by Tabatha Stirling
There are twenty-six of us, sour smelling and crippled with exhaustion after many days at sea in conditions similar to a galley slave ship after the Battle of Lepanto. We barely knew each other’s names and towards the end of the journey hunger had gnawed away at the edges of courtesy and the barest of nods had sufficed.
Rachel Kauffman lost her baby to something vicious early on. He died in her arms and was posted like a parcel at Christmas through the porthole. After a few days of Shiva, Rachel joined him in a final, silent gesture of maternal love by diving from an upper deck of the steamer after engaging a crew member with the promise of oral sex.
There was a half-hearted service but it is hard to be devout when you are wading in puke and shit. The Hungarian crew had locked the hatch after they had been paid and left us to die or cry.
But here we are in Southampton. Free and not being forced to shovel snow every few hours or watch our neighbour having their brains smashed in by an SS grunt. The cobblestones that undulate towards the immigration hut are almost identical to those in Munich near the Rathaus where we were expected to wait for long, bitter hours and receive a custard coloured fabric star that would alienate us from the rest of Germany within hours.
And as we lined up the trouble started. Pricks of fear began to pop and crackle within. Mouths became dry and eyes widened. The immigration hall swam before our eyes, grim and odious. The officials, sensing a change in the air pressure, began to push us back in line and Mr Rothman fell to his knees in desperate prayer. Women started to keen and rend at their clothes. The officials rubbed their heads and stepped back a little but not quite enough to assuage the collective anxiety of a group of exiles running from a monster that craved the limelight and the annihilation of their race.
A rabbi emerged running from the building in front of us. I could see faces peering through the windows, interested in that detached British way that a cup of tea would cure. The rabbi held his hands out to us. “Shalom, Shalom,” he cried, his lips made dry by distress. “Please be welcome to England’s earth. You are safe now.”
“Let them out of the line, please,” the rabbi appealed to the Southampton officials. “Lines are not good. For us Jews, lines mean death. Lines mean no food in the shops. Lines mean separation and doubt.”
The officials relented, confusion still present on their broad, raw boned faces, and we sat for a while. The rain still fell and the sun still shone but the flag that billowed brightly above us represented liberty and life. The one we had left behind was blackened by the soot of bone ash.
March 6th, 1940
Tabatha Stirling is a rum swigger, silversmith, colonial minx, writer and poet, and mother and wife.