Authors: Kim Ablon Whitney
For Cam and Luke
t the shed in Hamburg his mother took him by both shoulders. They had traveled hours on the train from Berlin, and she would be making the return trip without him. Since arriving, they had passed an uncomfortable hour rarely talking as they waited for boarding to begin. Finally it was time. The strong sea air surrounded them, making Thomas's tweed jacket feel heavy and damp. He noticed a sheen of moisture on his mother's cheeks and forced himself to focus on her eyes. In the past year, since his father was taken away by the Nazis, Thomas had always tried to look mostly at his mother's eyes. If he concentrated on her eyes, he could ignore the gauntness of her face, how he could picture her bony skull right there beneath her skin.
“I'm not going to cry and you're not either,” she said, straightening his tie. Usually Thomas would have been annoyed at his mother's fussing, but he knew this might
be the last time they would be together, at least for a long time.
She turned away, to face the ship. It had a giant black hull with rows of portholes above it. The way it sat so high in the water was impressive. The pedal boats Thomas was familiar with from a handful of days spent at the Wannsee were so small you could trail your hand in the water without even leaning over far. But on this great ship even the first deck loomed hundreds of feet above the surface of the water. Thomas's stomach felt queasy but he tried to ignore it.
His mother kept looking at the ship, and Thomas wondered if she was thinking whether there might be a way she could steal aboard. At six hundred reichsmarks, even securing one ticket to Cuba had been a miracle. Thomas had not known his parents had that much money hidden away. His mother had told him that they had been saving it for a time just like this—a chance to get out. Perhaps they had once hoped it would be enough for all three of them to escape Germany, but with the extra fees and dues tacked on by the German travel agency and the Reich, not to mention the price of the ticket from the shipping line itself, the money had barely covered Thomas's passage.
Neither Thomas nor his mother was foolish enough to think Thomas's father would ever come home; yet leaving Germany altogether seemed like betraying him, like giving up. Which was why even if they had been able to
scrounge up enough money for two tourist fares, his mother still would not have gone.
It was also why Thomas himself didn't want to go.
“No tears,” his mother repeated.
“You think I'd cry?” Thomas said. He had been strong through everything that had happened to them; he wasn't about to cry now.
“I'm not going to wait while you board,” she continued as if she hadn't heard him. “I'm going to turn around and you're not going to look back. This is the right thing to do—the only thing to do.”
Thomas fingered the ivory pawn in his pocket. He'd taken it from his father's chess set before leaving. “This isn't what Vati would have wanted. He would have wanted me to stay—”
She cut him off. “And look out for me?”
“No, he would have wanted me to stay and fight.” He knew his mother didn't need him—
, half-breed. He would only be trouble to her. She was better off without him, as she was without his father. Without them she was of pure kindred blood, with the light hair and blue eyes to prove it.
His mother lowered her head. “There is no more fighting. Only surviving.”
She pulled him to her. Thomas stiffened and then softened. At fifteen he felt too old for embraces, but the pressure of her body reminded him that he had not gotten to
feel his father's arms around him a last time. He held tight, not wanting to let go. She smelled faintly of their apartment, the deep, musky scent of well-worn leather furniture. Thomas used to love how when he stood up from the sofa, his impression always remained on the seat cushion, as if the sofa were waiting for his return. Only now he would never be back.
Herr Kleist, who had been waiting nearby, stepped forward. “I'll watch out for him, you needn't worry, Frau Werkmann.”
Herr Kleist was nearing seventy and one of his eyes constantly watered. He was a great-uncle of a friend of a friend. Thomas didn't have much faith in him. Also, he didn't need a guardian.
All around them, others bid tearful good-byes to family and friends. Porters in uniforms and caps scurried by with baggage. German mixed with Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.
Herr Kleist cleared his gravelly throat. “We should move on. They need to get the tourist class on before first class can board and we can set off.”
Thomas stepped away from his mother. She had said no tears but he could hear her muffling sobs in her sleeve. He inhaled the salty air as gulls screeched overhead. He looked up at the two giant funnels and the mast of the ship. A swastika flag flapped in the breeze. Why hadn't he noticed it before? Thomas shivered in his damp clothes. How
could a ship that was supposed to carry its passengers to freedom bear the Nazi flag?
