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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.