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Nick Caistor: Stranger Than Fiction

RLF Fellow Nick Caistor on what can happen when fiction mirrors life

A ship's chain against a rusty ship.

A few years ago, I translated a novel by the Cuban American writer Armando Lucas Correa, entitled The German Girl. The book told the story of Hannah Rosenthal, a young Jewish girl who was one of the last to leave Nazi-controlled Berlin in May 1939 on board the German transatlantic liner the St. Louis. On board were more than 900 German Jews, all of whom had paid a fortune to leave Hamburg on this Hapag-Lloyd Line ship. They were heading for Havana in Cuba and had spent further large amounts of money to obtain official entry visas from the Cuban Interior Ministry. The crossing appears to have been a welcome relief from the fraught atmosphere back in Germany; however, by the time the St. Louis reached the Caribbean island more than a fortnight later, the Cuban President Federico Bru had sacked the interior minister who had issued the visas and refused entry to all but a handful of the passengers. In Armando Correa’s novel, his fictional character Hannah is one of these lucky ones, although she goes on to experience more trials and tribulations in Cuba, especially following Fidel Castro’s triumphant revolution in 1959.

In reality, after days of fruitless negotiations with the Cuban authorities, the St. Louis was forced to leave Havana harbour and set sail in search of another port where it could disembark its passengers. The ship headed first to Florida, hoping to put in at Miami, but the Roosevelt administration refused permission. The ship continued north up the Atlantic seaboard to Canada, where yet again it was turned away. (Nowadays there is a monument to this event called The Wheel of Conscience created by the architect Daniel Libeskind in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia.)

Given the unlikelihood of landing his passengers anywhere in the Americas, the German captain decided he would have to return to Europe, and Germany — the last thing any of the passengers wanted. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had been hard at work, and arranged for Belgium, Netherlands, France and Great Britain to each take a quota of the unfortunate travellers. After a journey of some 10,000 miles lasting over a month, the St. Louis finally docked at Antwerp, only four hundred miles from its starting point. Those who left the ship on the continent of Europe were put into internment camps in Belgium, Holland and France; and many suffered the fate of millions of other Jews after the Germans invaded those countries. Only those who had permission to land in Britain escaped this fate as the Second World War unfolded.

When I translated The German Girl, I couldn’t help but find the story moving, especially the descriptions of the young Hannah and her friends in a Berlin growing increasingly hostile towards them, and her bewilderment at reaching Havana harbour and seeing the city so close, but seemingly impossible to reach:

Through the porthole, Havana looked hazy, unreachable, like an old postcard left behind by some visiting tourist. But I kept the glass closed because I didn’t want to hear the shouts from the relatives swarming round the St. Louis in decrepit wooden launches that a wave could capsize. Surnames and first names flew from the decks of our huge liner anchored in the harbor to the frail, hesitant craft below.

Some time after the novel was published, my wife, Amanda Hopkinson, was investigating her own family history, especially that of her grandmother Ricka, a Jewish inhabitant of Vienna. Ricka’s daughter had left Austria in 1936 to come to London; Ricka followed her early in 1939, after the Nazis had requisitioned her apartment, stolen the family businesses and possessions, and her husband had died. My wife’s account of Ricka’s story was published in the MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture journal.

However, my wife was very surprised when after the publication she was contacted by someone who said she was a cousin of hers. Not only that, but that she was one of a family born and brought up in England, of whom my wife had never been aware. This newly discovered cousin then sent her the biography her father Tony Hare (originally Antonin Haas in his native Moravia) had written.

It was when I read this book that, to my astonishment, I found that Tony Hare, or Antonin Haas, had been one of the passengers on the St. Louis. I checked, and there indeed was his name was on the ship’s passenger list. The US edition of The German Girl even had an appendix with his signature on it. In his biography, he described his own journey from Hamburg to Havana, and his view of the Cuban capital closely matched that of the fictional Hannah:

Each day the relatives and friends arrived in little boats around the ship and we could shout messages, always with the hope that we could land mañana. Gradually rumours trickled through that the Minister who had issued the entry visas had absconded with all the money and his successor had declared the visas illegal. It was only discovered after the war that all this was pre-arranged with the Germans.

It transpired that Antonin Haas had been one of the lucky ones able to land in England when the St. Louisreturned to Europe, eventually arriving at Southampton on 21 June 1939, paradoxically enough on a German troop ship. He travelled to Huddersfield and continued working in the textile trade, as he had done back in Moravia. He married and raised a family, and was regularly in touch with my wife’s grandmother and mother, although it was only now, after more than seventy years, that Amanda became aware of any of this.

Then, as if to prove yet again how much stranger reality is than fiction, a few months later David, the eldest of Antonin’s children, who had emigrated to Australia, opened a leather-bound trunk that contained a stack of his father’s papers and letters, that had remained sealed for almost twenty years. Not only were there letters to him from my wife’s grandmother and mother throughout the Second World War and afterwards, but amazingly he also found a radio-telegram sent to Antonin on board the St. Louis in May 1939 by an aunt already living in Cuba, but waiting for an entry visa to the United States:

Dear Toni, Have received your first letter, in any case I am sending you some cigarettes and pesos. Your telegram will, as requested, be on its way by tonight (sent express, and stamped ‘early arrival’). In any case, you are right! Keeping your head held high is the only way! It will all somehow end. Going back is not possible in any case. Tomorrow I can’t meet you at the ship. It’s hours from here. Let’s hope that you will disembark. If that isn’t the case, we’ll just have to go on waiting. The Cuban newspaper ‘Hoy’ (Today) is active in promoting the case of the emigrants. A bit late in the day for we Jews! The decision is delayed day after day. Do you have enough to eat? You young people must take it upon yourselves to keep your spirits high. Or else afterwards, everyone will be entirely done in. Fond regards to you and your compatriot, Liesel. I embrace you. Your aunt who loves you…

To find a chapter of my own family history in a novel reminds me how similar the work I do as a translator – of transposing the atmosphere and register of a text – is to that of a writer converting reality into fiction via the workings of the imagination. One of the great pleasures of translating is when the characters in a book suddenly come alive for you and seem real. But to have the whole story brought to life in such a personal way after so many years has been an exhilarating demonstration that fiction and life are intimately intertwined, and that the past can return to the surface in the most unexpected ways.

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