1939: Just Before the Storm...
And then the miracle occured. As we stood there, staring glumly at the empty sea and at each other, I suddenly remembered an article from the Children's Encyclopedia that had accompanied my entire childhood and that I knew virtually by heart. Celebrated for providing information in language children could understand, the CE covered everything from logging in Canadian rivers to the exact proportions of the French guillotine—and included a detailed item about territorial waters: what they were and when and how the rulings about them were invoked.
Before I knew what I was doing, I heard myself say loudly, to no one in particular, "Maybe the Batory doesn't want to enter the three-mile limit of French territorial waters and is waiting for us"—I pointed dramatically to the Atlantic Ocean—"out there."
The talk stopped. Some 30 (or possibly 40) eyes swiveled in my direction; 15 (or was it 20?) people glared at me, their astonishment laced with what I can only call revulsion. For a second I saw myself as they saw me: There I stood, looking for all the world like Minnie Mouse, staggering about in my ridiculous shoes, made up like a clown, daring to offer outrageous suggestions in a situation becoming graver by the minute.
"Don't be so stupid, girl," someone barked. Someone else said, with real anger, "Be quiet. It's no time for children to interfere. It's very serious."
I'm pretty certain that I wanted to cry, but I don't think I did. Then one of the men said, "You know what? She may be right, and what do we have to lose?" And another man said, "Yes, I agree. Let's get a motorboat or something, charge it to the shipping line, and go see for ourselves." And a young woman came over, smiled, and said something gentle to me in Polish.
Despair gave way to hope. Very quickly a launch was found, room made in it for all of us and our luggage, enough money collected so we could pay the "skipper," and off we chugged to look for an ocean liner that just might be hanging around.
Talk of Minnie Mouse; this was right out of Mack Sennett. I know it took place, but even as I click away now, 68 years later, I find it hard to believe that anyone really expected to find that ship. But find her we did. Moreover we heard her even before we could see her, because at some point in this bizarre voyage, the world filled with music. In a formal welcome, the Batory's little orchestra, on a deck high above us, hailed us with a series of boom-ta-ra-boom brassy anthems. If I never recall anything else, I shall never forget the moment that, looking up, up, up from our tiny launch, as if in slow motion, we first saw the liner looming hugely in front of us while the band played on. More than the ensuing horror of the rope ladders flung down to us, more than the madness of our push-pull entry via portholes, the memory of the captain's courtly salutation—presented, as protocol required, in Polish, French, and English—will also remain: a perfect Polish gentleman in a lunatic setting.