The Voyage: A Historical Novel set during the Holocaust, inspired by real events, p.1Roberta Kagan
A Historical Novel set during the Holocaust, Inspired by Real Events
By Roberta Kagan
Copyright 2012 by Roberta Kagan
This is a work of fiction. Although the MS St. Louis did sail, and many of the events depicted are factual, this is in no way meant to be a work of non-fiction. All characters are fictional, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely a coincidence.
Please visit www.RobertaKagan.com for news and upcoming releases.
This book is dedicated to Carli, whose input took the characters off the pages and brought them to life. I would also like to thank my wonderful husband for always being there to support me, and for being my best friend. And a very special thanks to Leigh Ann, my street team leader and great friend.
So go on and close every door to me. Keep everyone I love from me.
Children of Israel are never alone.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
For all of those who suffered at the hands of the Third Reich, living or dead, and for all of their children. May God grant you peace.
In 1938, President Roosevelt of the United States of America conducted a conference called the Evian Conference. It was a bold attempt on the part of America to express sympathy for Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, responded to the conference by offering to send the Jews of Germany to any nation that would have them. In fact, he said that he would even transport them on luxury liners in order to rid Germany of their presence, so sure was he that no nation would open their doors and allow them in. Jews, he said, were nothing but vermin, and unwanted anywhere in the world.
When confronted with this proposal by Nazi Germany, NOT ONE country offered refuge to all of the Jews.
In November of the same year, a public display of anti-Semitism took place in Germany that would be a major turning point in the persecution of the Jewish race. It would come to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Jews were beaten on the streets. Some were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they were starved and tortured. Synagogues were burned to the ground, destroying sacred Jewish artifacts. The world watched, but no one did a thing to help. This reaction by the rest of the world provided the Nazis with the fuel they needed. They were assured that no matter how terribly they treated the Jewish population, no one would care, and no one at all would come to their aid.
I would like to thank Mr. Herbert Karliner, a survivor of the MS St. Louis, for taking the time to meet with me and tell me his miraculous tale of survival, filled with beautiful mazel. Mr. Karliner is an honorable man, and even with all that he has endured, he still has a heart of gold. He was the person responsible for proposing that Captain Schroder, the captain of the MS St. Louis, be recognized in the Righteous Among Nations, for going above and beyond the call of duty in his treatment of the Jewish passengers aboard the MS St. Louis.
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
FEBRUARY 4, 2009
Silver tinsel danced softly in the breeze that emanated from the ceiling fan in the large banquet hall. Each table had been adorned with a bud vase containing a blue and white carnation accented with slivers of foil. Beside the arrangements stood sparkling metal stands; each held the name of a country that had once suffered under the occupation of Hitler’s Third Reich. Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Romania, and so on. At the perimeter of the room, a group of eager young Jewish students awaited the arrival of the survivors. Soon they would meet the last witnesses still alive who had seen the horrors of the Nazis firsthand.
At precisely eleven o’clock, the busses began to arrive. Florida had plummeted to a chilly thirty degrees that morning in February, a record cold for Ft. Lauderdale. But the celebration of life would go on…the commemoration of the survivors called “Café Europa.”
In they marched, some with canes, others with walkers, and many still strong. They all entered proudly, slowed with age, but unwilling to miss the event. They knew that as long as they lived, it was their responsibility to make sure the young never forgot what had happened. Each year the attendance grew smaller, and now this was all that was left of the legacy. They came from everywhere: from Europe and from all around the United States, from South Africa and South America.
Finally, the room was full. At the front stood a podium, and beside it an electronic board that continually flashed names. These were the names of the attendees. They hoped by making their presence known they might find lost friends and family who had disappeared so long ago, those who had gone missing during the war, their names and faces nowhere to be found in any register.
A woman who had seen forty come and go walked up to the podium. She wore a dark suit and white blouse. Her graying hair had been cut short in a fashionable style. With a welcoming smile, she tapped the microphone to insure it had been turned on. Then she spoke.
“Good Morning to all of you, and welcome to the annual meeting of the survivors…’Café Europa.’ We are honored to have all of you here. My name is Rebecca Morgenstern. I am the director for Jewish services here in Florida. Many of you have come from all over the country to be here today, and I was hoping we could offer you better weather, but that, I am afraid, I cannot control.” Laughter came from the audience. “However, today we would like to bring a very special guest speaker.”
There was an air of excited anticipation; the guest speaker was an important person, someone they all wanted to meet.
The entire crowd rose. Those who could not stand alone held onto the arms of chairs or to the table to steady themselves. They knew who was coming to speak; that was why they were there.
And then such enthusiastic applause rang through the hall that it seemed as if the entire room trembled in response.
Then Mrs. Morgenstern raised her hands in the air to silence the crowd.
The room grew quiet. Everyone was poised to listen, and to finally see the honored guest.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Rebecca Morgenstern cleared her throat, a tear threatening to fall from her eye. “It is a great privilege to present to you...”
