Between Sky and Sea by Herz Bergner
On May 13, 1939, the German-flagged vessel the Saint Louis sailed from Hamburg bound for Cuba with a complement of 900-odd Jewish refugees aboard. They were fleeing the escalating hostility toward Jews in Hitler's Germany, as exemplified by Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on November 10, 1938, in which Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were looted and burned.
But anti-Semitism wasn't confined to Germany, as the hapless passengers of the Saint Louis soon found out. The ship was turned away from Havana and, while some of the passengers implored the United States administration to give them asylum, they were refused entry to America, too, although they sailed close enough to see the lights of Miami glimmering tantalisingly just out of reach.
The ship was obliged to return to Europe. Four European governments agreed to take the passengers in, but some fell back into Nazi hands anyway once Germany set about conquering Europe. Around 250 died in the death camps after all.
Polish-born Australian writer Herz Bergner clearly knew the story of the Saint Louis: he uses the plight of a ship-load of Jewish refugees in the middle of the ocean, turned away from foreign ports, as the setting for his novel, Between Sky and Sea, which was published in 1946 and won the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal in 1948.
It is, after all, a powerful image, infused with a kind of Beckettian hopelessness. It's hard not to view the situation of the refugees, suffering between sea and sky, their fate and destination uncertain and kept in the dark by the powers that be, as a metaphor for the human condition.
Meanwhile, the people get by as best they can, dealing with the horrors they have witnessed, the discomforts of life at sea (with food running short), the frictions and aggravations imposed by their fellow passengers and the supercilious crew, the terrible uncertainty.
Some preserve their dignity - Mrs Hudess, preoccupied with keeping herself and her two daughters safe; Nathan, who finds himself alone (his wife and daughters were killed during his escape from Poland) with his sister-in-law Ida, who has also been bereaved and for whom he has always carried a torch; the Warsaw doctor, who maintains his belief in himself and his abilities even though he is mocked by his fellow passengers and the crew.
Others lose their grip to greater or lesser degrees: Ida, who can't control her grief for her lost daughter and who takes it out verbally on Nathan; Fabyash, the conspiracy theorist, who tries to convince the other passengers that the captain is a Nazi agent and has no intention of taking them to safety.
The characters are tenderly drawn and this makes up for the lack of much in the way of a plot - and for the rather desultory ending. The prose is plain and direct, which is likely to be a function of the translation. Bergner was a difficult author to translate, we learn from the introduction (by New Zealander, Arnold Zable): he had only poor English, and he counted the words in the Yiddish and English versions and took the translator to task if there were any discrepancy.
But as the introduction reminds us, this 60-year-old novel is still timely in an Australia that is besieged by would-be migrants and refugees.
It can be hard in the smoke and fog of politics to remember that every individual is a fragile vessel, barely afloat in a hostile element, full of hopes and dreams.
John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.