In 1939 a ship carrying over 900 Jewish passengers left Hamburg, Germany. Foreseeing the impending doom for European Jews, the passengers sought refuge in Cuba, but they were refused entry not only in Havana but also in the US and Canada.
THE GERMAN GIRL is a fictional account of the doomed voyage of this ship, and here author ARMANDO LUCAS CORREA tells of his personal connection to the real-life events.
Without realising it, I started writing my novel, The German Girl, over 40 years ago. My maternal grandmother planted the seed in my mind, telling me about the tragedy of the St Louis. That story became a lifelong obsession.
A little background first: my great-grandparents fled Spain in the first part of the 20th century. Their ship arrived in the port of Havana, but they were unable to disembark and ended up coming to shore on the eastern tip of the island, in Guantanamo, where my grandmother was born.
On 27 May 1939, when the St Louis arrived in Havana, my grandmother was pregnant with my mom. When she saw that over 900 Jewish passengers were not allowed to disembark, it hit her very hard. After Fidel Castro came to power, my mother studied and worked while my grandmother took care of my sister and me. Every May, on the anniversary of the arrival of the St Louis, my grandmother would say that Cuba would pay very dearly for the next 100 years for what they had done to the Jewish passengers. One summer, before I started middle school, my grandmother found out that I would have to study Russian, not English, in class. Not happy, she decided to pay for English language classes for me. My teacher was a neighbour who all of us kids called the Nazi.
The Nazi was an old man – tall, grey-haired, blue-eyed – who spoke with a strong German accent. My grandmother helped him run errands; she even sent him food in times when food was hard to find in Cuba.
Many years later, when I was in college, my best friend, Aaron – the only Jew I knew on the island – told me he visited the neighbourhood I used to live in because his mom was friends with a German Jew who lived on the same block. That’s how I found out that the Nazi, my teacher, was really a Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany for Cuba.
Living in Cuba in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was difficult for religious people and those who thoughts didn’t match the credo of the Revolution. The Cuban government of the 1960s created concentration camps that were called UMAP, where they displayed a sad slogan that paraphrased one from Auschwitz: Work Will Make Men Out of You. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays and hippies were sent there. Work would change them, they thought. Or as Hannah, my novel’s protagonist says: ‘This time she wasn’t facing racial cleansing that aimed to create physical perfection … Now it was a cleansing of ideas. It was people’s minds they were afraid of, not their physical traits.’
I was able to leave Cuba in 1991. For many years I was not allowed to go back to visit my family. Once I was given a visa, only to be sent back to the US after setting foot in the airport in Havana. That was around the time when I was a reporter at El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald. Apparently, even after all those years, they were still afraid of ideas and minds.
Inside my mind, the seed that was planted by my grandmother germinated and grew into The German Girl. When I started writing the story, Hannah and Anna, the main characters, were the same age as my daughter – eight, about to turn nine. When I finished writing the novel, they were all 11, almost 12. When Hannah ran through the streets of Berlin in the spring of 1939, I imagined her as my daughter. The desperation that was felt by her parents was mine too. In their attempt to flee Germany, Hannah and her parents find salvation in a luxury ocean liner that took them to an island where they dream of being happy. Decades later in New York, when Anna receives an envelope with pictures from the St Louis – and pictures of a girl who shares her same profile – she begins to unravel a deeply personal story. Anna’s mother confesses that the package came from someone in her father’s family in Cuba, a father she never met. Anna and her mother get on a plane to Cuba. It’s 2014: the girl from the boat is now 87.
In doing my research about the story of the St Louis I had access to more than 1000 original documents at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC; I went to Yad Vashem in Jersualem; I interviewed old men and women who, as children, survived that odyssey; I travelled to Hamburg and set sail on a ship on 13 May, at the same time and from the same port where the St Louis left 75 years earlier. I went to Berlin, where I walked the same streets my characters walked. I went to Auschwitz; I even went back to Havana.
In February of this year I was finally able to return to the island as part of the first group of editors and publishers from the US who attended the Havana Book Fair. Much to my surprise, the events for the first day of the book fair were scheduled at La Cabaña, a fort on the bay where the St Louis docked for a week. From that vantage point I could to see the same Havana landscape that those 900 Jews stared at with such initial hope – and 76 years later I was able to silently thank my grandmother for telling me their story so that I can tell it to you today.