The Journey Backby Stewart Florsheim
Inspired by journal entries made by my great uncle, Adolph Hess, June 1939, en route from Cuba back to Europe on the S.S. St. Louis
Dr. Loewe was the smart one: he cut his wrists
and jumped into the ocean before we left Cuba.
His trail of blood looked like a whirlpool
sucking him into another world—
but then a well-meaning passenger
surprised all of us and jumped in to save him.
They’re trying to make us feel better by offering choices
at the other end: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Boulogne Sur Mer.
But some of us have already been to the camps
and believe there will only be one destination
with multiple names—each of them a curse:
Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen.
The children don’t stop crying and we hope
their screams will somehow reach God. (Yes,
some of us are still believers, now more than ever!)
He will see our boat going back and forth
and if we’re all destined for hell, we pray the St. Louis
will sink before we reach the mainland.
Our Vera and Ilse are sick.
For all the dancing they did on the way to Cuba,
it seems like their feet are suddenly made of lead.
They ask us what will happen when we get back
and Yette and I keep saying, We’ll see,
but I fear they detect the quiver in my voice.
Oh, how we dreamed about the tall sugar cane—
candy that grows right out of the earth.
I imagined sitting on a veranda wearing a Panama hat,
smoking those fine fat Cabañas cigars.
Ilse learned Spanish (even a few words about love).
Vera practiced salsa with a pretend boyfriend.
But the Cubans wouldn’t let us in.
The Americans wouldn’t let us in.
We sailed past Florida and I remembered
hearing about the big, fancy hotels,
the warm, crystal-clear water and now all I can see
are the machine guns pointing at us,
policemen yelling and, closer to shore—
yachts, the people basking in the sun.
Stewart Florsheim was the editor of Ghosts of the Holocaust, an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors (Wayne State University Press, 1989). He wrote the poetry chapbook, The Girl Eating Oysters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stewart won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall from Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His collection, A Split Second of Light, was published by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival, honoring the best books published in the Spring of 2011. Stewart's new collection, Amusing the Angels, also won the Blue Light Book Award and is scheduled to be released at the end of 2022.