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  • The Other Half of Life
  • Written by Kim Ablon Whitney
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  • The Other Half of Life
  • Written by Kim Ablon Whitney
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780375853555
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Written by Kim Ablon WhitneyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kim Ablon Whitney


List Price: $7.99


On Sale: May 12, 2009
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-375-85355-5
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books
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A heartbreaking novel based on the true story of a World War II voyage.

In May of 1939, the SS St. Francis sets sail from Germany, carrying German Jews and other refugees away from Hitler’s regime. The passengers believe they are bound for freedom in Cuba and eventually the United States, but not all of them are celebrating. Fifteen-year-old Thomas is anxious about his parents and didn’t want to leave Germany: his father, a Jew, has been imprisoned and his mother, a Christian, is left behind, alone. Fourteen-yearold Priska has her family with her, and she’s determined to enjoy the voyage, looking forward to their new lives.

Based on the true story of the MS St. Louis, this historical young adult novel imagines two travelers and the lives they may have lived until events, and immigration laws, conspired to change their fates. Kim Ablon Whitney did meticulous research on the voyage of the St. Louis to craft her compelling and moving story about this little-known event in history.

From the Hardcover edition.



At the shed in Hamburg his mother took him by both shoulders. They had traveled hours on the train from Berlin, and she would be making the return trip without him. Since arriving, they had passed an uncomfortable hour rarely talking as they waited for boarding to begin. Finally it was time. The strong sea air surrounded them, making Thomas's tweed jacket feel heavy and damp. He noticed a sheen of moisture on his mother's cheeks and forced himself to focus on her eyes. In the past year, since his father was taken away by the Nazis, Thomas had always tried to look mostly at his mother's eyes. If he concentrated on her eyes, he could ignore the gauntness of her face, how he could picture her bony skull right there beneath her skin.

"I'm not going to cry and you're not either," she said, straightening his tie. Usually Thomas would have been annoyed at his mother's fussing, but he knew this might be the last time they would be together, at least for a long time.

She turned away, to face the ship. It had a giant black hull with rows of portholes above it. The way it sat so high in the water was impressive. The pedal boats Thomas was familiar with from a handful of days spent at the Wannsee were so small you could trail your hand in the water without even leaning over far. But on this great ship even the first deck loomed hundreds of feet above the surface of the water. Thomas's stomach felt queasy but he tried to ignore it.

His mother kept looking at the ship, and Thomas wondered if she was thinking whether there might be a way she could steal aboard. At six hundred reichsmarks, even securing one ticket to Cuba had been a miracle. Thomas had not known his parents had that much money hidden away. His mother had told him that they had been saving it for a time just like this--a chance to get out. Perhaps they had once hoped it would be enough for all three of them to escape Germany, but with the extra fees and dues tacked on by the German travel agency and the Reich, not to mention the price of the ticket from the shipping line itself, the money had barely covered Thomas's passage.

Neither Thomas nor his mother was foolish enough to think Thomas's father would ever come home; yet leaving Germany altogether seemed like betraying him, like giving up. Which was why even if they had been able to scrounge up enough money for two tourist fares, his mother still would not have gone.

It was also why Thomas himself didn't want to go.

"No tears," his mother repeated.

"You think I'd cry?" Thomas said. He had been strong through everything that had happened to them; he wasn't about to cry now.

"I'm not going to wait while you board," she continued as if she hadn't heard him. "I'm going to turn around and you're not going to look back. This is the right thing to do--the only thing to do."

Thomas fingered the ivory pawn in his pocket. He'd taken it from his father's chess set before leaving. "This isn't what Vati would have wanted. He would have wanted me to stay--"

She cut him off. "And look out for me?"

"No, he would have wanted me to stay and fight." He knew his mother didn't need him--a Mischling, half-breed. He would only be trouble to her. She was better off without him, as she was without his father. Without them she was of pure kindred blood, with the light hair and blue eyes to prove it.

His mother lowered her head. "There is no more fighting. Only surviving."

She pulled him to her. Thomas stiffened and then softened. At fifteen he felt too old for embraces, but the pressure of her body reminded him that he had not gotten to feel his father's arms around him a last time. He held tight, not wanting to let go. She smelled faintly of their apartment, the deep, musky scent of well-worn leather furniture. Thomas used to love how when he stood up from the sofa, his impression always remained on the seat cushion, as if the sofa were waiting for his return. Only now he would never be back.

Herr Kleist, who had been waiting nearby, stepped forward. "I'll watch out for him, you needn't worry, Frau Werkmann."

Herr Kleist was nearing seventy and one of his eyes constantly watered. He was a great-uncle of a friend of a friend. Thomas didn't have much faith in him. Also, he didn't need a guardian.

