arrived with nothing, not even expectations.
“I had my stuffed monkey, and that was it,” he said.
Freund graduated from high school in New York City and joined the army in 1951 as a private. He retired with the army reserves in 1991 as a colonel.
His travels across the globe taught him one thing: “This country is the greatest country in the history of the world,” he said. “It's unbelievable what you could do with your life.”