The Other Half of Lifeby Kim Ablon Whitney
In May of 1939, the SS St. Francis sets sail from Germany, carrying German Jews and other refugees away from Hitler’s regime. The passengers believe they are bound for freedom in Cuba and eventually the United States, but not all of them are celebrating. Fifteen-year-old/i>/i>
A heartbreaking novel based on the true story of a World War II voyage.
In May of 1939, the SS St. Francis sets sail from Germany, carrying German Jews and other refugees away from Hitler’s regime. The passengers believe they are bound for freedom in Cuba and eventually the United States, but not all of them are celebrating. Fifteen-year-old Thomas is anxious about his parents and didn’t want to leave Germany: his father, a Jew, has been imprisoned and his mother, a Christian, is left behind, alone. Fourteen-yearold Priska has her family with her, and she’s determined to enjoy the voyage, looking forward to their new lives.
Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, this historical young adult novel imagines two travelers and the lives they may have lived until events, and immigration laws, conspired to change their fates. Kim Ablon Whitney did meticulous research on the voyage of the St. Louis to craft her compelling and moving story about this little-known event in history.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Random House Children's Books
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.80(d)
- Age Range:
- 12 Years
Read an Excerpt
At the shed in Hamburg his mother took him by both shoulders. They had traveled hours on the train from Berlin, and she would be making the return trip without him. Since arriving, they had passed an uncomfortable hour rarely talking as they waited for boarding to begin. Finally it was time. The strong sea air surrounded them, making Thomas's tweed jacket feel heavy and damp. He noticed a sheen of moisture on his mother's cheeks and forced himself to focus on her eyes. In the past year, since his father was taken away by the Nazis, Thomas had always tried to look mostly at his mother's eyes. If he concentrated on her eyes, he could ignore the gauntness of her face, how he could picture her bony skull right there beneath her skin.
"I'm not going to cry and you're not either," she said, straightening his tie. Usually Thomas would have been annoyed at his mother's fussing, but he knew this might be the last time they would be together, at least for a long time.
She turned away, to face the ship. It had a giant black hull with rows of portholes above it. The way it sat so high in the water was impressive. The pedal boats Thomas was familiar with from a handful of days spent at the Wannsee were so small you could trail your hand in the water without even leaning over far. But on this great ship even the first deck loomed hundreds of feet above the surface of the water. Thomas's stomach felt queasy but he tried to ignore it.
His mother kept looking at the ship, and Thomas wondered if she was thinking whether there might be a way she could steal aboard. At six hundred reichsmarks, even securing one ticket to Cuba had been a miracle. Thomas had not known his parents had that much money hidden away. His mother had told him that they had been saving it for a time just like this--a chance to get out. Perhaps they had once hoped it would be enough for all three of them to escape Germany, but with the extra fees and dues tacked on by the German travel agency and the Reich, not to mention the price of the ticket from the shipping line itself, the money had barely covered Thomas's passage.
Neither Thomas nor his mother was foolish enough to think Thomas's father would ever come home; yet leaving Germany altogether seemed like betraying him, like giving up. Which was why even if they had been able to scrounge up enough money for two tourist fares, his mother still would not have gone.
It was also why Thomas himself didn't want to go.
"No tears," his mother repeated.
"You think I'd cry?" Thomas said. He had been strong through everything that had happened to them; he wasn't about to cry now.
"I'm not going to wait while you board," she continued as if she hadn't heard him. "I'm going to turn around and you're not going to look back. This is the right thing to do--the only thing to do."
Thomas fingered the ivory pawn in his pocket. He'd taken it from his father's chess set before leaving. "This isn't what Vati would have wanted. He would have wanted me to stay--"
She cut him off. "And look out for me?"
"No, he would have wanted me to stay and fight." He knew his mother didn't need him--a Mischling, half-breed. He would only be trouble to her. She was better off without him, as she was without his father. Without them she was of pure kindred blood, with the light hair and blue eyes to prove it.
His mother lowered her head. "There is no more fighting. Only surviving."
She pulled him to her. Thomas stiffened and then softened. At fifteen he felt too old for embraces, but the pressure of her body reminded him that he had not gotten to feel his father's arms around him a last time. He held tight, not wanting to let go. She smelled faintly of their apartment, the deep, musky scent of well-worn leather furniture. Thomas used to love how when he stood up from the sofa, his impression always remained on the seat cushion, as if the sofa were waiting for his return. Only now he would never be back.
