I’m delighted to welcome back my friend Barbara Krasner to chat about her new book, Liesl’s Ocean Rescue. The story of the MS St. Louis is unknown to many children and adults, too. Barbara’s new book brings this slice of history to life in an engaging way.
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is about the experiences of passengers on the MS St Louis. Did you learn about Liesl’s story and decide to write about the MS St Louis or were you already interested in the topic when you discovered Liesl’s story?
I was already interested in the St. Louis. I had heard about it while growing up. Specifically, I had heard about a ship full of Jewish refugees that wasn’t allowed to land in the United States. I read a book written by staff members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Refuge Denied. I wrote one of the authors and he shared with me contact information for survivors in my local area. One of the people on the list was Liesl Joseph Loeb, who lived in a Philadelphia suburb.
How extensive was your research process?
I did some preliminary research in 2009 – reading Refuge Denied and the 1974 classic, Voyage of the Damned, which was made into a fictionalized movie with an all-star cast in 1976. I conducted personal interviews with several survivors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the first half of 2010. I also spent a few days in the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York City and at the USHMM in Washington. I then consulted other materials—newspaper articles, scholarly journal articles, and books to examine the context, ranging from Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, to FDR.
Is Liesl’s Ocean Rescue nonfiction or historical fiction? Can you talk a bit about the difference?
Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is based on a true story. I have taken Liesl’s recollections and rounded them out with dialogue and actions that suited her strong character, things she might have done. She did indeed bang the dinner gong and she did help the elevator man, because she loved to press the buttons. She did play checkers. And she did give a speech to Morris Troper when the ship ultimately landed in Antwerp. She also adored her father.
If the story had been purely nonfiction, I would not have been able to include dialogue, for example, unless she recounted her conversations with me or in her Shoah project video.
Liesl was a very brave girl. What do you think motivated her?
By her own admission, Liesl was a tomboy. When a neighborhood boy taunted her and scaled her garden wall, she grabbed her father’s belt and pelted him. She was so proud of herself, but her mother was terrified and feared repercussions, because the boy was the son of a school superintendent. I think she would have done anything to help her father.
What was your favorite aspect of writing/researching Liesl’s Ocean Rescue?
I think my favorite part was witnessing the strength of these people who were children aboard the St. Louis. Very little seems to upset them. They are survivors in every way. While I sat in Liesl’s living room, I noticed framed etchings. She had gone to art school. The USHMM has her drawing of the St. Louis made when she was 11 and living in England. I enjoyed seeing Judaica in these people’s homes. They never gave up. And as Liesl told me, “We have learned that we cannot stand idly by and watch people being bullied, harassed, and punished for no reason. We have to take action…We must tell the story because we are, especially we now who were the children on board, are the last eye witnesses to the events of the Holocaust and we must talk.”