November 01, 2013
By Susan Warsinger
The ship, the Serpa Pinto, was Portuguese. It looked a lot like the St. Louis, which is prominently exhibited on the fourth floor of the Museum. It was painted black with red lettering on its side and loomed above us. My brother Joe and I were among the 56 children who ascended the gangplank on September 10, 1941. We had arrived in Lisbon after traveling by train from Brout Vernet to Marseilles, over the Pyrenees, through Spain, and then to Portugal. The Quakers and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped all of us, from France and Germany, obtain passports and tickets to come to America. Only six of these children had parents who were already in the United States. My brother and I were two of those six.
As all the children boarded the largest ship we had ever seen, bigger than a football field, we were instructed that only the bow was to be our area. At no time were we ever to disturb or mingle with the passengers on the pleasure cruise. I still do not know whether the other passengers were aware that we were on board or pretended that we did not exist.
Our accommodations were in a rather large hold below the lower deck in which cargo had been carried. All the children, sometimes called “refugees” and sometimes called “students” on the ship’s manifest, were housed in this hold. There were no portholes and the only furniture available to us were double and triple bunk beds. Joe and I chose a double one. He slept on the top and I slept on the bottom. However, we had to reverse this position very soon because he wet the bed. His nightly problem was understandable because he was very young and anxious as a result of being separated from our parents for two years. We had been yearning to see our mother and father again ever since they had sent us to safety in France, when it became clear after Kristallnacht that it would be dangerous to remain in Germany. This two-year separation had been extremely difficult for both of us because we were so young. But now as passengers on this ship we were exhilarated because we were on our way to be reunited with our parents in the United States.
Our ship stopped in Casablanca to take on passengers. It was whispered among the children that stowaways, who were hiding in the lifeboats, needed to be put ashore. We could see the mosques and their turrets from the ship. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, U-boats were identified and caused us to be afraid that they would sink our ship. One of the more pleasant experiences was docking at a beautiful island. It was lush with splendid trees, carpeted with green lawns, and dotted with dazzling white houses. We learned that this place was Bermuda.
The Serpa Pinto was loaded with fresh pineapples that were being transported from Portugal to the United States. Because of the overabundance of this fruit on board, our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners were served every day with pineapple. Joe discovered a hidden treasure. It was in a small area near the galley where mountains of fresh pineapples were stored. He gorged himself because he had never eaten such luscious delicacies. As a result of his overeating, my brother contracted a flaming rash over the lower part of his torso because of the acidity of the pineapple. His condition got worse because he urinated in bed. To add to his many problems, the ship tipped and swayed causing him to lose his balance.
When we were in the Bermuda Triangle, the deck seemed to be breathing, heaving and moaning as the violent winds swept over everything. All the children, including my brother and me, became wretchedly seasick. In particular, my brother’s raging digestive system needed to spill its contents over the railing. Of course, he was tasting pineapples over and over again. I watched him helplessly as the ocean, one hundred feet below, swallowed the contents of his stomach.
On the 13th day of our journey we were told that very early the next morning our ship would pass by the Statue of Liberty. Since my brother was sleeping up on deck in the fresh air, he was already in place to see the statue. Unfortunately, a heavy mist obscured the entire area, disappointing everybody. When we were about ready to give up, the mist lifted, and to our great delight, we saw the statue illuminated by the dawn’s early light. We were so happy that we cried with joy upon seeing this magnificent and historical monument. At that moment my brother and I knew that we were finally going to be reunited with our parents in America, the land of the free that welcomed Jewish people.
As our ship pulled into the harbor and began to dock, reporters from New York newspapers took pictures of the children hanging over the railing. One of these photographs, plus a caption about my brother and me, was prominently displayed in the exhibit of “Jewish Responses” on the fourth floor of the Museum. It is dated September 24, 1941. Joe and I were thrilled to see our father waving from the dock. We were hoping that we would soon be in his arms. However, we were not allowed to disembark until medical personnel examined us and other children to determine if we had communicable diseases. When Joe was examined, they discovered his rash and would not permit him to disembark. I tried to explain why my brother had the rash but no one listened to me because I was a little girl.
In 1941, immigrants with health issues were not allowed to enter the United States and were temporarily housed in Ellis Island. On our way to the island we saw the beautiful skyline of New York and the revered Statue of Liberty. At Ellis Island, the people treated us royally and we feasted daily on what we considered delicate gourmet foods. We ate at long tables where waiters served the most delicious white bread, bread that we had never seen before, and bread that was so soft that we could compress it in our hands and make a little ball. It tasted wonderful. It was called “Wonder Bread.” At the table, an American sailor introduced us to a beverage that was brown, fizzy, and delightful. It tickled our noses. We learned that the beverage was called “Coca Cola.” We also discovered what to us was a form of candy that could be kept in our mouths all day. It was called “chewing gum.”
The inflammation on Joe’s skin cleared up and in a few days we were reunited with our parents. The voyage on the Serpa Pinto left an indelible mark on my brother—he has never eaten pineapple again.
©2013, Susan Warsinger. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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