Herr Kleist, who had been waiting nearby, stepped forward. "I'll watch out for him, you needn't worry, Frau Werkmann."
Herr Kleist was nearing seventy and one of his eyes constantly watered. He was a great-uncle of a friend of a friend. Thomas didn't have much faith in him. Also, he didn't need a guardian.
All around them, others bid tearful _good-_byes to family and friends. Porters in uniforms and caps scurried by with baggage. German mixed with Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.
Herr Kleist cleared his gravelly throat. "We should move on. They need to get the tourist class on before first class can board and we can set off."
Thomas stepped away from his mother. She had said no tears but he could hear her muffling sobs in her sleeve. He inhaled the salty air as gulls screeched overhead. He looked up at the two giant funnels and the mast of the ship. A swastika flag flapped in the breeze. Why hadn't he noticed it before? Thomas shivered in his damp clothes. How could a ship that was supposed to carry its passengers to freedom bear the Nazi flag?
Halfway up the sloping gangway, Thomas felt the intense desire to turn around, to see his mother one more time, to see whether she'd lived up to her promise of leaving after she'd failed at not crying. But he was afraid too. He didn't want to see his mother as he'd last seen his father: weakened and powerless.
A family of four walked abreast in front of them. The mother and daughter were dressed in long skirts with kerchiefs over their hair. The father and the older son wore black suits and hats. "At least we'll make it on before sunset," the man said to his wife.
Beside Thomas, Herr Kleist slouched along, shoulders bowed, head down, as if he hadn't paid his fare and was trying to slip on unnoticed. Thomas stretched himself taller and announced his arrival with solid footsteps that rattled the slats of the gangway.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Kim Ablon Whitney has published two previous novels with Knopf. She lives with her family in Newton, Massachusetts. To learn more about Kim, please visit www.kimablonwhitney.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It's 1939, and things have steadily grown worse for the Jews of Germany. Fifteen-year-old Thomas Werkmann has witnessed firsthand just how cruel the Nazis can be, and his mother has scraped together the money to send him to Cuba on the tourist boat, the MS Francis, along with over 900 other Jews hoping to escape persecution. Upon their leaving in Hamburg, Thomas is unwillingly befriended by the two daughters of a German literature professor. Although jealous of the Affeldts and the fact that their family has managed to escape the country together, unlike his own, Thomas finds himself drawn to the 14-year-old Priska, regardless of her seemingly foolish optimism and overly friendly nature. During their two-week voyage across the Atlantic, Thomas - and eventually Priska - grow suspicious about several things that seem to be happening on their ship. Why is the crew treating the Jews with respect when Jews aren't considered citizens anymore? Why is the ship steward, Manfred, so friendly with them - Priska in particular - when he's a member of the Nazi party? Why was the Nazi general, Herr Holz, assigned to this ship when he carries a cane to get around, and why does his injury seem so fake to Thomas? Before the ship enters Cuban waters, rumors begin to circulate, and Thomas and Priska do a little investigating of their own. Is it possible that there might be even bigger problems that may delay their entry into Cuba...and freedom? Although Thomas excels in chess, this may be one game where, as a pawn, he may never be able to win. This story, based on the true account of the MS St. Louis, surprised me, as I had not heard about this incident prior to reading THE OTHER HALF OF LIFE. Poignant and heartfelt, the cast of characters on this ship will stick with the reader long after they've closed the cover.
super good. the ending wasn't what anyone thought it would be
I have read many books before like the hunger games trilogy,the hobbit, the adventures of tom sawyer. Im only 12 but i read classical liteture like shakesphere.(i hope i spelled it right) I have to read this book for my world history teacher the only thing i hate is that i have to wait for wendsdays to come to read the chapters. So what im trying to say is that this book should get book of the year. I absolutely love this book. I love this book and I cant wait until my last wendsday cause I cant wait to see the end. Wish me good luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)
This was an amazing engaging book to read! I have read 12 books about different events in the holocaust, but this is the only book that was emotional and well written enough to bring tear to my eyes at the end!
great stry about ww2