Halfway up the sloping gangway, Thomas felt the intense desire to turn around, to see his mother one more time, to see whether she'd lived up to her promise of leaving after she'd failed at not crying. But he was afraid too. He didn't want to see his mother as he'd last seen his father: weakened and powerless.
A family of four walked abreast in front of them. The mother and daughter were dressed in long skirts with kerchiefs over their hair. The father and the older son wore black suits and hats. “At least we'll make it on before sunset,” the man said to his wife.
Beside Thomas, Herr Kleist slouched along, shoulders bowed, head down, as if he hadn't paid his fare and was trying to slip on unnoticed. Thomas stretched himself taller and announced his arrival with solid footsteps that rattled the slats of the gangway.
They stepped aboard the ship and a steward met them, hands outstretched to relieve Herr Kleist of his worn leather suitcase.
Herr Kleist pulled back, clutching the case to his frail body. Thomas felt sorry for him—if the steward really intended to take away his case, or do anything else to Herr Kleist for that matter, Herr Kleist would be helpless to stop him.
“It's already been searched at Customs,” Thomas blurted out to the steward. “What more do you want?” The
search had been more than thorough, with the officials emptying people's pockets to make sure they hadn't brought more than the ten reichsmarks allowed them. Some had tried to smuggle jewelry or china on board, but it had been promptly confiscated. Out of spite, Thomas had almost felt like handing over his ten reichsmarks—it was so little money it was practically worthless. All it might buy would be a single meal in Cuba.
Herr Kleist shot Thomas a look of warning, his eyes narrow. He told the steward, “By all means, search my case. It's only what's allowed—nothing more.”
“No need to look,” the steward said, smiling. “I just wanted to offer to help carry it to your cabin.”
Thomas surveyed the steward: the shiny gold buttons of his uniform, his fair skin, his light hair. He was young and handsome, with a nice smile. His good looks irked Thomas. He wished he were ugly so it would be even easier to detest him. Around his arm he wore the Nazi Party badge: a black swastika with a red circle around it. Thomas found his eyes drawn to the swastika even though just the sight of it was enough to give him chills. The Party badge confirmed what Thomas already knew—that all the people running the ship would be Nazis. Thomas had asked his mother again and again: “Why are they letting us go on a luxury liner?” It didn't make sense to him: The Nazis despised the Jews, so why let a whole ship of them travel on the same luxury liner that affluent people took on holidays?
“They want us out,” his mother had answered. “Any way they can.”
But it still didn't add up in Thomas's mind, and he planned to find out more once on board. It was like a new chess opening his father taught him—no matter how many times his father explained the moves, he couldn't fully understand until he had played it himself.
“If you show me your boarding card, I can direct you to your cabin,” the steward offered.
“We have boarding cards, if that's what you're after,” Thomas said. “We're not trying to steal aboard.”
“Boy!” Herr Kleist warned Thomas. He took out his card and held it out to the steward. “Here we are.
Alles ist in Ordnung
.” Herr Kleist looked sharply at Thomas and snapped, “Your card!”
Thomas took out his boarding pass and with it his immigration identification card issued by the Cuban government. Most of the text was in Spanish. The only words Thomas could understand were:
THOMAS WERKMANN, MS ST. FRANCIS, HAMBURG, GERMANY, MAY
13, 1939. The identification card also had a big red “J” on it that Thomas tried to overlook.
The steward glanced at their papers. “D Deck, right this way.”
As they followed the steward down to the lower level of the ship, he told them that dinner would be served at seven in the tourist-class dining room. Thomas watched Herr
Kleist straighten slightly as the steward spoke. This was not the way the Nazis spoke to Jews. They usually only ordered and insulted. Thomas couldn't understand why the steward was showing them such respect—they weren't even first-class passengers. It was one thing to let them travel on a luxury liner, but it was another thing altogether to treat them well. He could sense Herr Kleist settling into this new order of things, but Thomas could not believe the treatment would last.
The passageway to the cabins seemed like any other hallway except for the low ceiling and the handrails, which Thomas realized must be in case of stormy seas. The steward opened the cabin door and held out his hand. “Here we are.”
The cabin was plainly furnished with four wooden bunks, a washbasin, and a shaving mirror. The steward asked Herr Kleist if there was anything else he could do for him.
“No thank you,” Herr Kleist replied.
“Have a pleasant voyage,” he said.
