Janis Cooke New­man is the author of the nov­el Mary: Mrs. A. Lin­coln and A Mas­ter Plan for Res­cue as well as a mem­oir The Russ­ian Word for Snow. She is a mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co Writ­ers’ Grot­to, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and orga­niz­er of the Lit Camp writ­ers con­fer­ence. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

One of the inspi­ra­tions for my nov­el, A Mas­ter Plan for Res­cue, is the sto­ry of the refugee ship, the St. Louis. 

The St. Louis was built as a plea­sure boat, meant to take pas­sen­gers on one and two week hol­i­days. But the 900 Jews who board­ed it in the spring of 1939 car­ried one-way tick­ets, and it must have seemed mirac­u­lous to them that they were being allowed to leave Hitler’s Ger­many for Cuba, a coun­try with no Nazis.

And per­haps it was too mirac­u­lous, for when the St. Louis arrived out­side Havana har­bor, it was not allowed to dock. For near­ly a week, the ship sat anchored in the hot sun with the city in view of those 900 Jews, until the Cuban gov­ern­ment, and the ship’s own­ers, insist­ed they raise anchor.

With nowhere to go, the St. Louis sailed up and down the coast of Flori­da. Fran­tic cables went off to Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt on behalf of its pas­sen­gers, cables that plead­ed for 900 visas. But Amer­i­ca, it seemed, had enough Jews, and even­tu­al­ly, the cap­tain had no choice but to turn the ship around and sail back to Germany.

I came upon the sto­ry of the St. Louis dur­ing a vis­it to the Holo­caust Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton, DC. I had nev­er heard it before, and once I did, I could not get it out of my head. 

What could it have been like, I won­dered, to have been one of those Jews? To leave Hitler’s Ger­many and step aboard a plea­sure boat, and sud­den­ly be brought fresh tow­els and cold drinks by a Ger­man wait­er in a white jack­et. To glide across the mar­ble floors of the upper deck’s ball­room as the ship’s orches­tra played a waltz. To spend all your ship­board mon­ey on the way to Cuba, because you were cer­tain you would not need it anymore.

I won­dered too, what it must have been like to wait in the heat out­side Havana har­bor with your bags packed, and see the city you had been promised. And to do it day after day. It is known that one of the 900 — a man — slit his own wrists and jumped into the sea. 

How did it feel, I won­dered, to sail so close to the Flori­da coast­line, you could make out the shape of the pas­tel-col­ored hotels? So close, that fish­ing boats filled with vaca­tion­ers motored out and snapped pho­tographs of you, because you had become anoth­er tourist attraction.

And what, I won­dered, could it have been like to feel the ship beneath your feet turn back toward Ger­many — a coun­try that was full of Nazis?

These ques­tions haunt­ed me as thor­ough­ly as if those 900 Jews had tak­en to fol­low­ing me around. And so, even­tu­al­ly, I wrote a char­ac­ter onto that boat. I bought him a one-way tick­et, and I gave him a bro­ken heart — because bro­ken hearts are always good for fic­tion — and through him, I imag­ined my way into the answers to those questions.

This is the great plea­sure of writ­ing — and read­ing — his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. At its best, it becomes a deli­cious com­bi­na­tion of time trav­el and rein­car­na­tion. Unlike his­to­ri­ans, nov­el­ists are free to dream up entire lives that take place in oth­er times. Writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion gives me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence life in anoth­er era, to know — or at least imag­ine — what it might have been like to step onto the deck of a plea­sure boat on a late spring day in 1939, and believe I was head­ing toward free­dom. It also gives me the license to cre­ate what­ev­er des­tiny I like for the char­ac­ters I buy my tick­ets for. 

Read more about Janis Cooke New­man here.

Relat­ed Content:

Janis Cooke New­man is the author of the nov­els A Mas­ter Plan for Res­cue, Mary: Mrs. A Lin­coln, and the mem­oir The Russ­ian Word for Snow. She is the founder of the Lit Camp writ­ers conference.