"M.S. St. Louis embarked from Hamburg, Germany in 1939, with many Jews on board desperately escaping Nazi Germany. When both Cuba and the United States refused to allow most of the refugees to disembark, almost all were forced to return to Europe. As the Nazis occupied most of the nations where they settled, many eventually perished. Barbara Krasner has imaginatively envisioned this terrifying experience through the eyes of one girl, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, in her novel 37 Days at Sea. Although Ruthie is a fictional character, her observations and emotions capture the sense of arbitrary injustice and the consequences of hatred and cowardice on vulnerable human lives. Using a variety of poetic forms, from free verse to haiku and rhymed couplets, Krasner offers a new perspective on this emblematic event preceding the Holocaust.
After the violence of Kristallnacht in 1938, Ruthie’s family recognizes that there is no future for them in Germany. They set sail filled with both optimism and fear, but Ruthie’s excitement is at first undiminished by her parents’ caution. After all, they are headed for America, 'America!/Just the roll/of it on my tongue feels like the waves/of the Atlantic.' She enjoys herself in mildly anti-social antics with her new friend, Wolfie, a fellow Jewish refugee whose father is already waiting for him in Havana. Captain Schroeder, based on an actual M.S. St. Louis officer, is kind and empathetic, doing whatever he can to ensure the safety of his Jewish passengers. However, as it gradually becomes clear that the outside world does not share his attitude, Ruthie tries to make sense out of her anxiety in a range of poems. Some, such as 'A Tale of Ruthie,' narrate her life from a third-person perspective, while others are thoughtful letters to the grandmother she left behind in Germany.
Ruthie’s perceptions of adults, as a child, present a sad picture. Those in her life who should be able to protect her are generally helpless, while others, like the Nazi Kurt Steinfeld who torments his fellow-passengers, are actively hostile. Captain Schroeder makes sincere efforts to help but his authority is sadly limited. Ruthie’s own father is sometimes ill and becomes increasingly aware of the tragedy about to engulf his family. The women in Ruthie’s life are even more helpless and less able to repress their emotions. In the poem 'Mothers,' Mrs. Arons tries to comfort Wolfie’s mother, whose face 'turns as white as Shabbat candles.' Sensing his mother’s panic, Wolfie can only rub the rabbit’s foot that he insists can bring him luck. The most ambiguous, but ultimately disappointing, adult is Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Ruthie clings to the hope that he will offer refuge to the St. Louis’s passengers but her trust turns to anger. Young readers will identify with Wolfie’s response to the president as a child unable to counter the selfish decisions of those in power: 'But when I get to America, I have a bone to pick with him.' Krasner’s poems are a window into the mind of a child struggling to make sense of a senseless world.
37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 is highly recommended and includes an author’s note with historical background and a useful timeline of events." — Emily Schneider, Jewish Book Council—Website
"Many books for young people have been written about the voyage of the MS St. Louis from Hamburg, Germany to Cuba and back to Europe in 1939. However, Barbara Krasner’s novel in free verse is an original telling of this heart¬rending story. Twelve-year-old Ruth Arons and her parents leave their home and family in Breslau for what they hope will be a safe haven in Cuba. Ruth makes friends with Wolfie Freund, a boy her age, and together they think up all kinds of mischief. Their carefree antics and the courteous treatment of the passengers are shown in stark contrast to what awaits them on their arrival in Havana harbor when they learn that their visas have been deemed invalid. Told from the first-person point of view and with touches of poignancy and wry humor, we see how the early relief the passengers felt on leaving Nazi Germany turns into grief and despair. After the passengers are turned away from Cuba, as well as from the United States (and Canada), they must return to Europe to an uncertain and frightening future.
Krasner’s use of imagery is stunning. Metaphors such as, 'All of us lined up on the deck, / ship-locked seagulls / yearning for flight' or similes such as, ‘I cling to Wolfie like salt on a pretzel’ are powerful and moving. The rhythmic flow draws the reader inside the narrative. You will want to read this book in one sitting, never letting go until the very last words. In addition, the layout and design of 37 Days at Sea add depth to the emotional events. Some pages are filled with text; others are almost empty, with broken lines, large white spaces, and words scattered about. End matter includes a Timeline of Events and Further Information (films, oral testimonies, books). For additional poetic tellings of the Holocaust refugee story to Cuba, see Margarita Engle’s Tropical Secrets (Henry Holt, 2009), the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner (Teen), and Ruth Behar’s Letters from Cuba (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020), Sydney Taylor Notable Book (Middle Grade) 2021." — Anne Dublin, retired teacher-librarian, Holy Blossom Temple, Author of Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure—Magazine
"37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 by Barbara Krasner follows the story of twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons and her family as they leave their home of Germany for a new life in Cuba and hopefully, eventually, the United States. However, when the ship arrives at Cuba, they, along with many of the other passengers, are unable to dock.
Ruthie is an engaging narrator, telling her story in verse/poetry. Like readers today, she loves mysteries and trying to solve them, swimming, and spending time with friends. On the ship, Ruthie befriends a young boy named Wolfie with whom she snoops around the ship, befriends the Captain, and plays games with. Despite the situation going on in their insular world and the world around them, Ruthie and Wolfie manage to have fun. Like the real passengers of the ship, there was a sense of hope as they travelled to Cuba. As the book is told for children, it leaves out some facts that may be upsetting and remains hopeful as Ruthie and her family end up making their way to England.
37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 is a well-written story of a little-known piece of the Holocaust for today’s readers. Holocaust liteature for children and teenagers often focus on the concentration camps, which is admittedly an important part of history. However, not many know of the M.S. St. Louis. My own grandmother was just 16 when she boarded the ship with her family in hopes of a new life in Cuba and then the United States; as we can see from Krasner’s novel, this was not the end result for many of the passengers. 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 breathes new life into Holocaust literature for children with its usage of verse writing and a strong middle grade voice, and I believe would strongly fit the criteria for the Sydney Taylor Book Award as a Notable book." — Rachel Simon, Youth Library Assistant, Newton, MA, Sydney Taylor Shmooze—Blog