“Did you hear that?” Herr Kleist said to Thomas as the steward left. “He wished me a pleasant voyage.” Herr Kleist moved to one of the lower bunks and fingered the sheets. “And look at these: clean and starched.” He let out a satisfied sound, as if a long journey were ending, not beginning.
Thomas walked to the porthole. He tried the handle but
it was locked tight. Thomas figured this low on the ship, he'd better get accustomed to the stale air.
Herr Kleist turned to Thomas, his face solemn again. He wagged his finger at him. “You will not be putting me in danger with your sharp tongue. Do you know what I've lived through? Have you had to scrub the streets with a toothbrush?”
Thomas thought about telling Herr Kleist what he
lived through. Something, in his opinion, much worse than scrubbing streets.
“I've gotten you aboard,” Herr Kleist added. “Now you're on your own.”
Thomas thought of his mother—how Herr Kleist had promised her he'd watch out for him. But promises meant nothing these days. Thomas didn't answer. He walked away. Alone was just fine with him.
he first thing Thomas wanted to see was the upper deck. It took him a while to find his way through the ship's maze of rooms, passages, and stairwells. He walked by the gymnasium, the nursery, the beauty salon, and the shipboard store. It was like a regular town, only on the water. He peered in the windows of the store at the arrangements of postcards, cigars, toys, and clothing. A woman was touching the fabric of a dress and Thomas heard her ask the clerk, “Where is this wool from? It seems heavy for worsted wool.” She soon introduced herself to the clerk, her chin held high: “My name is Blanka Rosen. I used to have the premier design shop in all of Prague.” Thomas shook his head and kept walking. All of them used to be something else. All of them used to have more than they had now—a home, a family, a profession, a life. But none of it mattered anymore, and Thomas didn't see why
people insisted on clinging to the past. Memories of what used to be only brought more pain.
Thomas had just set foot on the deck when a man in uniform stepped in front of him.
“Macht es einen Unterschied?”
The man stood at least a foot over Thomas. He had a big head too, with what Thomas noticed were strangely small ears, as if they had been forgotten at birth and carelessly put on later. He wore a different uniform than the steward who had shown them to the cabin. His uniform was the green jacket, green trousers, and black boots of a Nazi officer. Thomas wondered if he was an officer of the ship or of the Nazi Party.
“The upper deck is only for first-class passengers.”
Thomas felt the sting of insult just the same way he had when he had been turned away at school for being a Jew. On that day he had arrived at school to find a gathering of his fellow classmates, all Jewish, outside the door.
“We're not allowed in school anymore,” one of them informed him. “No Jews. They said go home.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” Thomas had said. The others had lingered, as if hoping to find out it was all a mistake. Burying his hurt inside of himself, Thomas had been the first to turn and leave.
It didn't matter that the first-class passengers who were allowed on the upper deck were also Jewish—it nevertheless
made him flush with anger. He still hated any rules that separated people into categories.
“Kurt, he can come in.”
The man who had spoken was the same young steward who had shown Thomas and Herr Kleist to the cabin.
“But, Manfred, he's tourist-class,” Kurt said.
“Captain's orders. Living quarters and dining rooms are to stay separate, but otherwise everyone is free to come and go as they like.”
Kurt's lips curled. “I guess they
Thomas took a step forward. “So I can go?”
“Of course,” Manfred said, showing the way with an outstretched hand.
Thomas did a lap of the deck. He had imagined it would be mostly open space, but it was surprisingly cluttered with deck chairs, lifeboats, ventilation shafts, pipes, and crates of equipment. Thomas heard music coming from the other side of the ship. He turned a corner to see a full band playing. He shook his head—the band made it seem like a joyous departure when in truth they were all escaping by the skin of their teeth. Thomas went to the railing, which was chest-high. He looked down at crew members on the quayside taking care of last-minute details of baggage and supplies. There seemed to be quite a lot being loaded aboard, but Thomas couldn't understand why. Jews were allowed to take very few possessions out of the country. When his neighbors had left a year earlier, the German
travel agency had helped them put their furniture and china into storage with the assurance it would all be sent along later. The neighbors had since written to Thomas's mother to say none of it had ever arrived.
Passengers trickled onto the deck until no room was left along the railing. The crew below uncoiled the hawsers, thick as Thomas's waist, from the bollards. The ship began to move as tugboats pulled it into the harbor. The band stopped and everyone waited in expectant silence. The ship's engine coughed up diesel fumes, and Thomas breathed through his mouth to avoid the smell.
