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The Other Half of Life

The Other Half of Life

4.4 7
by Kim Ablon Whitney

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Annie Laura Smith
This novel is based on a true story of the ocean liner MS St. Francis, which brings to light a little-known event of World War II. As the winds of war spread across Europe, Jews flee through any means possible from the ever-expanding Nazi regime and their subsequent persecution. German Jews, who board the MS St. Francis in Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, hope this journey will be a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to freedom. The reader sees this journey though the eyes of 15-year-old Thomas Werkmann, who is traveling alone, and 14-year-old Priska Affeldt, who is traveling with her family. We experience their humiliation at being exiled from their home country of Germany, and anticipate what this new life may bring for them. The passengers are not allowed to disembark from the ship in either Cuba or the United States, and are sent back to Europe. France, Holland, Belgium, and Great Britain agree to take them. Many of these refugees, including Priska, die in concentration camps after Germany occupies all of these countries except Great Britain. The author provides excellent supplemental materials to document this historic event. Maps show the ship's route to Cuba, the United States, and the turn around in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States, which took the ship back to Europe. The legacy of the fateful voyage of the MS St. Francis influenced future legislation (the 1948 Displaced Persons Act and the 1980 Refugee Act) in the United States. Also included are extensive sources (books, videos, DVDs, and a website) about historical topics that play important roles in the book. These topics are the MS St. Louis, the Holocaust, German Resistance,Ocean Liners, and Chess. Reviewer: Annie Laura Smith
VOYA - Judith Brink-Drescher
On May 13, 1939, fifteen-year-old Thomas Werkmann boarded the MS St. Francis bound for Cuba. Normally Thomas might have been excited to embark on a transatlantic cruise, but his situation was far from ordinary. Although Thomas was only half Jewish, to avoid persecution he and more than 900 other Jews were forced to abandon their German homeland. Although many on board were joyful having escaped with their lives, Thomas was suspicious of sailing to "safety" on any vessel that flew under the Nazi flag. While underway, Thomas becomes enamored with the lovely fourteen-year-old Priska. Their story of budding love is combined with the added intrigue of a Nazi official carrying a cane he does not seem to need and a young ship's steward who wears a Nazi armband and treats his Jewish passengers as first-class guests. As hope deteriorates for actually disembarking in Cuba, Thomas and others on board realize many countries, including the United States, either do not understand or choose to ignore their desperate plight. This work of fiction is based on the true story of the MS St. Louis and, in this context, is reminiscent of Carol Matas's Daniel's Story (Scholastic, 1993/VOYA August 1993) and Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). The tough-guy persona of Thomas and the engaging-yet-complex Priska should appeal to both genders. Given the subject matter and 1939 time frame, it may take some coaxing to attract readers. Alternatively this book should be strongly considered for any Holocaust-related assignment. Reviewer: Judith Brink-Drescher
School Library Journal
Gr 6-8–Based on the story of the MS St. Louis in 1939, the journey of the fictional Nazi luxury liner MS St. Francis from Germany to Cuba and the United States creates the dramatic underpinning for this story. Focusing on 15-year-old Thomas Werkmann and 14-year-old Priska Affeldt, Whitney chronicles what happened to more than 900 Jews seeking refuge from growing anti-Semitism in Germany. Thomas is traveling alone. His father, who is Jewish, is in Dachau, and his mother, a Christian, could raise the money for only one passage. A strong friendship develops between the wary boy and optimistic Priska, who is traveling with her family. Whitney integrates, sometimes in an overly journalistic tone, information about oppression in Germany, but readers’ attention is held by the young passengers’ playful pranks, the developing romance between the two main characters, and tension between the passengers and the Nazi crew. Chess becomes significant to the story, possibly leaving some readers at a loss. The dramatic tone is sometimes too subdued, especially when the passengers are forced to make the return trans-Atlantic journey after being turned away from Cuba and the United States. In spite of these shortcomings, this story will hold readers’ interest and heighten awareness of history that could become forgotten. The author imparts the fates of the passengers in the last two chapters, one set 10 years after the ship returns to Europe and the other 70 years after. A chronology of German anti-Semitic legislation is appended.–Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
In this fictionalized account of the MS St. Louis, 15-year-old Thomas travels from Germany to Cuba to escape the Nazis in 1939. Thanks to a sympathetic captain, the Jewish passengers are treated well by the Nazi crew. Aboard the ship, Thomas befriends another Jewish family, the Affeldts, and spends his leisure time honing his chess game. Via hiding and spying, Thomas and the Affeldts discover that although they have landing permits, Cuba might not allow them to enter. This scenario does come to pass and America will not allow them entrance, either, so the ship is forced to return to Europe. Separated from the Affeldts, Thomas promises to meet their oldest daughter, whom he loves, five years after they disembark. The author lightens the necessarily dark World War II-era atmosphere by involving Thomas in chess and a romance. Although Thomas doesn't have much of a personality, the pacing and onboard mysteries will keep readers involved with his story. Includes a timeline and resources on the Holocaust, the German resistance, ocean liners and chess. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Product Details

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.

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Other Half of Life 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
super good. the ending wasn't what anyone thought it would be
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
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Carmen Gonzalez More than 1 year ago
great stry about ww2