Forty Days

I could smell savory and sweet aromas of the pastelitos outside my porthole window.

It is a memory that I will hold until the day I die.

Mother had just finished telling me about Moses and the Isrealites in the desert. I remember asking her why God did things in forties? “What do you mean,” she asked. It rained forty days and nights. Forty days in the wilderness. Moses was with God for forty days.

“Maybe that’s the amount of time we need to be tested.”

I had looked forward to living in Cuba. The prospect of a warm winter melted the cold Baltic chill in my bones. “Are we being tested now?” She looked at me for a moment, then out the porthole at the crowds gathered to see the spectacle of a ship and its quarantined passengers. She said nothing. Father said that the captain was doing everything he could to get us off, but that we may have to depart in two days. Maybe Florida?

I had never held more than three Reichsmarks. Untermenschen were never allowed more than ten. Wandering the ship, I felt as though I was one of the richest people in the world despite the red banners with large black swastikas hanging everywhere. The captain made sure we were treated like any other guest on any other cruise. The crew would scowl and glare, but they never raised a hand.

“What is a quarantine?” I asked father. “It is what you do to keep the sick from the healthy.” Our faith must be an infection; we are a disease that no nation wants to have.

It was on the train to the camp that I realized we’d been at sea for forty days. My family had hoped Antwerp would keep us safe. I look at the numbers on my arm and all I see is a brand of shame, I am a disease.

I work today removing the bodies knowing that mine will join them soon.

This story was inspired by the 1939 sailing of the MS Saint Louis and its 620 passengers trying to escape Nazi Germany. You can read more at Wikipedia here

Written for the Trifecta weekly challenge–“brand” third definition and Studio 30+–“infection”


7 thoughts on “Forty Days

  1. I (with great shame) did not know this part of history. Thanks for sharing it, and for linking it up with S30+ I can’t help but wonder about the age of your narrator. He’s obviously a child, older than his years… but how old? Do you have an idea in mind? Teens or pre-teens?

    • I saw him as a young teen. I thought about my own grandmother and how interested she was about the world around her (and from stories from family…) Assumption that kids then were just as “with-it” as kids today.

  2. Ouch. Powerful and heartbreaking, and it’s in such a young, matter-of-fact voice. A kid with more questions than answers, facing the impossible.

    Wow. Just… wow.

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