Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

New on the bookshelf: "The Other Half of Life "

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Here’s a new book by Kim Ablon Whitney, “The Other Half of Life” a novel based on the tragic story of the ship the St. Louis, which left Germany in 1939 carrying Jewish refugees escaping to Cuba. It’s historical fiction, but, as always, the reality of history remains with us. When I first asked Kim to write for my blog about how this book came to be written, the Holocaust Museum had not yet been catapulted into the news and Stephen Tyrone Johns, the 39-year-old security guard who worked the museum’s front door, was still alive.

This book, like Kim’s others, is a young adult novel, but if you don’t have any young adults in your house, you can buy it for yourself. I asked Kim to talk a little about the book and this is what she said:

“Writing “The Other Half of Life” was a bit of a journey. I was conducting research for another novel set in Europe before World War II when I came upon the story of the motor ship, the St. Louis. The St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany in 1939 carrying 937 Jewish refugees escaping Hitler and bound for Cuba. Most of the passengers had immigration numbers to the U.S. and planned to wait in Cuba until they were allowed in to the U.S. Tragically, at the last moment Cuba rescinded the passengers’ landing permits and the ship was forced to return to Europe. 254 of the passengers ended up perishing in the Holocaust.

“I was immediately captivated by this heartbreaking story and also amazed I had never heard of it. I began asking family and friends whether they knew of the St. Louis and I was surprised that many hadn’t either. Only a few remembered something about a 1970’s film, "The Voyage of the Damned." I knew that I wanted to try to bring to life this lesser known, yet important chapter of the Holocaust for younger generations.

“One of the many fascinating things about the ship was that it was a luxury liner with comfortable cabins, a cinema, and even a swimming pool. All of a sudden passengers who had been through horrible suffering were living like kings.

“My main character is a boy—the first male protagonist in my books (which probably has something to do with having two young boys). But Thomas’s voice came to me and I knew the story would be through his point-of-view. Thomas is 15 years-old and his father has been sent away to Dachau. His mother could only afford one ticket aboard the St. Louis, so Thomas is traveling alone. He is planning to meet his older half-brother in Cuba and there they will wait, hoping Thomas’s mother, and maybe his father too, will be able to join them. Thomas is heartbroken to leave his mother behind, and to leave without knowing his father’s fate.

“Aboard the ship, Thomas soon meets 14 year-old Priska, a seemingly carefree and bubbly beauty. She’s traveling with her parents and younger sister and is excited about the luxurious voyage, and starting a new life free from persecution.

“Over the course of the voyage, Thomas and Priska forge a close friendship, encounter a spy mystery, and together face the devastating news that Cuba, and ultimately the U.S. too, will not admit the passengers.

“I hope I’ve made the book accessible to both young adult and adult readers. With the number of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans dwindling—the people who lived through these times firsthand—it’s more important than ever for the older generations to share their stories with younger generations. My biggest wish for this book is that grandparents read it along with their grandchildren and discuss it with them, and that parents read it with their children. Perhaps it will spark a conversation where the older generations can find a way to share things with the younger generations that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to share.

“In addition to helping the generations talk about the Holocaust, I also hope my book might encourage a dialogue about immigration. The St. Louis left an indelible legacy in helping to shape our country’s humanitarian treatment of refugees, and influenced legislation such as the 1948 Displaced Persons Act and the 1980 Refugee Act. Because of the United States’ history as a safe haven for people seeking freedom from persecution, we (especially the teenagers who are the future leaders of our country) need to continue to explore the complex and controversial issue of immigration.”

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