Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Renate 29 January 1939

They made their way into one of the already crowded lounges. People were sitting on top of suitcases, on the floor, or squashed three to a seat on the uncomfortable wooden benches.
“You could go and have a look around the boat if you want,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Put your things in your cabin first. But I want you in bed within an hour.”
Renate was sharing a cabin with Adelinde, Christa and Irmgard. Jakob and Erich were sharing with two other boys.  
“I’m tired,” wailed Christa.
“Me too,” said Adelinde. “Shall we go straight to bed, girls?”
Christa nodded. Irmgard didn’t say anything. She placed her hand into Adelinde’s and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
Renate felt wide awake, now though. “I’d like to have a look around,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Give me your things, then,” said Adelinde. “I’ll put them in the cabin.” 
Renate waved to the three other girls and then she set off across the crowded inner deck. She didn’t think she had ever seen so many people crammed into one space. Warm body odour and sea air made for a strange mixture of smells. She had never been on a boat as big as this – should she call it a ship?  This ferry that was going to take her to England. People were still getting on. Would this - ferry - be able to hold them all?
It was hard to breathe in here. A slight breeze drifted from above her head. She noticed a staircase – well it was almost more of a ladder, the steps were so steep and only had air between them - which led to an opening in the roof above her. She made her way up the rungs.
Outside it was cold. The shore looked close. She shivered. It wasn’t just the cold, though. She would not see her own country for a long time and now she was going somewhere she didn’t understand. She still didn’t really understand either why she was going there or what being Jewish meant.  
The boat started to judder. There was a loud creaking and groaning, the sound of chains clanking and shouts from the men working at the side of the harbour. The town began to move backwards away from them. The breeze now became proper wind. Renate could hardly keep her balance. The boat rolled from side to side and then as it turned out of the harbour, it started to go up and down like a seesaw. One moment the line where the sea and the sky met seemed to be up above her head, the next minute she was looking down at it. She couldn’t work out where she was. She began to feel dizzy. Perhaps it would be better if she went and sat down.
She made her way carefully down the steep staircase. The steps kept falling away from her and then rushing up to meet her feet. Once she slipped and banged her hip into the rail at the side.
The warmth flooded over her as she arrived on the lower deck. For just a few seconds it felt good. Then the smell of the closely packed passengers made her feel slightly sick. Yes, she should go to the cabin now. Perhaps if she lay down she would feel better.
She tried to push her way through the crowds. It was even more difficult now, as the boat was now moving up and down and from side to side at the same time. She struggled to keep her balance.
“Watch what you’re doing,” shouted one man angrily as she accidentally trod on his foot.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to mutter as she then almost fell on woman who was trying to feed a baby.
The boat lurched to one side and then rose up in the air, crashing down suddenly, and then juddering for a few seconds before once more springing up. She saw a small door in front of her. She hoped that that was what it looked like. And even if it wasn’t, at least she might be on her own in there so no-one could see what she was about to do. The boat lurched to the other side. She pushed the door open and just made it in time into one of the toilet cubicles. She vomited straight into the pan. Perhaps that would make it better now.
It didn’t. Time and time again, the acid yellow fluid came out of her mouth. Still the boat moved around in every direction. Then it got worse. And finally there was no more yellow fluid to come out of her stomach into her mouth but still her whole body went into spasm and she retched with every movement of the boat. This journey was going to take forever. Twelve hours, Fräulein Gottlieb had said. Twelve hours of this.  The boat rocked. Her stomach retched. Over and over again. She wasn’t alone, she could hear. Then she could smell other people’s vomit. That made her feel even worse. Finally not able to hold herself up straight, she sank to the floor, hardly able to move.  She propped her chin over the side of the toilet basin. Even as the retching continued, she felt her eyelids close.                
She must have fallen asleep. There was a different sort of rocking. Somebody was shaking her.
“Renate! Renate!” she heard a voice cry. “Oh, you poor child. Why didn’t you come and find me?”
Renate looked up to see Fräulein Gottlieb’s bright eyes looking into hers.
“Too sick,” murmured Renate. “Had to stay by the toilet.”
“My dear, I’m so sorry,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, helping Renate to her feet. “My poor, poor girl.  Just look at you. Let me help you get cleaned up.”  She tried to tug the creases out of Renate’s crumpled dress and coat. “When Adelinde wished me goodnight from the cabin, I’d assumed you were all there. Then I was busy with one or two others who were also feeling sick. On my break I only meant to close my eyes for a moment … then the rocking motion of the boat, you know … it always sends me to sleep. Adelinde came to find me because you hadn’t got back to the cabin. She was worried.”
Renate noticed the boat was not moving so violently now. It was just rocking gently, like a cradle. That would be soothing. And she felt so tired, oh so tired. She would love to curl up now and be in a soft, cosy bed. But Fräulein Gottlieb was now working at a vomit stain on the skirt of her dress. And actually, the smell of other people’s vomit would have put her off sleeping.
“You should have come to get me,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, “if you felt so poorly. I’m supposed to be looking after you.”
The boat was moving really slowly now.
“Come on, let’s go and get some fresh air,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “We ought to be able to see some land now.”    
Renate had stopped feeling sick at least. But she was so weak, and her legs were wobbly. The ferry was going really slowly now, and the rocking from side to side had almost gone completely. Just a gentle seesaw pushed them up and down. Even so, she had to lean on Fräulein Gottlieb as they made their way across the deck. Other white faces looked at her and she was at least glad that she wasn’t the only one who had felt so bad. But even the faces which didn’t look white looked strained. Were they all dreading arriving in England as much as she was?
“You go up first,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, when they arrived at the staircase. “Then I can catch you if you fall.”
It took Renate all of her strength to haul herself up to the last step of the steep stairway. The cool wind took her breath away at first, but then she realized that it also made her feel better. The sun was shining now and there were no clouds at all in the sky. Perhaps this would be all right, after all. It was hard to believe it had been so grey and cold when they’d set out.
They really were not far from land now. The first bit of the harbour wall was just in front of them. Renate could see some big cargo ships moored there. Cranes were loading huge crates on to their big decks. Beyond that, black shiny roofs and white buildings were gleaming in the sun. She had to shade her eyes to stop the glare.
“Well,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Here we are. Your new home. England.”
“Home?” said Renate. That sounded a bit final.
“Your uncles will be there to meet you,” whispered Fräulein Gottlieb, “once we’re in London. They’ll know how to keep you safe.”
Renate looked again at the town. It seemed to offer her no welcome.

You’re welcome to them, the filth. Haven’t even got sea-legs. A proper German would know how to sail. A proper Englishman would know how to sail. Not you.    

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