My mother is Judge Lee First, and the year 2021 will mark 80 years since her arrival in the U.S. from Europe as a child. She arrived here on a famous boat, the Navemar. The story of this journey, well known in its time, deserves to be retold.
My mother spent her early years in Switzerland. Her father was a rabbi there. But by 1941, things were getting so bad that her parents realized they had to go to America. Her father had two brothers in Brooklyn who had come a few years earlier. They were able to get visas because they were able to document rabbinical job offers. My mother’s father was also able to document a rabbinical job offer. (A synagogue would tell the U.S. government that it needed several rabbis!) My grandfather’s sisters did not have this option. One was stuck in England with its bombings for the duration of the war.
My mother’s parents were able to buy tickets for a voyage from Spain to the U.S. First they traveled to Barcelona, and then Madrid. Finally they arrived at the nearby seaport town. In her book “Justice Is Blonde,” my mother tells the story as she recalls it at age 13:
“To our great disappointment, no ship was in sight. It was then we learned that the real meaning of “manana” was not “tomorrow,” but more closely, “someday.” The tomorrows turned into several months. … [In the interim, HIAS put them and the other passengers in a hotel.]”
“Finally, the long-awaited vessel arrived, a freighter called the ‘Navemar.’ We had paid $500 apiece, a fortune in those days, for accommodations that proved to be nonexistent. With over a thousand people clamoring to get on board, those in charge had decided to let their greed override their compassion.”
“[The owners] had gutted the inside of the ship, cramming it with bunk-beds—500 of them in one room for the male passengers and 500 in another for the women. Health conditions were terrible. There was hardly any water, and it was impossible to wash. Because of the poor refrigeration, food spoilage caused illness and even death.”
“After a couple of days, we reached Lisbon. My father and several other observant Jews got off and bought fruit, fish, vegetables and some pots and pans. Now, at least, we had our own little kitchen onboard, one that was comparatively clean and safe.”
“Then trouble struck our family. My poor father contracted typhoid fever. Despite his severe illness, he remained in the same room with the rest of the men. A doctor who admired my father took care of him as best as he could, given the shortage of medical supplies.”
“Many passengers slept on the decks or in lifeboats in order to avoid the crowded quarters below. [MF: My mother was one of those who slept in a lifeboat.] There was a good deal of illness, and our numbers dwindled every night, as the bodies of those who died were thrown overboard.”
“One day, after more than three weeks, the word went reverberating around the freighter: “We’re in America!” Everybody rushed on deck and there she was: the Statue of Liberty!”
“My father would not see this vision with us because he had been taken off the ship and hospitalized when we had docked in Cuba. My mother now arrived in a new land with her three little ones, and her ailing father-in-law, not knowing when and if she’d ever see her husband again.”
“Word about the Navemar had preceded our arrival: “Hell Ship Arrives!” the headlines screamed. Not only was there a swarm of reporters around … there were a good many lawyers as well. It seems the bar had heard: a) how much we had paid for our fare, and b) how badly we had been mistreated. … [The lawyers did help us] recover most of our passage money.”
“We arrived on Friday towards evening … close to the onset of the Sabbath. … Luckily a taxi came by and quickly got us to the Boro Park, Brooklyn, address where our relatives had settled. … Not one but hundreds of trees grew in Brooklyn. … To me, it seemed like paradise. …”
“Our first day in America brought a wonderful surprise. Not only had our family found and rented an apartment for us in Boro Park, they had also completely decorated it and even stocked it with food. It was a fine start for the new life that we faced in our new land.” (A few months later, her father, Rabbi Benzion Blech, was healthy enough to leave Cuba and join the family.)
I found more about the Navemar online:
—This was a freighter ship equipped to carry 28 passengers, but on this voyage carried 1,120.
—Most of the passengers slept in filthy cargo areas that had previously carried coal.
—When the ship arrived in Cuba in 1941, “everyone seemed to be fighting everyone else for the privilege of living. The relationships seemed more animalistic than human.”
—“It was a nightmare spectacle. Hollywood could have used it for a setting in a new production of Dante’s Inferno. Old men and women gasping for breath in the insufferable heat, lying motionless on their bunks, while children tossed and cried. Everyone hungry, everyone thirsty, everyone dirty... The captains on the old slave ships saw that their human cargoes got better treatment than this, and over a half-million dollars in passage money was paid on this ship.”
—The overcrowding was so dangerous that the Navemar was labeled ‘a flowing Gurs,’ referring to the Gurs concentration camp in France.
-The ship was nicknamed the “Nevermore” by passengers.
—Also on the boat was Marc Chagall’s daughter and her husband, with a large case of Chagall’s work. (Chagall himself had left Europe on a boat a few months earlier. He returned to France after the war.)
—One lawyer named Saul Sperling handled the cases of 251 of the 578 passengers who sued for refunds, damages and injuries.
When my mother came to this country in 1941, she did not know a word of English. But she learned it by going to the movies and eventually excelled in school. After she got married in 1952, my father, a lawyer, convinced her to go to law school. There were very few women lawyers in those days. Some judges refused to even speak to her because she was a woman! She eventually changed her first name from “Leah” to “Lee” so that at least when she signed letters, people would think it was a male attorney and be more afraid! After practicing law for 20 years, she was appointed to be a judge in the Workers’ Compensation Court in 1975 by Governor Carey. She served in this position for many years. She is retired now and lives in Riverdale and spends much of her time making shidduchim.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] His mother is still young at heart and tells people she is only “three times 30.”