The following story from "Haven," excerpted here with permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, comes early in the book. Still exhilarated at escaping the Nazis, the refugees aboard the USS Henry Gibbons soon realize they are sitting ducks for enemy aircraft in the Mediterranean. Here is the scene the morning after a late-night air raid.
No one slept.
In the morning we gathered on the main deck, talking, laughing, rejoicing. Some stretched out on the iron floor, watching the upturned bowl of cloudless blue. We were alive. One more miracle of survival.
Around us, the ships in the flotilla churned up pathways of white foam while we relived our escape from death.
"I was in the toilet when the air-raid alarm was sounded," said David Levy, a dark-haired Yugoslav in his early twenties, half laughing, half still not believing his luck. "Somebody in the crew locked up all the watertight compartments, so I couldn't come out. I kept thinking, All these years everyone in my family was killed, and I saved myself; now I'm going to die in a toilet."
The air raid gave the Henry Gibbins a new aura, like a maritime fortress on alert. The gunners sat tense in the elevated tubs, manning machine guns, watching for planes and enemy subs. Around us sailors tested the winches and practiced swinging lifeboats from their davits into the sea.
"If only we were past Gibraltar," the MP medic on the refugee deck told me apprehensively. A soft-spoken soldier, he had endeared himself to us the first day when he ripped the back off a wooden crate, lined the box with bottles of iodine and Mercurochrome, gauze pads, and adhesive tape, and set up an outdoor clinic, bandaging children's cuts, dispensing aspirin, quinine, and good cheer.
"Once you're past Gibraltar," he said, "once you're out in the Atlantic, you're still not home free but somehow you feel safer; there's more room out there to maneuver away from the U-boats."
"Did you give birth on the ship?" I asked Olga Maurer.
She laughed. "No, he was born in an American jeep."
"Yes, on the way to the ship." Her laughter was infectious, her words spilling over each other. "I never thought I would have another baby. I'm over forty." She chuckled. "It happened like this. We escaped from Vienna to Italy, my husband, my boy Walter, and me. When the Nazis came, the Italians first hid us in a tunnel; then they ran with us to the mountains until some Canadian patrol soldiers came to tell us, No more Nazis. Such a celebration the Italians made for us in the moonshine! Such a honeymoon I had, at my age, with Leon! That's when I got pregnant."
|"A baby boy, a Jew to take the place of a murdered baby, a Jew born on our way to freedom."|
Sitting up in her hospital bed, Olga told me how one of the men helping to select the refugees, charmed, I was sure, by her zest for life, accepted the Maurers' application to join the one thousand, although Olga was in her ninth month.
She was put into a command car and taken for the night to a women's hospital in Potenza. A doctor examined her and assured her that the baby was still high in her womb. The next morning she walked out of the hospital to see a convoy of trucks loaded with refugees from the Potenza area. The vehicles were the Palestinian Jewish trucks with the Star of David that Max Perlman had described to me in his office in Naples.
Palestinian and American GI medics made a bed for Olga in the back of a jeep, piling mattresses and khaki army blankets on top of an army cot. They joined the convoy for the hundred-mile drive across the mountains toward Naples. Sitting inside Olga's jeep were two GIs and a doctor in a British uniform with the Star of David insignia. Dr. Joseph Koehler, Olga discovered, had been born in her native Czechoslovakia.