Campus News

UB professor emeritus, Holocaust survivor tells his story in Ken Burns documentary

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis.

Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, who were permitted to approach the docked vessel in small boats. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park


Published September 16, 2022


Updated with new broadcast dates September 19, 2022

In 1939, Sol Messinger and his parents boarded the MS St. Louis, the ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees who were desperately fleeing Nazi Germany. But no country, including the U.S. and Canada, would allow the ship entry, so it had to return to Europe, where the Holocaust was rapidly unfolding.

Messinger, who lives in Buffalo, is one of a handful of survivors of that ill-fated journey who are still living. An alumnus and professor emeritus in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, he will tell his story on “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a new three-part, six-hour series by Ken Burns that airs on PBS on Sept. 18, 20 and 21. View a brief clip of a Messinger interview.

Dr. Sol Messinger.

Dr. Sol Messinger

After the St. Louis returned to Europe, Messinger and his parents managed to land in Belgium, where they settled briefly. But when the Nazis invaded in 1940, he and his family fled to France, taking refuge in a Spanish-border town that later became part of the territory controlled by the Vichy government.

Not long after, he and his family were arrested by the French police and sent to a French internment camp, which they eventually escaped with the help of the underground resistance movement. They returned to the border town and lived there until 1942, when they managed to get immigration documents that allowed them to leave Europe. They escaped just before the Nazis sent most Jews in France to Auschwitz.

The family landed in New York and soon after, settled in Buffalo, where a few relatives were living. Messinger finished his education, and attended UB, where he earned his medical degree. He then joined the Jacobs School faculty, where he served as clinical associate professor of pathology from 1964 to 2007.