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The Other Half of Life

The Other Half of Life

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 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375853555
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 11 - 15 Years

About the Author

Kim Ablon Whitney has published two previous novels with Knopf. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about Kim, please visit

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.

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