THE PASSENGER LOADING DOCK AT THE HARBOR IN HAMBURG, GERMANY
MAY 13, 1939
The sun on the water sparkled like tiny diamonds in the eyes of twenty-two-year-old Alex Mittelman as he stood in line waiting to board the ship MS St. Louis, headed to Havana, Cuba. He could not believe his luck at having made it through the long waiting list of those trying to board this ship out of Germany and escape the tyranny of the Third Reich. The wind picked up a bit of water from the ocean and sprayed the crowd. Alex reached up, attempting to shield his shaved head from the relentless heat of the sun. They’d done that to him in Dachau, taken his hair… If only that had been all they’d done.
A blaring foghorn exploded out of the belly of the massive sea vessel, unnerving Alex as he waited for his turn to board. At any time, the Gestapo could appear and force him back to the nightmare he felt he would spend the remainder of his life trying to leave behind. Still, if his former employer had not taken pity on him and paid his way, he would still be suffering in Dachau, and for that he must be grateful.
“Next!” a ship’s officer called to Alex. Because of his experience with German authorities, he shuddered. Then, taking a deep breath, he walked forward and made every effort to steady his hand when he offered his official papers.
“Would you like help to find your cabin, sir?”
“No... No, thank you,” he stammered, not trusting and not believing any German would call a Jew “sir.” Something was wrong.
Quickening his step, he followed the others inside the ship toward the cabins. He took a deep breath and glanced behind him to assure himself he’d not been followed, that this whole escapade had not been another Nazi trick. It took nearly half an hour before Alex found his stateroom. When he walked inside, he saw Manny Silverman, his roommate, sitting on one of the beds.
“Hello... I’m Alex Mittleman.”
“Manny Silverman. You have no suitcase?” Manny puffed on a cigarette.
Alex had no possessions, only his life. He shook his head.
“Well, no matter. I have plenty of clothes with me that should fit you, although you are quite tall,” Manny assessed. “Still, I don’t mind sharing.”
“That’s very kind of you…very kind.”
“Well, it’s a mitzvah, and let’s face it, we Jews had better stick together. Clothes… We can always buy more. People? Life? Well, that’s another story.”
“God bless you,” Alex said, looking away, embarrassed at Manny’s generosity, ashamed of his appearance, and suddenly very aware of how dirty he was and how bad he must smell.
“Ech…stop… You can thank me when we get to Cuba. You can take me out for a drink.”
“First I’ll have to find a job.”
“So, I’ll take you out. Either way, it doesn’t matter. We are the lucky ones, my friend. We are getting out of Germany.”Manny smiled.
Manny saw the pain in Alex’s eyes as he tried to smile.
Alex sat on his bed, and in disbelief, he gingerly ran his fingers over the smooth, soft pillow. “Do you know how long it has been since I’ve slept in a real bed?”
“A while, I’m guessing.”
“It feels like a lifetime. I was in Dachau.”
“Why don’t you lie down until dinner is served? I’ll wake you.”
“I would like that. I would like that very much.”Alex considered cleaning up first, but he was far too tired. It had been a grueling night. He’d stood in front of the SS guard at the camp and trembled, waiting with fear and skepticism to be released. The guard had dragged out the paperwork, while Alex had stood sweating, knowing that at any minute, this dream of being free could be thwarted. Then once he’d been released, he’d ridden in the back of a truck filled with other prisoners on their way to the docks. He’d heard of the gassings in the back of trucks, how the Nazis had dropped pellets of Zyklon B through specially-built openings, killing the passengers. The rumors had spread through the camp, and he’d heard them, along with so many other horrific tales. As they rode along, he could not overcome the anxious fear that the Nazis had taken the money that the prisoners had paid for this voyage, and now that they had them trapped in the back of an enclosed truck…it would be just like them to fool these unsuspecting people. The Nazis loved to play with the minds of the prisoners, giving them hope, and then taking it away, or forcing them to make unfathomable choices. All of this played into the absolute cruelty he’d witnessed. Many of the others slept on the ride to the ship, but Alex remained awake the entire night, waiting and watching. And he’d not felt even the slightest peace of mind until now, as he lay upon this bed. However, even now, he knew that anything could happen. He’d seen too much to ever trust the Nazis to keep their word.
Without removing his shoes, Alex lay on top of the bed. Within minutes, he slept, but as he did the muscles in his face twitched like those of a prey animal. Manny watched him. It was apparent even in his tattered clothing, with his shorn head, that Alex had been gifted with enviable good looks. His sturdy, unshaven chin and high, firm cheekbones, and well-built, although lean frame at first glance brought to mind Michelangelo’s David, while the yielding, sensuous fullness of his lips and insightful warmth in his luminous dark eyes were reminiscent of an artist or a poet. Manny could not help but wonder, although he knew he would be unable to ask, what horrors poor Alex had endured.
Even though Manny tried to be as quiet as possible, he saw Alex’s entire body jump every few minutes, awakening him with a start. Then, as they’d been trained to do, Alex’s eyes darted around the room, and once he was assured of his safety, he fell asleep again. It was as if he remained in a constant mode of flight.
