A Sea Change: Extract

Karl describes his final moments on German soil as he and his family prepare to board the St Louis.

At the docks we were ushered into a huge shed that was even more chaotic than the emigration office.   I was seized by a sudden panic and longed to go home and lie low until the country wearied of Hitler.  Then I remembered Ernst’s warning that, in the forthcoming war, the German people would ensure that the Jews had no chance to profit from the blood of its heroes, and I knew that there was no turning back.  I tried to shut out the terror by focussing on my family.  My grandfather and mother ignored their own instructions for us all to stick together, the one seeking out porters to fetch our advance baggage and the other finding suitable candidates for her patronage in an elderly couple cowed by the crowd.  Luise started to whine and Sophie promptly proposed a game of Spot the Colour, although their usual reds and blues and greens were subsumed in the swirl of greys and browns.  Only Aunt Annette paid attention to me, and I took her hand, doubly grateful for the pretence that I was the one protecting her.  After an enforced wait, we trudged through the embarkation channel where an inspector with an alarmingly familiar moustache insisted on examining every one of our cases.  When a porter bent to put the first on the table, he ordered him to leave it to my grandfather, who could barely lift it from the floor.  Leaping to his aid, I grabbed the case and flung it in front of the Inspector, who punished my defiance by the thoroughness of his search.  I winced as he pawed my mother’s most intimate clothing and raged as he tore the spines off her sketch books.  Then, as he rummaged through the coats, all other emotions gave way to the dread that he would discover the jewels.  But, after years of silence, God answered my prayers, and the Inspector passed the case.  My relief, however, was short-lived for the next one that he opened contained my stamps.  He leafed through the albums with unwonted care, no doubt picturing such gaps in his son’s collection as the Bavaria Number One and Red Mercury, before declaring them forfeit as items of value to the Reich.   My vehement protests drew no response, other than the horrified glances of people nearby who were submitting to a similar outrage.

‘Karl please,’ my grandfather said. ‘We’ll buy you more albums – bigger ones.’

‘How?’ the official asked. ‘With your ten Reichsmarks? Or are you trying to smuggle funds out of the country?’ He gestured to his confederates to frisk us.

‘No, sir,’ my grandfather said quickly. ‘Not a pfennig. I meant that, in America, I’ll find work. I’ll earn money to buy more albums.’

‘Oh yes,’ the man spat. ‘You Jews make money everywhere. Well go and cheat the Americans instead of us.’ He smiled triumphantly and slipped the albums into a crate. He then proceeded to do the same with my binoculars, veterans of five years of field trips, dashing my hopes of spotting any rare birds on the voyage. Finally, he came to my collection of eggs, lifting out the trays with a sinister smile. He scoffed at my claim that their sole value was sentimental, refusing to believe ‘that a Jew would collect anything he couldn’t sell,’ and then slowly, very slowly, smashed each one in turn. I watched dumbstruck as he gave way to a wanton violence that would have shamed any woodland predator. He stopped only when Luise started to clap, delighted that a grown-up was playing the game that she played every morning with her boiled egg: her boiled hen’s egg; her common or garden, one-million-eaten-every-breakfast egg: not a brambling’s egg; a nuthatch’s egg; a dunnock’s egg; a chaffinch’s egg; a hawfinch’s egg; two linnets’ eggs; a siskin’s egg; a peregrine’s egg; a goldcrest’s egg; a goshawk’s egg; and a cuckoo’s egg that I’d mistaken for a meadow-pipit’s, until Herr Weisel, my Nature Studies teacher, set me straight. My mother struggled to silence Luise, terrified that the brute might suppose she was laughing at him and smash her head with equal insouciance. He, however, drew back, conscious of having held his night-time self up to the light. ‘You’re correct,’ he said, ‘they have no value. There’s nothing concealed inside.’ Then, with a wave of his hand, he dismissed us, bored of the game or perhaps of the players, anxious to pit his strength against the fresh contingent waiting in line.

Aunt Annette led me swiftly through the shed. I was shaking so much that I could scarcely maintain my balance: I was as speechless as if he had crushed my tongue along with the shells: I felt as though Kristallnacht had been replayed in my own suitcase. Escape, however, was at hand for, after a final check of our passports, we were ejected unceremoniously on to the quay. All my feelings of despair disappeared at my first sighting of the St Louis. As I craned my neck to take it in – from the vast expanse of hull, through the panoply of decks and lifeboats, to the glow of the red and white chimneys – I told myself that this was the shape of salvation. My musings were interrupted by my grandfather, who whisked us towards the ship, as though terrified of a last-minute hitch. At the accommodation ladder we were greeted by a group of young officers while, to one side, a line of sailors, as spruce as an operetta chorus, stood with their hands behind their backs. Then, in a final taste of the life we were leaving behind, and a timely reminder of why we were right to leave it, the porters dumped our cases at our feet. An officer immediately instructed a trio of sailors to carry them aboard. My mother, mistrusting their motives, grabbed the first one by the arm.

‘Where are you taking them?’ she cried.

‘To your cabin, madam,’ he replied, perplexed. She backed away, her face a heartbreaking mixture of gratitude and shame. Meanwhile, further down the quay, the company band began to play as if we were regular passengers. My grandfather stopped to listen. A young officer, misconstruing, offered him his arm, which sent him into a paroxysm of weeping. The officer looked bewildered, but Aunt Annette moved to reassure him. Then, wiping his eyes, my grandfather turned to me.

‘The Count of Luxembourg waltz,’ he said. ‘It was your grandmother’s favourite. Franz Lehár often came to play for us before the War. Do you suppose they realise that he was a J too?’

I could place neither the name nor the reference, but I knew that it wasn’t an appropriate moment to ask for clues. So I smiled brightly, which seemed to set my grandfather’s mind at rest, and followed him on to the ship. Yet, far from racing up the accommodation ladder like the heroes whose flights I had cheered on the screen, I staggered forward as though my shoes were filled with lead. Once on deck, my euphoria was replaced by apprehension. Although we had escaped from German soil, we were still on German territory, as was shown by the swastika flag flying from the mast. At any moment, a party of officials might march on board and confiscate our papers. My fears were evidently shared by my fellow passengers. Of the nine hundred or so due to travel, only a handful dared to stroll about in the open, the rest preferring to lock themselves in their cabins until we were safely at sea. But, when I saw the sailors sagging under the weight of our cases, I wondered whether I were being overly gloomy and the absentees were simply eager to unpack.

The sailors were so solicitous that we suspected them of mockery. ‘He called me sir,’ my grandfather kept repeating, shocked by the return to his former self. It was a reversal of everything that, for six long years, we had been taught was the natural order. Now we were the ones who risked rudeness with our guarded replies to their genial chat. The courtesy with which they led us down the labyrinth of corridors, pointing out the various public rooms, was itself such a surprise that I failed to take note of the names.