“The story has nothing to do with me. Yet it is a story that has lived with me all my life,” said Cuban/American author Armando Lucas Correa, as he prepared to present his latest book (his debut novel) “The German Girl” to a packed house of lovers of good literature— a presentation brought to Durham Region by the Whitby Public Library in association with Blue Heron Books. The event was hosted by “Living Underground” author Ruth Walker.
Correa is an award-winning journalist, author, and the editor-in-chief for People en Español, the top-selling Hispanic magazine in the United States. “The German Girl” is “the fictionalized story of Hannah Rosenthal, a 12-year-old girl who flees Nazi Germany aboard the MS St.Louis only to discover the asylum that has been promised is an illusion. While the novel is fiction, the story of the MS St. Louis is true. The liner was denied entry in Cuba, the U. S. and Canada. While many refugees found asylum in Britain, France and Belgium, a large number ended up in concentration camps.”
And although this is a story that has equally shamed Cubans, Americans and Canadians for decades, Correa got a different version of it from his maternal grandmother, who was a Spanish immigrant to the island herself and who immediately identified with the plight of the Jewish refugees. When the St. Louis (the largest and most luxurious ship to ever arrive in the island) arrived in Havana, Correa’s grandmother was pregnant with his mother. She was moved to the core with what the Cubans did to the 937 people (almost 300 of them children), denying them refuge and sending them away to almost certain death. “Cuba is going to pay for the next 100 years for what they did to these people,” said Grandma at the time.
“I always say that this is a story that fills us with shame as we speak about it, and that’s why it remains hidden,” said Correa. “As a Cuban, I’m embarrassed by it. People always say, ‘Ah, well, it was the president’s decision 70 years ago’, but as a nation we should be ashamed. And I think we always hide this kind of story. It is very easy to say that Hitler and the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, 8 million Soviets in World War II, but it is the responsibility of the rest of the world because we turned our backs on them. I’m not sure I should say this, but sometimes human beings carry rejection in their DNA to those people who are different, to anyone who has a different skin colour or has an accent, or to someone who believes in a different God. It’s so much easier to veer away, turn around and walk away in fear. You try to stay in that microcosm when the reality is, we live in a world that has no boundaries.”
But not his grandma, who from the get-go thought it was a terrible thing what the Cuban government and its people had done to the Jewish immigrants. Instead of getting Correa to study Russian (like everyone else was doing at the time) she got him to take English lessons. The German teacher— who Correa admits was a scary character that all the kids in the neighbourhood were afraid of and became known as “The Nazi”— became a protege of sorts of his grandmother, who was always helping him with what she could. At a time of high scarcity, she’d send him bags of food every week. Later on in life Correa found out he was in fact a Jewish refugee; one of only 28 who remained on the island. The US and Canada did not admit them either. 200 stayed in Great Britain. Some went to Belgium, France and Holland and a great majority of them were killed in concentration camps.
“This story has lived with me forever,” says Correa. “It’s a fascinating story. But there is very little documentation about it. In Cuba, there is nothing about it in the national archives, all the documents disappeared. Here at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, in the United States, they tried to reconstruct the whereabouts of all survivors. They have a lot of documents. When I started writing the novel, it was initially a novel about loss. I started writing about a girl who lived with her parents and on the morning of September 11 the father left the house and never returned. He died in the towers. He was of Cuban descent and he was married to an American woman living in Connecticut. And she starts searching for his past. And in that search I inserted the St. Louis. And as soon as the St. Louis came into the picture, it became the centre of the story. It became my obsession. I started researching every possible document about the St. Louis, I bought all the books that were ever written, I bought the captain’s diary. I bought coins from the time. It was like a madness. I went crazy searching for every little thing. But I did not want to interview the survivors until I was done writing the book because at the same time the book was about the story my grandmother had left me with.”
And this is how the book came to be: he mixed history and facts with his grandma’s childhood anecdotes. It became a very personal story. Upon finishing the book, he took to travelling and doing a sort of tour of all the meaningful places the St. Louis had touched in that fateful and eventually tragic journey. “I boarded a ship on the 77th anniversary of the ship’s departure,” said Correa. “On May 13 at exactly 8:00 I boarded the ship to Hamburg and sailed around the area, crying like an idiot. People were saying, ‘This man is crazy’. I went to Auschwitz. I went to Havana. I went to the exact spot where the St. Louis was anchored and I watched Havana from the same viewpoint as the passengers did back then. But it was more for myself than anything because the book was already finished.”
Touring throughout North America Correa has been pleasantly surprised at how well received the book has been. He spoke at the presentation about interviewing the survivors and what a momentous experience that was. One of them was 13 at a time (now 92) and he remembers everything vividly. He and his brother survived because they ended up at an orphanage in an unoccupied area of France. His two sisters and his parents died in Auschwitz. Another one was 14 months old at the time and now lives in New York. Yet another survivor (Ana María, “The Mexican of St. Louis”, says Correa) lives in Toronto with her son, who teaches at U of T. She married a Mexican of Jewish descent and ended up learning Spanish. She will join Correa at an upcoming visit to Toronto on November 10 and 11, with presentations both in English and Spanish. The book, says the author, was originally written in his native Spanish and is available in both languages through his publishing house, Simon & Schuster.