37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939

  • Review
By – October 4, 2021

M.S. St. Louis embarked from Ham­burg, Ger­many in 1939, with many Jews on board des­per­ate­ly escap­ing Nazi Ger­many. When both Cuba and the Unit­ed States refused to allow most of the refugees to dis­em­bark, almost all were forced to return to Europe. As the Nazis occu­pied most of the nations where they set­tled, many even­tu­al­ly per­ished. Bar­bara Kras­ner has imag­i­na­tive­ly envi­sioned this ter­ri­fy­ing expe­ri­ence through the eyes of one girl, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, in her nov­el 37 Days at Sea. Although Ruthie is a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, her obser­va­tions and emo­tions cap­ture the sense of arbi­trary injus­tice and the con­se­quences of hatred and cow­ardice on vul­ner­a­ble human lives. Using a vari­ety of poet­ic forms, from free verse to haiku and rhymed cou­plets, Kras­ner offers a new per­spec­tive on this emblem­at­ic event pre­ced­ing the Holocaust.

After the vio­lence of Kristall­nacht in 1938, Ruthie’s fam­i­ly rec­og­nizes that there is no future for them in Ger­many. They set sail filled with both opti­mism and fear, but Ruthie’s excite­ment is at first undi­min­ished by her par­ents’ cau­tion. After all, they are head­ed for Amer­i­ca, America!/Just the roll/​of it on my tongue feels like the waves/​of the Atlantic.” She enjoys her­self in mild­ly anti-social antics with her new friend, Wolfie, a fel­low Jew­ish refugee whose father is already wait­ing for him in Havana. Cap­tain Schroed­er, based on an actu­al M.S. St. Louis offi­cer, is kind and empa­thet­ic, doing what­ev­er he can to ensure the safe­ty of his Jew­ish pas­sen­gers. How­ev­er, as it grad­u­al­ly becomes clear that the out­side world does not share his atti­tude, Ruthie tries to make sense out of her anx­i­ety in a range of poems. Some, such as A Tale of Ruthie,” nar­rate her life from a third-per­son per­spec­tive, while oth­ers are thought­ful let­ters to the grand­moth­er she left behind in Germany.

Ruthie’s per­cep­tions of adults, as a child, present a sad pic­ture. Those in her life who should be able to pro­tect her are gen­er­al­ly help­less, while oth­ers, like the Nazi Kurt Ste­in­feld who tor­ments his fel­low-pas­sen­gers, are active­ly hos­tile. Cap­tain Schroed­er makes sin­cere efforts to help but his author­i­ty is sad­ly lim­it­ed. Ruthie’s own father is some­times ill and becomes increas­ing­ly aware of the tragedy about to engulf his fam­i­ly. The women in Ruthie’s life are even more help­less and less able to repress their emo­tions. In the poem Moth­ers,” Mrs. Arons tries to com­fort Wolfie’s moth­er, whose face turns as white as Shab­bat can­dles.” Sens­ing his mother’s pan­ic, Wolfie can only rub the rabbit’s foot that he insists can bring him luck. The most ambigu­ous, but ulti­mate­ly dis­ap­point­ing, adult is Franklin D. Roo­sevelt him­self. Ruthie clings to the hope that he will offer refuge to the St. Louis’s pas­sen­gers but her trust turns to anger. Young read­ers will iden­ti­fy with Wolfie’s response to the pres­i­dent as a child unable to counter the self­ish deci­sions of those in pow­er: But when I get to Amer­i­ca, I have a bone to pick with him.” Krasner’s poems are a win­dow into the mind of a child strug­gling to make sense of a sense­less world.

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes an author’s note with his­tor­i­cal back­ground and a use­ful time­line of events.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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