Next to Thomas a woman turned her face into her husband's chest and wept. “It's not home anymore,” her husband tried to reassure her. “There's nothing to miss.”
Other people clapped and cheered. One couple danced. Thomas felt the urge to yell out to his mother, even though she was likely long gone. In his mind he saw the apartment: the leather furniture, the spot by the window where the sun streamed through in the afternoon and where he liked to sit and read. He closed his eyes and felt the ship moving. He wanted to go back—he wanted to jump overboard and swim ashore. He put his hand in his pocket to find the pawn. Feeling its edges calmed him.
Around him people made comments in voices loud enough to be heard by many:
“They're rid of us.”
A man with a woolen scarf wrapped dramatically around his neck pronounced, “
Let us plunge ourselves into the roar of time, the whirl of accident: may pain and pleasure, success and failure, shift as they will—it's only action that can make a man.”
Thomas recognized the quotation from
. His parents had an extensive collection of Goethe's works, and Thomas had read the books even when he didn't have to for school. He especially liked Goethe's dramas, because each time he read a play he understood it in a different way. There were so many layers to the language, plot, and characters. Just as with chess, there was always something new to discover that hadn't been there the time before.
The ship lurched out of the harbor, picking up speed. The diesel smell faded, but the vibration of the engine grew so that Thomas could feel it under his feet through the wooden deck. The wind picked up, blowing women's skirts and men's hats. Thomas stared at the water below him and the land, which still seemed very close.
Then, in what seemed like only an instant, the shoreline was gone and black water surrounded them. Thomas felt a wave of claustrophobia and steadied himself on the railing. Once it passed, he turned from the railing and noticed two girls in frilly white dresses. Their parents stood nearby; the father was the man in the scarf who had quoted from
. The mother wore a showy party dress unlike any
Thomas had ever seen his own mother wear. It made Thomas sad to see the parents standing close together, the girls giggling. They were all together. They were happy. Thomas looked back to sea. It had only been a matter of minutes and yet now Germany was gone. The apartment was gone. His mother was gone. How had they gotten so far away so fast?
The steward Thomas now knew as Manfred walked by, and the elder of the girls stopped him. “Excuse me, could you tell us where the pool is?”
Thomas studied Manfred more closely. He could only be a few years older than Thomas himself: eighteen, nineteen at most. The one fault Thomas could find in his looks was a protruding Adam's apple. He also noticed that his hands seemed to tremble ever so slightly.
“Looking for an evening swim, are you?” Manfred said.
The girls giggled again. “No, but maybe tomorrow.”
“The pool isn't up yet. It'll be on A Deck, filled once we get to the Gulf Stream. You wouldn't want to swim in this freezing water.”
“Thank you,” the older girl said. She grabbed her sister's hand. “This is going to be such fun!”
Thomas shook his head as the girls beamed at each other. “You make it sound like we're on holiday.” He hadn't meant to say those words aloud, and now the older girl had turned and was staring at him.
“Well, it's almost like a holiday. We're celebrating.”
“Getting out, of course.”
Thomas huffed. “You actually think this”—he glanced up at the swastika flag flapping in the wind—“is getting out?”
“Two weeks' time and we'll be in Cuba. Then we're headed to America. We've already applied for visas. We have an uncle there.”
“That's nice for you,” Thomas said.
“Where are you and your family eventually going?”
“It's just me.”
The girl touched her curly hair. “You're traveling alone?”
“Yes.” Thomas thought he might have to suffer through her pitying looks, but instead came an invitation: “You should have dinner with us, then.”
Before he could say no, she pulled her father's hand. “Vati, this young man is traveling alone. Can we invite him to dine with us?”
The man with the scarf turned. Streaks of gray in his dark hair gave him a striking appearance.
Thomas might have been too outspoken at times but he wasn't raised without manners. He extended his hand to the man. “Thomas Werkmann.”
“Nice to meet you. I'm Professor Affeldt.” He motioned to his wife, who was still looking out over the railing. “That is my wife and these are my daughters, Priska and Marianne.”
The girls had the same round faces and corkscrew curls, although Priska, the older one, had shorter hair.
“Of course you'll eat with us,” Professor Affeldt added.
“That isn't necessary,” Thomas replied.
“Are you first-class?”
Thomas shook his head and tried to look appropriately disappointed, since he already knew tourist-class wasn't allowed in the first-class dining room.
“Do you have a dinner jacket?”
“Good. It shouldn't be a problem. We'll say you're a cousin. There are so many families here … in fact, aren't we all family now, in a way?”
The girls nodded. Priska smiled and elbowed her sister. “See, I told you we'd make lots of new friends, Marianne.”
Thomas opened his mouth, but he couldn't think of any excuse to get himself out of dining with them. For the night anyway, he was stuck.
ow Thomas wished his mother were there to fuss over his clothes now! Was his tie straight? Did his jacket fit? His mother had insisted he pack his father's dinner jacket. She had combed through his father's clothes and picked out several items for Thomas to bring with him. To him it hadn't felt right—it had felt like admitting his father wasn't coming back, something Thomas wasn't ready to do.
“You never know when you might be invited to dine first-class,” his mother had said. And she had been right.
Thomas expected the sleeves of the jacket to be too long and the shoulders to be too wide. His father had been of medium build, but nevertheless he had always seemed big to Thomas. Now he realized that they were close to the same size. This knowledge filled him with a pang of
regret—he was bound to grow a few more inches, which meant he would soon be taller than his father.
“Where do you think you're going, all dressed up?” Herr Kleist said as he woke from a snooze to find Thomas examining himself in the shaving mirror above the washbasin.
“That's not your concern, remember,” Thomas replied. He had made up his mind to have as little to do with Herr Kleist as he could, but he was beginning to think that it would be hard, considering they shared such a small space. He hoped his other two roommates would be at least a bit of a buffer. Before going on deck to look out as the ship departed, he had met them briefly: Oskar and Elias Gold-schmid were brothers, university students from Stuttgart.
Herr Kleist grunted and rolled away from Thomas.
Thomas straightened his navy blue tie once more. His face looked too angular in the shaving mirror—all sharp lines and severe points. He smiled at himself to see if it made his face look more pleasant, but then he returned his lips to their usual flat line. Why did he care what he looked like? He didn't want to dine with the Affeldts in the first place. He couldn't bear to look at their happy, smiling faces all night long.
Thomas headed for the door. When he came upstairs to the first-class dining room, he was breathing hard from the flights of stairs and from nerves about the meal ahead. He peered into the half-full dining room, trying to steady
his breathing. The tables were set with white linen tablecloths and crystal glasses. Waiters in white coats and black ties scurried from table to table.
“I'm dining with the Affeldt family,” he told the hostess once he had summoned the courage to actually enter the room.
“Yes, the cousin,” said the woman, who was dressed in a black gown. “Right this way.”
Thomas followed her over the gleaming black-and-white checkered floor to the Affeldts' table. Except for the slight vibration underfoot that made the fresh flowers on every table tremble, Thomas would have thought he was at one of the finest restaurants in Berlin.
“Thomas, welcome,” Professor Affeldt said, standing to greet him.
Thomas thanked him for the invitation to join them and sat down in the open seat next to Priska. He remembered his posture, straightening in his chair.
“Isn't this grand?” Priska said as she surveyed the room and the well-dressed passengers. She turned to look at her mother. “Mutti, grand, isn't it?”
“Yes, grand,” Frau Affeldt said with little emotion. She had curly hair like her daughters but her complexion was pale, almost unhealthy.
The meal began with caviar and toast, crudités and olives.
“I guess they've never had a ship full of Jews before,”
Professor Affeldt said as the caviar was placed in front of him.
“We don't keep kosher,” Priska said to Thomas. “Do you?”
“No.” He glanced at the nearby tables—some people were eating the caviar, others pushed their plates away. Thomas had seen the kosher shops in Berlin, but he didn't know exactly what people who kept kosher could or couldn't eat. He had never really thought much about it, but now he was curious. Still, he didn't want to ask and risk seeming dim.
Priska passed her olives to her sister. “Marianne loves olives. Isn't that odd?”
“Vati says I have incredibly cultured taste for a ten-year-old,” Marianne said.
Priska rolled her eyes. “No, you just have a bottomless stomach.”
Thomas himself had never had olives or caviar, but his mother had taught him about both. He knew he was to eat the olives with a fork, not with his fingers, and to return the pits discreetly to his small dinner plate with his fork. He knew that even if he found the caviar delicious, he should only take a teaspoon or two at a time—that there was nothing more gauche than gorging yourself. In fact, his mother had taught him how to eat almost any food imaginable: artichokes and oysters, pistachio nuts and lobster. At the time he had thought she was crazy, but she insisted that he
be knowledgeable about the finest things in case he was ever put in a situation where ignorance would bring embarrassment. He had the feeling that she herself had grown up privileged, eating all sorts of fancy foods, but she never liked to talk about her life before she had met his father. All he knew was that she had left that life and her family behind and that her parents hadn't approved of her marrying a Jew, especially a Jew who had been married before, even if he was a widower.
Next the waiter brought salads of iceberg lettuce and cucumbers. Thomas chewed slowly and sipped his water in between bites. He noticed that Frau Affeldt had not touched any of her food.
“So tell us your story,” Professor Affeldt said.
Thomas swallowed carefully. “What story is that?”
“Where you're from. How you came to be traveling alone.”
Priska explained, “My father's a professor of German literature. Everything's a story to him.”
a professor of German literature,” Professor Affeldt corrected. “Before I was removed from my post.”
Thomas hurried through the pertinent details: “I'm from Berlin. After
my father was declared an enemy of the state, and he went into hiding. Later he was discovered and sent to a
. As for my mother, we only had enough money for one fare.” Thomas wasn't good at stories, nor did he want to share
what had happened. It seemed to him that there were two kinds of people—the kind who relived every moment of the past in painful detail, and the kind who moved on and never looked back. He wanted to be the kind who moved on. It was one of the first lessons his father had taught him about chess: If you make a poor move, don't dwell on it and let it ruin the rest of your game.
A waiter came over and removed the empty plates. “
Hat es nicht geschmeckt?
” he asked Frau Affeldt.
“I'm not very hungry,” she replied.
The waiter frowned and retreated, but he mumbled loud enough to be heard, “No taste, these Jews. Some of them won't even eat
The Affeldts and Thomas sat in silence. Under his fancy jacket, Thomas felt hot. Professor Affeldt sighed and raised his eyebrows as if to say there was nothing they could do but pretend they hadn't heard the man.
“Your mother had no choice but to send you alone,” he said, taking his wife's hand. Thomas could see him appreciating his own family's lot in life—how it could have been even worse. Like Thomas's family, they might have had to split up to escape.
“You must miss your parents terribly,” Frau Affeldt offered. “I'm so sorry, Thomas.”
It was the first time she had spoken more than just a few words and the first time she had really acknowledged him. He was surprised to find her voice clear and confident.
“Yes, I do.” At his words, Thomas felt a stab inside him again. He wondered when, or if, that would go away. “A professor of German literature,” Thomas said. “That explains the Goethe you quoted as we left shore.”
Professor Affeldt cocked his head at Thomas.
It's only action that can make a man … from Faust,”
“Well done,” Professor Affeldt said.
Thomas explained, “My parents have a large collection of Goethe.”
“Vati's always quoting Goethe or Schiller or Grill-parzer,” Priska said. “And he makes us memorize it too.” She looked up at the ceiling and quoted: “
As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live
. That's from
Professor Affeldt gave Priska a sidelong glance of approval and then asked Thomas, “Have you had any news of your father?”
“Last we heard he was in Dachau, but that was many months ago now.” Thomas shifted in his seat, making sure he felt his father's pawn in his pocket.
The same waiter returned and delivered the next course: chicken bouillon and egg drop soup with vegetables. He placed the delicate china bowls in front of them with quick movements, as if he didn't want to be near them at all. The only time he paused was when he served Priska. He stared at her a moment too long, looking from her face to
her chest, and then back up to her face again. She dipped her chin and averted her eyes. The waiter cleared his throat and retreated.
Thomas witnessed this brief moment and saw Priska as the waiter had seen her. It dawned on him that the waiter had stared at her because she was beautiful. Thomas had been too distracted by the ship and leaving home before, but now he saw her clearly: the smoothness of her skin, her bright eyes, the swell of her breasts under the frilly white dress.
She looked up at Thomas and their eyes met. She smiled and returned to eating her soup.
Priska ate in a polite and reserved manner, while Marianne hurried spoonfuls to her mouth. Frau Affeldt didn't lift her spoon.
Professor Affeldt wiped his mouth with the linen napkin. “What was your father's profession?”
“Our family owned a printing press.”
“Was it shut down after the boycott?”
“No, my mother isn't Jewish, so she became the face of the shop, while my father and I stayed in the back room.”
“And in Cuba?” Professor Affeldt asked.
“My brother's there. He's ten years older than I am. Half brother, actually.”
Thomas wished he hadn't mentioned that Walter was not his full brother. How could there be such a thing as half of a person? People shouldn't ever be divided up in such a way.
“We're from Dresden,” Priska said. “We had a wonderful life before Herr Hitler. Our nice house, our cat, school, friends. I know there's no such thing as perfect but it was pretty close, wasn't it, Marianne?”
Marianne wiped a dribble of soup from her chin. Her bowl was empty. “I miss Alfie.”
“That's our cat,” Priska informed Thomas. “We had to leave him with a neighbor. We'll get a new cat in America. And a new house, and we'll go to school again. And we've already made new friends aboard the ship.” Priska smiled at Thomas. It made him uncomfortable and he looked away. Who was this girl to be so happy?
The waiter descended again, filling wineglasses and delivering what by Thomas's count was the fourth course. “Rack of veal with potato croquettes and aspar agus in a reduction sauce,” the waiter announced through tight lips, with another hungry glance at Priska's chest.
“I don't want a new cat. I want Alfie,” Marianne said.
“Alfie loved Marianne best. He slept in her bed at night,” Priska explained. “Did you have lots of friends in Berlin, Thomas?”
“Some,” he said, though for the most part it had always been the three of them—his mother, his father, and Thomas—a tight little cocoon, even before Hitler.
“This veal is delightful. Very tender,” Professor Affeldt said, looking at his wife. “You should try it,
To Thomas he explained that Frau Affeldt's stomach had been unsettled ever since they had left shore.
“That's been the hardest part for me … leaving my friends,” Priska said.
Thomas closed his eyes for a moment. If leaving her friends behind was the worst Priska had been through, then she didn't know real pain. Thomas opened his eyes and glanced at the people around them, commenting on the delicious food, raising a glass in a toast. He wanted to stand up and shout for it all to stop, this pretending everything was magically better, that they were safe. There was no such thing as safe.
The rack of veal was followed by baked young duck. Dessert was three courses in itself: apricot compote, maraschino ice cream with vanilla cookies, and finally a plate of Swiss and herbed cheeses. Marianne ate almost every bite of all the courses. When Thomas commented on her healthy appetite, Professor Affeldt and Priska shared a look and then laughed.
“That's our little girl,” Professor Affeldt said.
It was the best food Thomas had eaten in his whole life. As he went back to his cabin, his stomach gluttonously full, he thought of the sparse meal his mother had likely eaten for dinner that night.
Each level of the ship he descended, the engine's vibration increased. He used the W.C. down the hall and
then returned to the cabin. Oskar's and Elias's beds were empty. Herr Kleist was asleep, and he hadn't even bothered to draw the privacy curtain. Thomas climbed into his bunk and pulled the curtain around him. But privacy was not to be had. Below him Herr Kleist added to the vibrations with his snoring. At home Thomas had slept on a daybed in the sitting room of the small apartment. Often he would have to go to sleep in his parents' bed because they would be up late in the sitting room with friends, planning how to get the information they collected to other countries. His parents had been part of a resistance group for almost as long as Thomas could remember. But instead of distributing anti-Hitler leaflets or participating in acts of sabotage, they worked to convince other countries that not everyone in Germany believed in the Nazis and that many would welcome a revolution. Sometimes his parents would catch a few hours of sleep on the daybed; sometimes they didn't sleep at all. He missed his parents and the apartment where he'd lived his whole life terribly.
Thomas turned to face the wall and put the pillow over his head, but he could still hear Herr Kleist droning. After a few more moments, he decided that instead of trying to force sleep, he would venture back up to the top deck. Once outside, he stood by the railing, watching the black water rustle and churn below.
He startled, forgetting that anyone on board even knew his name, and turned to find Priska.
“What are you doing up here?” he asked. He had imagined her tucked happily into bed, her mother and father having kissed her good night.
“I came to see the moon,” she said.
Thomas looked up. It was a sharp sliver tonight, bright and gleaming. The stars were overwhelming themselves, so many of them, like minnows of the sky. Thomas had once been the very type of person who noticed the moon and stars and sunlight and flowers. But over the past year he'd stopped caring so much about the world. In fact, it felt wrong that flowers budded and the moon cycled when everything else had turned crazy around him.