Woman standing on dock
Photo illustration: Jonathan Barkat
By now, at the age of 85, I've seen a lot, done a lot, amassed a pretty impressive array of facts, lived on three continents, and ridden out a no less impressive number of wars, including the unnamed one that, as I write, blazes on the borders of Israel, where I live. It is when tensions are greatest that I find myself, perhaps as a distraction, thinking not so much of the future—how it will be if and when peace comes to this part of the world—as of other times and other perils, and in particular of a narrow escape in an unexpected place: Cherbourg, France, late on a Sunday morning at the end of August 1939, the year the world began falling apart.

Odd that I still remember the way the French sky looked that day, cotton wool clouds in a pale blue expanse so unlike the relentless Middle Eastern blue to which I was accustomed. The waves didn't nestle against the shore as they did in Tel Aviv but dashed themselves furiously against it. There was something bracing in the air of Cherbourg that perfectly matched my excitement: Here I was, abroad, on my way to a new life, free of the restrictions of parents or school, finally on the verge of celebrating the 18th birthday that would transform me into an adult.

I remember, too, how confident I was of the way I looked: positively alluring, I thought, in the dazzlingly bright lipstick and very high heels I'd never worn in public before, puffing away at a cigarette with what I fervently believed was huge aplomb. All I needed to do was wait for the MS Batory to arrive, and within a few breezy days, mysterious and attractive, I would be in the United States.

I wasn't alone in the port of course; 15, perhaps 20, other travelers (I still thought of them as "grown-ups") also waited, their luggage piled up around them, all increasingly worried as the hours passed and the Batory failed to appear. Perhaps she would never come. After all, Cherbourg was a relatively unimportant stop for her; she docked there only a couple of times a year, and these weren't ordinary times, especially not for a Polish shipping line, even more especially since war in Europe seemed inevitable.

Nor was any official to be found to reassure or explain, maybe because it was a Sunday, or maybe the Gdynia America Line had simply forgotten about us. I kept busy practicing my insouciance, but most of the other travelers were Poles, men and women who had left families and jobs behind—mainly to attend the 1939 New York World's Fair—and now faced the terrifying possibility not only of not getting there but also of not being able to get home.

They began to throw out suggestions and develop complicated theories about what might have gone wrong. Could we have been abandoned—and if so, why? Had there been an accident on the high seas? Where could the ship possibly be?

The mood shifted from irritated impatience to frightful anxiety. Even I stopped pretending I was a starlet traveling incognito and started to wonder what would happen if indeed the Batory never showed up. I had a one-way ticket to New York, a passport, and a few dollars that would just suffice, my mother said, for tips. My father, who had seen me off earlier that day, was on his way to England, my mother and brother out of reach in Tel Aviv. In short, I was on my own for the first time and no longer so sure that I liked it.

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.

At long last we were en route. The first couple of days fully lived up to my original Technicolor expectations. I met Stan, a tall, blond Polish-American sophomore returning from a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, but not so devout that he turned down an opportunity to dally with a girl more or less his own age, if not faith. So I had the necessary shipboard romance, complete with dancing. And I preened myself in the knowledge that I, and no other, had saved the day.

But later in the week everything changed. On September 1, I came down to breakfast to find a room full of white-faced people being impeccably served by waiters in tears.

"Has something happened?" I asked idiotically. The lady next to me, red-eyed, nodded. "Don't you know?" she said. "The Germans have invaded Poland. Warsaw has been bombed."

That night we sailed under blackout. Our course changed. The dancing ended. On the day we should have docked in New York, longshoremen in Nova Scotia held up newspapers so we could read the headlines: War had been declared.

Finally we got to New York. Customs and passport control came aboard, and passengers began to disembark. It wasn't the arrival I had fantasized, but at least my uncle (Why was he late? Could it be that I didn't recognize him? After all, I was 3 when we'd last met) would collect me, and at last we'd get in touch with my parents, who had no way of knowing where I was. Glued to the rail of the deck, I tried to find him in the diminishing knot of greeters below, thinking I'd be better off down there, with less chance of missing him.

"No, Miss," said a kindly passport control officer, "if no one meets you, since you're not yet 18, you can't leave the ship except in the care of the Travelers Aid Society. It's the law."

Nothing availed: no pleas, no brimming eyes, no quivering statement that I would be 18 the very next day. And, alone in the lounge, eventually the only passenger onboard, I began to discern a distinct lack of warmth on the part of the crew members going about their cleanup work. Only that morning everyone had been so attentive and polite. Now they looked at me balefully, as though they resented my still being there and wanted their ship to themselves. I don't know how long I sat there, all by myself, feeling like a public nuisance, all bravado gone.

In the end, my uncle arrived, and the Batory and I parted ways. My life in the United States—which was to last two decades—had finally begun.

Long afterward, I was told that the crew, driven mad by worry, unable to persuade the company to let them go home, had resolved to mutiny, but since the penalty for mutiny when even one passenger is onboard is (or was then) substantially harsher than mutiny on a passenger-free vessel, there was no choice other than to wait till I left.

Everything that followed is another story. What belongs to this one is that, as I sat there in the lounge, miserably aware of the collective desire to be rid of me, yearning for my parents, wondering what I would do if no one came to fetch me, I had no notion that everyone else on the ship was doing their best to turn it around and go back to Poland—or that Poland was to become the cemetery of the Jews—or that I might have had to go back with them.

But now I know it, and in some way that knowledge changed the rest of my life, and me. In Cherbourg that day—though I would come to understand the full measure of its dangers and deliverances only long afterward—I learned that just beyond the horizon, the random, the inexplicable, even the miraculous might be waiting: a lesson that, in my neighborhood, has proved quite useful.


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