Me and the book “Voyage of the Damned”

“Voyage of the Damned: A shocking true story of hope, betrayal, and Nazi terror”  by Gordon Thomas  and Max Morgan-Witts

While I am reading this book  I get more and more  angry – it happens every time I start reading it, and on top of that I also get angry at myself for getting angry. I am angry at all those (European)  intellectuals who bandy the world Nazi around every time there is some injustice committed in the world. They are especially fond of  equating  the state of Israel and its policy towards the Palestinians with Nazi Germany, and I get angry at the Palestinians calling Israelis for Nazis, and I get angry at my own insensitivity to  the plight of the Palestinians – who it seems to me to have no inkling of what it really means to have lived in Nazi Europe’s regime of terror and persecution.  The strangest thing about this anger is that it is not directed at the incident itself, which is the story of the book and which actually has a special personal poignancy for me:

The book deals with the infamous  voyage the SS St. Louis that in 1939 set sail from Hamburg carrying 937 German Jews seeking asylum. Unknown even to the captain, the ship was merely a pawn of Nazi propaganda.  The ship set sail for Cuba, but the Nazis had already “arranged” that it’s passengers would not be well received, (only 29 passengers were allowed into Cuba)  From there the ship and the asylum seekers sought to  come to the USA and came within sight of the Florida coast, before being turned back to their fate in Nazi Europe. No one wanted these Jews, which the Nazis very well knew

(reminds me of the song sung by Ray Charles “Where can I go” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hE0TMQkOsB0 or the original Yiddish version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b3aWebZTk4 )

My uncle (godfather) and aunt were 2 of the 937 asylum seekers forced to return to Europe in 1939 (I knew them well and they died of old age in the USA) – I have just recently on the internet read their names on the SS St. Louis passenger list – a poignant moment it was.

Like everyone else, I have read the books and seen the movies describing the holocaust, but yet here in this microcosm of the trials the passengers of this ship experienced before, during and after their voyage, has brought home to me the all-encompassing degradation, cautiousness, and fear that 24 hours a day was the everyday life of German Jews in their own homeland, in their own beloved Germany – one  wrong step, or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time could mean almost instant death for oneself and ones loved ones and a combination of cunning and chance were all that kept them from a horrific fate.

The selfsame intellectuals that most vociferously cry out “Nazi” against Israel (and indirectl towards Jews everywhere), expect some sort of special humane behavior from a people who have experienced such horrors and injustices as the Jews did in Nazi Europe – “They must have learned something about good and evil from it?”  – right? I feel that this is a wrongly placed expectation, out of touch with the reality that was (is) of having survived, and puts undue onus  on the victims to forgive and forget and to become more humane than the rest of us because of their own past history of suffering and persecution.

(see Shyloks monologue where he for once seems to lose his cool and tell the world that enough is enough:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGXUGhIYW-4 )

Quite on the contrary, however, it seems, from stories told by the children of these survivors, that their parents were not necessarily  warm and  empathic even to towards their own children – the experience had somewhat inured their survivor parents to feeling empathy with the daily vicissitudes and problems and hurdles of childhood when small events seem so immediate and dramatic—as often as not their parent would tell them  “Thank god you don’t know what real suffering is.. pull yourself together” when they complained of some physical or emotional pain or problem they had.

My developing anger as I read this book invariably leads me to exhibit this same-self  (lack of) feeling  to the plight of the Palestinians, which I inevitably compare with the one  my uncle and aunt, my parents and many of my family had to go through : “Thank god you (the Palestinians) do not know what real suffering is .. pull yourselves together” ( with the implied accusation: do something constructive about your situation)  -and I don’t like myself for that. But this does not in any way diminish from this outburst’s validity, in the  sense: Israel/Palestine is not Nazi Germany (and in fact, almost nothing that has happened since, comes close to the premeditated, pseudo-scientifically conceived persecution and mass-scale suffering perpetrated by the Nazis on “inferior races”)

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3 thoughts on “Me and the book “Voyage of the Damned”

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