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Hampton Roads, Virginia, 1940
Dear Eleanor Roosevelt,
Do you like stories?
So much of the story I need to tell happened in spring. A war
story in spring seems wrong, I know. Yet so much of it is colorful,
the tight buds of azaleas opening, wild rhododendron brushing hillsides white with flower, and the road out of Brussels bundled impossibly with carts and cars, trucks and bicycles, but scented with
lilac and fields of freshly turned black dirt.
I wish I had many, many days to tell you this story, all the tender shades of green I saw -- the first, pale, fuzzy twists of ferns,
ramps we picked at the edge of a woods, the yellow-green of rolled
hay, a dark line of cedar twisting up a driveway outside Paris.
But I suspect there's hardly even this full day before Captain Alberto Harberts turns this steamship from this port. We have come
only to bunker coal. Harberts has detained passengers and even his
crew aboard. There is no time for all I want to say. Anyhow, I know
that a woman in your position doesn't have all day. So I'll try to be
quick -- though I have always been a little long-winded, something
that Maman says will either make me a rabbi or a thief. Since when
does a thief need many words? Perhaps Maman means a con man.
Though having recently needed more just right words than I could
conjure, I promise you, Mrs. Roosevelt, I am no one's con man.
I am instead Itzak Lejdel, born in Brussels, though lately I have
had addresses in Paris, Toulouse, Perpignan, Lisbon, and almost in
I turned seventeen this spring.
Mrs. Roosevelt, before I go any further, permit me to double
back and apologize for my English, which you will see is not perfect. I know it's not bad and according to my English teacher,
Madame Dupais, I even have a flair for your language. Still, at this
moment, I need to speak as perfectly as I can and while my French
is better than my Flemish, which is maybe a fraction better than my
German, I thought it was most polite and without the burden and
time wasted on translators to address you in your own language. As
for Yiddish, which was an option, I didn't think there's much
chance that there are many Yiddish translators on the United States
Truly I adore your English language. Madame Dupais taught us
a mixture of high diction and the latest argot that would make us
sound like the real deal in any bar in New York City. I was, let me
brag for a moment, at the tip-top of her class. I was the bee's knees,
the elephant's ear. “You're the living end,” Madame Dupais crooned
when she overheard me practicing my Cary Grant with my copain,
Henri. But this letter, finally, is too important to pick incorrect
words or to wind up talking to the President's wife as if she were a
cigarette girl on Tin Pan Alley.
But in any language I probably go about this sort of letter all
wrong. My professors at the lycée -- excluding Madame Dupais --
would insist that the tone is already too informal (impudent encore,
Monsieur Lejdel!), the substance vague, misleading (azaleas!
thieves!) and bogged down with details that must be trimmed before the letter is sent.
And while I'm apologizing, let me say I'm sorry for this terrible,
thin letter paper that, rotten and thin as it is, is all that I have on
board. I would have liked that my presentation was a little more
presentable for the First Lady.
Which leads directly to my third and grandest apology. What
was I thinking, calling you Eleanor? It's one thing to write: Dear
Hedy Lamarr or Dear Ginger. But you're the President's wife. The
First Lady. Not that you need me to tell you this. Maybe it's just as
well. They say our errors disclose us. Much to the dismay of Maman
and my professors and even a few young women, it will not have
been the first time I broke the rules.
My name, my situation, and what I need from you. A simple,
direct plea: save Maman and me. That would be, no doubt, the
proper letter. But Mrs. Roosevelt, how well does a list of rules and
facts move our hearts? I think it is in the details that we are saved.
Here, you judge.
Our steamship, the Quanza, sailed from Lisbon, arriving in
New York City on August 19. One hundred and ninety-six passengers -- Americans and Europeans -- went ashore in New York. The
rest of us were turned away, our visas and documentation refused.
Then to Mexico, where in Vera Cruz we were again denied entrance, despite transit papers I had secured for Maman and myself
in Lisbon, proving that we must go through Mexico to find passage
on a ship to Shanghai for which we also have visas.
Lisbon to Mexico to Shanghai! I know -- cunning, yes, but still
not a con man!
The has come to the port at Hampton Roads, Virginia,
to load coal and bring the refugees back to Lisbon, though there is
no certainty we will be granted entrance into Portugal.
Refugee. Suddenly this is one of my facts.
And that is practically the whole story when it comes to simple
facts. Tell the truth, you weren't moved very much, were you?
Okay, there's another fact. On the ship, they call me the Poet.
But, really, I'm no poet. I think this must be obvious to you,
even if sometimes I do go a little overboard with my descriptions.
But let them think these pages that I curl over are poems, barely
glancing up when they pass, knuckling my skull. “Itzak the Poet,”
they say, “Still with the poems. You don't think the Legal Advisory
Committee could make a better use of your typewriter?” I don't
budge. Every one of the All-Important-capital-A-capital–I-capital-
C-Committees has tried to commandeer my Royale. This typewriter's a beauty. From cabin bunk to the upper or second deck, I
carry my Royale, setting up a portable office. Let them think these
are poems. Let them think I'm Itzak the dreamer. All along it's
been letters, not poems. Mrs. Roosevelt, I'll admit you're not the
first I've written a letter to on this passage. I've written Rosalind
Russell and Claudette Colbert. Now may we talk about who is
truly the cat's meow! I'd like to also write Ginger, Hedy, and Lana
Turner. And Judy Garland. I'm a fan. Of all of them. Of actresses.
In those letters I tell them how gorgeous and talented they are and
that one day, in America perhaps, I hope to meet them, but until
then, I am their eternal fan. Not that I wouldn't consider slipping
a bit of poetry (Baudelaire, Verlaine, maybe the wild Rimbaud)
into a letter to show my savoir faire. I've considered writing film
stars for help. But I've decided, as Madame Dupais says, to put all
my eggs in one basket.
Now, here on the Quanza, more than facts, what's left are rumors. For example, that certain legal petitions filed on behalf of the
wealthier families will hold us in port. That a lawyer in Virginia has
been hired and is trying to arrest the ship and buy time for his
client's release from the ship. Rumor: that the client is Monsieur
Rand. Rumor: that the client is Madame Cartier. Not a rumor: that
the client is the third-class passenger, Itzak Lejdel.
And the big, big, big, biggest rumor is that you, Mrs. Eleanor
Roosevelt, have been directly contacted.
That's why, bragging as this sounds, I think it important to
write you directly and ask if you can help Maman and me off the
There it is -- I've written who I am and what I want.
Simple, clear facts, the lesson accomplished. Yet the facts tell
us nothing. Or they tell a dreary story of stations and inspectors,
the endless waiting on endless lines. Visas, papers, valises tied with
rough, frayed string. Tell me, who wouldn't want that story to
hurry up and end? But this is also a story with the long, grand
hallways of European libraries. There is a fox stole and bright
caged birds in my story. Here there are trains and disguises, the
loosening of a woman's coiled hair. There are film stars and hiding
in movie houses (and isn't everything better when the movies are
involved!). There are deceptions, maps, and betrayals. There are
long, ample kisses. In other words, here's a story of everything a
boy might dream of knowing during the spring and summer he
turns seventeen. But I hope this is not only a boy's adventure story
or a flimsy poet's dreaming.
Mrs. Roosevelt, here's a fact that matters. I'm counting on you
liking stories. I believe my life depends on it.