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37 Days at Sea


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About the Author

Barbara Krasner publishes the popular blog, The Whole Megillah: The Writer's Resource for Jewish-Themed Story. She is the author of many articles, short stories, poems, and books. She lives in New Jersey and teaches in the English and History departments of New Jersey colleges and universities.


M.S. St. Louis embarked from Ham-burg, Ger-many in 1939, with many Jews on board des-per-ate-ly escap-ing Nazi Ger-many. When both Cuba and the Unit-ed States refused to allow most of the refugees to dis-em-bark, almost all were forced to return to Europe. As the Nazis occu-pied most of the nations where they set-tled, many even-tu-al-ly per-ished. Bar-bara Kras-ner has imag-i-na-tive-ly envi-sioned this ter-ri-fy-ing expe-ri-ence through the eyes of one girl, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, in her nov-el 37 Days at Sea. Although Ruthie is a fic-tion-al char-ac-ter, her obser-va-tions and emo-tions cap-ture the sense of arbi-trary injus-tice and the con-se-quences of hatred and cow-ardice on vul-ner-a-ble human lives. Using a vari-ety of poet-ic forms, from free verse to haiku and rhymed cou-plets, Kras-ner offers a new per-spec-tive on this emblem-at-ic event pre-ced-ing the Holocaust.

After the vio-lence of Kristall-nacht in 1938, Ruthie's fam-i-ly rec-og-nizes that there is no future for them in Ger-many. They set sail filled with both opti-mism and fear, but Ruthie's excite-ment is at first undi-min-ished by her par-ents' cau-tion. After all, they are head-ed for Amer-i-ca, 'America!/Just the roll/of it on my tongue feels like the waves/of the Atlantic.' She enjoys her-self in mild-ly anti-social antics with her new friend, Wolfie, a fel-low Jew-ish refugee whose father is already wait-ing for him in Havana. Cap-tain Schroed-er, based on an actu-al M.S. St. Louis offi-cer, is kind and empa-thet-ic, doing what-ev-er he can to ensure the safe-ty of his Jew-ish pas-sen-gers. How-ev-er, as it grad-u-al-ly becomes clear that the out-side world does not share his atti-tude, Ruthie tries to make sense out of her anx-i-ety in a range of poems. Some, such as 'A Tale of Ruthie, ' nar-rate her life from a third-per-son per-spec-tive, while oth-ers are thought-ful let-ters to the grand-moth-er she left behind in Germany. Ruthie's per-cep-tions of adults, as a child, present a sad pic-ture. Those in her life who should be able to pro-tect her are gen-er-al-ly help-less, while oth-ers, like the Nazi Kurt Ste-in-feld who tor-ments his fel-low-pas-sen-gers, are active-ly hos-tile. Cap-tain Schroed-er makes sin-cere efforts to help but his author-i-ty is sad-ly lim-it-ed. Ruthie's own father is some-times ill and becomes increas-ing-ly aware of the tragedy about to engulf his fam-i-ly. The women in Ruthie's life are even more help-less and less able to repress their emo-tions. In the poem 'Moth-ers, ' Mrs. Arons tries to com-fort Wolfie's moth-er, whose face 'turns as white as Shab-bat can-dles.' Sens-ing his mother's pan-ic, Wolfie can only rub the rabbit's foot that he insists can bring him luck. The most ambigu-ous, but ulti-mate-ly dis-ap-point-ing, adult is Franklin D. Roo-sevelt him-self. Ruthie clings to the hope that he will offer refuge to the St. Louis's pas-sen-gers but her trust turns to anger. Young read-ers will iden-ti-fy with Wolfie's response to the pres-i-dent as a child unable to counter the self-ish deci-sions of those in pow-er: 'But when I get to Amer-i-ca, I have a bone to pick with him.' Krasner's poems are a win-dow into the mind of a child strug-gling to make sense of a sense-less world.

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 is high-ly rec-om-mend-ed and includes an author's note with his-tor-i-cal back-ground and a use-ful time-line of events. -- Emily Schneider, Jewish Book Council

-- "Website" (10/4/2021 12:00:00 AM)

Many books for young people have been written about the voyage of the MS St. Louis from Hamburg, Germany to Cuba and back to Europe in 1939. However, Barbara Krasner's novel in free verse is an original telling of this heartrending story. Twelve-year-old Ruth Arons and her parents leave their home and family in Breslau for what they hope will be a safe haven in Cuba. Ruth makes friends with Wolfie Freund, a boy her age, and together they think up all kinds of mischief. Their carefree antics and the courteous treatment of the passengers are shown in stark contrast to what awaits them on their arrival in Havana harbor when they learn that their visas have been deemed invalid. Told from the first-person point of view and with touches of poignancy and wry humor, we see how the early relief the passengers felt on leaving Nazi Germany turns into grief and despair. After the passengers are turned away from Cuba, as well as from the United States (and Canada), they must return to Europe to an uncertain and frightening future. Krasner's use of imagery is stunning. Metaphors such as, 'All of us lined up on the deck, / ship-locked seagulls / yearning for flight' or similes such as, 'I cling to Wolfie like salt on a pretzel' are powerful and moving. The rhythmic flow draws the reader inside the narrative. You will want to read this book in one sitting, never letting go until the very last words. In addition, the layout and design of 37 Days at Sea add depth to the emotional events. Some pages are filled with text; others are almost empty, with broken lines, large white spaces, and words scattered about. End matter includes a Timeline of Events and Further Information (films, oral testimonies, books). For additional poetic tellings of the Holocaust refugee story to Cuba, see Margarita Engle's Tropical Secrets (Henry Holt, 2009), the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner (Teen), and Ruth Behar's Letters from Cuba (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020), Sydney Taylor Notable Book (Middle Grade) 2021. -- Anne Dublin, retired teacher-librarian, Holy Blossom Temple, Author of Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure

-- "Magazine" (10/1/2021 12:00:00 AM)

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 by Barbara Krasner follows the story of twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons and her family as they leave their home of Germany for a new life in Cuba and hopefully, eventually, the United States. However, when the ship arrives at Cuba, they, along with many of the other passengers, are unable to dock.

Ruthie is an engaging narrator, telling her story in verse/poetry. Like readers today, she loves mysteries and trying to solve them, swimming, and spending time with friends. On the ship, Ruthie befriends a young boy named Wolfie with whom she snoops around the ship, befriends the Captain, and plays games with. Despite the situation going on in their insular world and the world around them, Ruthie and Wolfie manage to have fun. Like the real passengers of the ship, there was a sense of hope as they travelled to Cuba. As the book is told for children, it leaves out some facts that may be upsetting and remains hopeful as Ruthie and her family end up making their way to England.

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 is a well-written story of a little-known piece of the Holocaust for today's readers. Holocaust liteature for children and teenagers often focus on the concentration camps, which is admittedly an important part of history. However, not many know of the M.S. St. Louis. My own grandmother was just 16 when she boarded the ship with her family in hopes of a new life in Cuba and then the United States; as we can see from Krasner's novel, this was not the end result for many of the passengers. 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 breathes new life into Holocaust literature for children with its usage of verse writing and a strong middle grade voice, and I believe would strongly fit the criteria for the Sydney Taylor Book Award as a Notable book. -- Rachel Simon, Youth Library Assistant, Newton, MA, Sydney Taylor Shmooze

-- "Blog" (6/22/2021 12:00:00 AM)

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