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Jenny Cohen, like her fellow passengers on the grimy, Spanish freighter, SS Navemar, often referred to the sickening ship as the SS Nevermore. On August 6, 1941, Jenny; her husband, Ludwig; baby son, Victor; and more than 1,000 others left Seville, Spain aboard the Navemar for a seven-week voyage to America: a nightmare voyage that was also their salvation, their escape from Germany arranged, in part, by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Desperate to leave Europe, people were scrambling to find every conceivable means of transportation to escape. Anything was considered better than being left behind to suffer Nazi persecution.
In 1938, the German army marched into Czechoslovakia and began destroying the Jews.
“Someone wrote ‘Jew’ in huge letters across my grandmother’s store. No one dared come in to buy anything, so we had to close the family business. I lost my job as a secretary and went to Hamburg, Germany,” Jenny recalls. “Ludwig and I met there and married in 1940. We traveled by train to Spain and stayed hidden there until we got passage on the Navemar. When we left Germany, we had no idea we would never see our families again, including 26 family members who perished in the Holocaust.”
The Navemar was built to accommodate only 28 passengers, so people were packed into the hold and every other area. Where the boat normally carried coal, crude, two-tiered bunks were created – one section for men, another for women and children. Many slept on the deck in lifeboats rather than endure the stinking hold. Sleeping quarters were dark, musty, and nauseating from the stench of vomit, human waste, and filth. Food was scarce; the main staple was potatoes, which Jenny chewed until they were soft enough to feed Victor.
“One evening, ten-month-old Victor was ill. Neither I nor my husband could quiet him. Forced by the other passengers to leave the sleeping quarters, we found ourselves on deck where we remained all night,” remembers Jenny. “We tried steadying ourselves as the waves splashed the ship. Ludwig held me as I held Victor. There were no hand rails – only a rope separated us from the edge. Cold, afraid, and alone, we trembled as the sheets of rain whipped around our bodies.”
Jenny also has a few good memories of that terrible time.
“As we stopped in Lisbon, Portugal, to take on more passengers, I had an idea. Many boats had come to look at the small ship carrying the huge crowd of people. I put a note on a long thread and let it down to one of the boats, hoping somebody would read it. I wrote that we had little food, a young baby, and no way to even bathe him. A few days later, the captain called me to his cabin. There was a small bathtub filled with food: crackers, peanut butter, and cookies. Someone had gotten my note! There were kind people who helped us and allowed us to have a few wonderful interruptions during the horrible crossing.
“On September 12, 1941, we arrived in New York. We endured sickness, filth, rotten food, stench, and death; six passengers were buried at sea. But we made it to America. We survived.”