Manny sat on his bed, his body rocking with the motion of the ship. He leaned his back against the wall. No doubt, he was lucky to be here aboard this ship, to be one of those who would live. Because after Kristallnacht, he knew that plenty of Jews would die. He knew it as surely as he knew the sun would rise in the morning. There could be no denying the signs. The anti-Semitic climate in Germany grew every day. Soon it would swallow every Jew that remained there. Of course, there was no need to show his pessimism; why not just put up a positive front? After all, it was his nature to be lucky, and people loved to be around others who were happy and carefree. That was Manny, always the life of the party, at least on the outside. Somehow he’d cheated death, escaped physical pain, and personal Nazi persecution. But not without a paying a price; everything has its price. Manny ‘s heart was burdened with a deep secret: a secret that nudged his shoulder each time he laughed, or sneaked up behind him and whispered in his ear when he seemed to be most lighthearted. A secret that could only be silenced at night with heavy doses of sleeping pills. A secret that burned him from the inside, and would someday alter his life.
When the dinner bell sounded, Alex jumped and awakened quickly. He bathed and dressed; then he and Manny walked to the dining room.
The mistrust of the Germans ran through Alex’s blood, keeping him on constant guard. When he saw the chandeliers twinkling over the white tablecloths and silver flatware, the ship’s crew of Aryans serving Jews, it took Manny holding on to his arm to prevent him from bolting and hiding in the cabin they shared. After what he’d seen in the concentration camp, he could not help but be skeptical of the motive behind such a display of friendship and equality.
A large table had been set up with cards that indicated seating arrangements. Once Manny found their names, he escorted his friend to their assigned table. They were seated with two older couples and a middle-aged couple with a ten-year-old son.
“Good evening,” Manny said as they sat down. Alex nodded.
“Good evening,” the others answered.
A waiter wearing a black and white tuxedo approached.
“We have sauerbraten or weiner schnitzel tonight… What can I get for you gentlemen?”
Alex stammered, looking around, unsure of what to do. It felt so strange to him to have a German waiter taking his order. He’d spent the last year hearing Nazi guards bark orders at prisoners instead, shooting them dead if they didn’t comply fast enough. He’d sat on a long bench, gobbling watery soup, his stomach rumbling with hunger, so in need of food that he often ignored the dead insects at the bottom of the bowl. His bed had been a pile of dirty, disease-ridden hay that had turned green with mold. It felt beyond wonderful to be clean again, it had been a long time since his body had felt the pleasure of soaking in a bath. Now, this white-gloved waiter stood before him as if all were right with the world, wanting to take his dinner order. The clash of his life in the camp and life on this unreal ship was almost too much to bear.
Manny answered for both of them, knowing that Alex would find it hard to speak to the German waiter. “We would like the schnitzel, thank you.”
“I hope that was all right with you?” Manny asked Alex.
Alex nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
Everyone placed their orders and then began talking.
“So, introduce yourself, and where are you from?” said one of the older men with a balding head surrounded by a monk’ cap of dark, graying hair. “My name is Samuel Siedlman; my wife is Etta. She and I are from Berlin. I owned orchards in the outskirts.”
“Dresden,” answered the other older g
“We lived in Munich,” the ten-year-old boy said. “And my name is Abraham.”
“When adults talk, you keep quiet. Children should be seen and not heard,” his father said.
“I apologize. Sometimes he is very brazen.”
“Oh, it’s all right. He’s just a boy,” the man with the white hair said. “Besides, Abraham is quite a name. Do you know much about the Bible?”
Before he answered, the boy looked at his father who nodded, giving him permission to speak. “A little,” he said.
“We are Michael and Gloria Rifkin,” the boy’s mother said. “We are also from Berlin. My husband was an accountant.”
“Abraham was a very important man in the Bible.”
“As important as Moses?”
“Yes, he was the father of our people.”
“Do you have family left in Germany?” the woman asked the older man with the white hair.
“No, thank God. My son and his wife left for South Africa last year, and my daughter lives in America.”
“I will miss Germany. I will miss our apple orchards and our friends, the lovely smell of apples in the fall, and the crisp taste of the cider. My son and his wife are still there with my granddaughter. I could not convince them to come with us. I am so worried about him. He is a doctor and will not leave his practice behind. I am hoping that we are just panicking for no reason, and that somehow all of this anti-Semitism will just blow over,” Etta Sieldman sighed.
“My parents are still there, in Germany, and I can’t stand leaving them,” Gloria Rifkin said, her eyes glowing with unshed tears. “And all of my friends, everyone I knew… It will be hard to start all over with nothing. And my son, he would have been bar mitzvahed at the temple that I belonged to my entire life, and by the same rabbi who performed his bris. Our lives are there in Germany… Everything is there.”
The Voyage: A Historical Novel set during the Holocaust, inspired by real events by Roberta Kagan / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes