Jaffareadstoo is delighted to start off the We Are of Dust blog tour on its Publication Day
|The Liverpool Publishing Company|
3 December 2018
Retelling of MS St Louis refugee tragedy through fiction backed by Holocaust and ship survivor
Alice Sommer, the half-Jewish daughter of a prominent German physicist, and Kurt Hertz, a troubled Hitler Youth from the poorest district of Berlin, couldn’t have less in common; but when they each find themselves on the run from the Gestapo, cast adrift aboard a ship of spies, refugees and resistance fighters, their destinies become inextricably linked.
With the ship becoming a matter of special interest to some of the most influential members of the Nazi Party, the stakes are raised even higher. Will Alice and Kurt be able to put aside their seemingly irreconcilable differences for the sake of their own lives?
“What we don’t learn will happen again.” Herbert Karliner
The true story of the MS St Louis
MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner. In 1939, she set off on a voyage in which her captain, Gustav Schröder, tried to find homes for over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany. Due to countries' immigration policies based on domestic political realities, rather than humanitarian grounds, they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada. The refugees were finally accepted in various European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, and France. Historians have estimated that approximately a quarter of them died in death camps during World War II.
Q and A with Herbert Karliner
What was it like growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany?
At first, it was small things. I wasn’t allowed to play on the soccer team anymore. I wanted to join the Hitler Youth because I thought it sounded exciting, but my father told me I couldn’t because I was Jewish. I soon saw what they thought of me. They would push me off the pavements and make me walk in the gutter when they past. The violence built up. We were sledging once, and a boy punched my little sister in the face. I hit him back, and that night the Gestapo came for my father and imprisoned him for the night. Then Kristallnacht came. They destroyed our family grocery shop and our home. I remember the synagogue burning. I never went back to school after those attacks, and my parents made plans to leave.
What was life like on the ship?
We had a wonderful trip. We had movies, we had dancing. The food was delicious. I had never seen the Ocean before. I thought it was beautiful. My brother, sisters and me, we were all excited, but my parents were sad. Captain Schröder was a good man. On the ship, we were treated with respect and had rights. We weren’t used to that. The captain even took the portrait of Hitler down during the Sabbath Friday night services. However, once the ship started back toward Germany, we got very panicky. Nobody wanted us. Captain Schröder, promised us he would scuttle the ship in British waters rather than return them to Germany, but eventually other countries agreed to take us in.
What happened after the ship?
My family went to France, but we didn’t have any money. The Nazis had taken everything and had even charged a tax on anything we sold back in Germany. My parents and sisters were given an apartment in Mirabaud, and my brother and I were in a Children's Welfare Organisation home. I worked in a bakery, and then, when the children’s homes were no longer safe, worked on farms under a false identity, and lived in the woods until liberation. I’d had no schooling since I was 12, and I had to learn French – my survival depended on it.
How did you survive?
I feel that I was lucky. I had friends hiding under false names who didn’t make it. I watched people get arrested by the Gestapo. One day, a wagon turned up at the children’s home. I didn’t get on because it was two weeks until my 16th birthday, and there were only taking away those over that age. None of them returned. I later found out that my parents and sisters had died at Auschwitz. I still think about them all the time.
Why did you choose to live in Miami?
It took me nearly a decade to get here after the war, but I promised myself when I was 12-years-old that when I can make it, I’m going to come back and live here. I have only been back to where I lived before the St Louis once. Peiskretscham is now part of Poland. I left after an hour. It was too much. Every morning, I get up and look around Miami and think of how lucky I am to be here.
My thoughts about We Are of Dust..
When Alice Sommer is caught up in the shattering effects of Kristallnacht in November 1938, she has already lost contact with her father and younger sister. No-one is safe in this threatening environment, and Alice’s Jewish background puts her in extreme danger from those who would seek to do her harm. When she comes into contact with Kurt Hertz, a troubled young man who is fleeing his own particular demons, they seem, at first meeting, to have little in common, however, on the run from the dreaded Gestapo, this unlikely pairing means that sometimes friendships are formed in the most unlikely of circumstances. Boarding a ship in the hope of being taken to America should have been their first step on the long road to safety but as Alice and Kurt find out, to their cost, the price of freedom is fraught with more danger than either of them could ever have imagined.
We Are of Dust is a realistic portrayal of a dark time in our collective history. A time when nothing and no-one was safe and very few people could be trusted and even when the offer of refuge came, it often had dangerous conditions attached.
The author writes with great conviction and shares this fictional account with compassion and sensitivity, never seeking to sensationalise what was happening, but at the same time allowing the characters to have their own forceful voice. I particularly liked the short and concise chapters which help to bring the emotional content of the story into sharp focus.
The assortment of fictional characters who find themselves at the very heart of the novel are representative of any number of real people who found themselves caught up in such events which were beyond their control, however, their tenacity and bravery contribute so much to the story that it becomes difficult not to think of them as real people.
Based on the true story of the SS St Louis, the plight of German Jewish refugees is brought into stark reality. Each of them had abandoned all hope of remaining in their homeland, only to discover that safe didn’t always go hand in hand with the word, “welcome”.
We have much to learn by keeping history alive as it is only by sharing these stories can we do justice to the memories of those who tried so hard to keep hope alive in such difficult and life changing circumstances.
|Clare with authors, Marcus Zusak and John Boyne|
who have been very supportive of We Are of Dust
Clare Coombes lives in Liverpool, UK, where she spends her time writing, reading, researching and editing, tap dancing – and looking after a toddler.
She is one half of the Liverpool Editing Company, a publishing consultancy group designed to guide authors through each step of the publishing process. Her commended short stories and novel extracts feature in a number of publications, competitions and journals. Her debut novel, Definitions, was published in 2015 by Bennion Kearney to acclaimed Amazon reviews.
Her wide-ranging non-fiction portfolio comprises everything from art to astrophysics, and her work has been published in a variety of national media outlets, receiving award nominations such as Science News’ ‘Breakthrough Story of the Year’.
She has judged fiction competitions, taught on Creative Writing postgraduate modules and given talks in schools and at high-profile events on writing as a career.
Twitter @coombes_clare #WeAreOfDust