All around them, others bid tearful _good-_byes to family and friends. Porters in uniforms and caps scurried by with baggage. German mixed with Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.

Herr Kleist cleared his gravelly throat. "We should move on. They need to get the tourist class on before first class can board and we can set off."

Thomas stepped away from his mother. She had said no tears but he could hear her muffling sobs in her sleeve. He inhaled the salty air as gulls screeched overhead. He looked up at the two giant funnels and the mast of the ship. A swastika flag flapped in the breeze. Why hadn't he noticed it before? Thomas shivered in his damp clothes. How could a ship that was supposed to carry its passengers to freedom bear the Nazi flag?

Halfway up the sloping gangway, Thomas felt the intense desire to turn around, to see his mother one more time, to see whether she'd lived up to her promise of leaving after she'd failed at not crying. But he was afraid too. He didn't want to see his mother as he'd last seen his father: weakened and powerless.

A family of four walked abreast in front of them. The mother and daughter were dressed in long skirts with kerchiefs over their hair. The father and the older son wore black suits and hats. "At least we'll make it on before sunset," the man said to his wife.

Beside Thomas, Herr Kleist slouched along, shoulders bowed, head down, as if he hadn't paid his fare and was trying to slip on unnoticed. Thomas stretched himself taller and announced his arrival with solid footsteps that rattled the slats of the gangway.

From the Hardcover edition.
Kim Ablon Whitney|Author Q&A

About Kim Ablon Whitney

Kim Ablon Whitney - The Other Half of Life
Kim Ablon Whitney has published two previous novels with Knopf. She lives with her family in Newton, Massachusetts. To learn more about Kim, please visit www.kimablonwhitney.com.

Author Q&A

Below is Kim Ablon Whitney's interview with Mr. Herbert Karliner, MS St. Louis survivor.
Can you tell me a little bit about your life in Germany and how you came to travel on the St. Louis?
I was born in Peiskretscham, Germany, in 1926. My family owned a grocery store, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht. The Nazis also took my father away to Buchenwald. He was released two months later and my family was able to secure passes on the St. Louis.
How old were you when you boarded the St. Louis?
I was twelve. I was traveling with my parents, my brother, and my two sisters.
When you boarded the ship did you have any idea that you would be turned away from Cuba?
We had no idea whatsoever.
What was the mood aboard the ship in the beginning?
For us kids it felt like a new adventure. We had no future in Germany anymore. We were not allowed to go to school. We wanted a place where we could start our lives again. But we also were aware that, for our parents and the older people on the ship, leaving Germany was hard. They had lived their whole lives in Germany and they were leaving everything behind.
What was the feeling on the ship when the U.S. refused to let you in?
We were disappointed and confused. We wrote telegrams to President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt and we received no answer. Ever since I was a little boy and read books on America, I had wanted to come to America. I saw Miami Beach from the ship and I thought to myself, "I will come back here someday."
Where were you sent upon return to Europe?
We were sent to France. My brother, Walter, my younger sister, Ruth, and I were put under the care of the OSE. [The Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants was an organization that placed youths in various children's homes.] My other sister, Ilse, stayed with my parents. Later, Ruth returned to live with them as well. My brother and I were together until 1941 when Walter was moved to a different children's home.
How did you survive the war?
In August 1942, French gendarmes conducted a raid on the home and arrested all children over the age of sixteen, including me. I was able to prove that I wasn't sixteen—it was a week before my birthday—and so I was released. I was transferred to another children's home.
In February 1943, we thought there might be another raid and so I fled with a friend to the Spanish border, but we were told by the underground that we could not safely cross into Switzerland. So we went to Lyon to wait for directions on how to cross into Switzerland. When crossing over was learned to be impossible, we went to a farm in Tayulers run by religious Zionist members of the Eclaireurs Israelites. Since the farm already had too many refugees, we were then sent to Treves where we lived until liberation in 1944.
What happened to the rest of your family?
Walter survived and we were reunited in Paris. My mother, father, and sisters had all been deported to Auschwitz. They did not survive.
When did you come to the United States?
In December 1946, Walter and I immigrated to the United States. Through the OSE, I met my wife, Vera. We were married in 1961. We have two children.
Did you hold a grudge against the country that turned you away?
At the time I didn't really feel resentment, but later on a few events made me reflect more upon how America turned us away. In 1950, I got a letter from Uncle Sam that said, "I need you." I was drafted and I fought in Korea. In 1939 I was not good enough for them, but in 1950 they wanted me. Then in 1980, 125,000 Cuban immigrants were allowed to come into the U.S. It was discovered that some of them were even criminals. They let them in no question. We were 900 people, all educated and upstanding citizens, and we weren't let in. That really bothered me. But I had a fellow passenger on the St. Louis say, "It's because of us that they let them in," and maybe that's true. 

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