Where Europe comes to an end
Text by Misha Davidoff
On March 24th, 1941, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle left the docks of Marseille. Bound for Martinique, the ship carried some three hundred and fifty refugees fleeing the flames consuming Europe. The passengers included an impressive list of celebrities. The great German novelist, Anna Seghers, for instance, was fleeing her country toward Mexico for her Jewish roots and communist convictions. Claude Lévi-Strauss also travelled for similar reasons, though he was headed to the United States. The ethnologist, remembering his voyage in a few pages of Tristes Tropiques, portrays another passenger on board: an uncomfortable André Breton, clad in a fuzzy coat, miserably pacing the deck like a blue bear. He also tells of the odd impression produced by the revolutionary Victor Serge, who intimidated by his acquaintance of the likes of Lenin and Trotsky and yet was curiously fragile, asexual, like a Buddhist monk or a “principled spinster.” Among others, travelled Vlady—Serge’s painter son—and Breton’s surrealist coterie which included Wilfredo Lam, André Masson and Jacqueline Lamba. Incidentally, it was on that same boat that a young man of nineteen, my grandfather, Jacques Davidoff, along with his brother Leon and his parents Grisha and Manya, crossed the Atlantic.
It had been almost a year since France signed the armistice with the Third Reich and it was only a matter of time before Nazis widened the range of their hunt south of the Loire, where the “free” regime of Vichy maintained a reduced political autonomy. This fragile and foreseeably short-lived balance unleashed a veritable migratory torrent toward the south of France—all the more intensified by the generalized expectation that the Germans were soon to arrive. All kinds of undesirables, Jews, Spanish republicans, communists, and blacklisted artists and intellectuals wandered hurriedly through Vichy France in search of visas, transit permits and exit tickets. “Each one of us,” writes Anna Seghers, “had a particularly persuasive reason not to fall into the hands of the Germans.”
By 1941, transatlantic trips were scarce and it was very difficult to get the required transit papers to leave the country. Some, like Serge and Seghers, relied on fellow comrades to obtain their visas; others, like Breton, Masson and Lévi-Strauss benefitted from the help of universities and organizations such as the Emergency Rescue Committee. Of those that were not known for their intellectual or artistic achievements, some found recourse in family members who were already settled in the American continent. Such was the case of the Davidoffs, who got Mexican visas through one of Manya’s brothers, the “adventurous” uncle Alberto, a black sheep or sorts who had been living for several years in Mexico.
Alberto Kosowski liked women, gambling and boxing—predilections that did not exactly fit his family’s traditional ways. His father Oscar was a religious man and respected member of the Grodno Jewish community. His son’s scandalous lifestyle left him no choice but to send him off as far away as possible, to the other side of the Atlantic, to fend for himself in lands more suited to his eccentric tastes. In the thirties it was easy to get papers to leave Europe; the question lay only in procuring oneself a ticket. Oscar could not know the consequences the exile of his prodigal son would have.
Around a decade later, the Davidoff Kosowskis were in Marseille, Mexican visa in hand thanks to Alberto. In those times the city buzzed of rumors and gossip about ships that were to sail, still-available tickets and unexpected cancelations; about required exit papers; about countries that opened or closed their doors. “Age-old harbor gossip,” Seghers called it,
that hasn’t ceased as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea; Phoenician chatter, Cretan, Greek, and Roman gossip. There had never been a shortage of gossips, anxious about their spot abroad a ship and about their money, fleeing from all the real and imagined dangers of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. Remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves, human hordes chased from all countries on earth that reached the sea where they threw themselves onto ships to discover new lands from which they would again be chased; forever running from one death toward another. The ships had always had to lay anchor here, exactly at this place, for here Europe came to an end and here is where the sea began.
Where Europe came to an end (as it still does)—where the stable structures that govern the world only reach by crumbling into a polyglot tumult of migrants between nations, continents and epochs—there met the histories of Wilfredo and Manya, those of Anna and Jacqueline, as they boarded the Paul-Lemerle.
The duration of the trip was considerably lengthened by the frequent stops along the North African and Atlantic coasts. The crew does not seem to have shared the reason for so many detours with the passengers. Among the testimonies of the notable personalities on board, only Lévi-Strauss’ offers an explanation—and this in an openly speculative way. The ethnologist supposes that the ship must have been loaded with some sort of “clandestine equipment,” since so much stopping, or so one heard, was a way of avoiding inspections by the British fleet. Lévi-Strauss’ speculation is an attempt to make sense of a paradoxical situation: Why should a transport of refugees hide from the British when these refugees are fleeing, precisely, the enemies of the British? And while we are at it: Why would the collaborationists of Vichy allow the enemies of their masters to flee?
Surprisingly, my aunt Ruti seems far better to understand what was going on than the famous academic did. She was Leon’s wife, who was fifteen when he traveled on the Paul-Lemerle. Based on what my uncle must have told her about his journey, Ruti explains that the mysterious contraband that the Paul-Lemerle carried was a shipment of magnetic mines which the Germans planed to sow in Mediterranean and Atlantic waters. Apparently, as he recounted, one could make out “the tip” of the German submarine escorting the cargo of explosive mines. A wonderful, infinitesimal and possibly (hopefully!) veridical piece of the historical puzzle—we owe it to Leon and Ruti. In May of 41, the borders of Vichy were legally closed to all emigrants. The Paul-Lemerle was the last transport to the Caribbean authorized by a government increasingly controlled by the Nazis. According to Ruti, the only reason that the Paul-Lemerle was able to set off was that shipment of German mines, for the protection of which the refugees served as a “human shield.”
Such an expression evokes the language of Victor Serge when he calls the boat a “floating concentration camp,” though without elaborating much further. The descriptions offered by Lévi-Strauss give content to the brief observations of his admired co-traveller. The ship was only equipped with two cabins, together capable of accommodating a mere seven privileged passengers among the three hundred and fifty. The ship’s hold basically had to be upholstered with narrow, shabby mattresses, in order to shelter all the rest. According to Lévi-Strauss, however, it was the hygienic conditions which most contributed to the suffering of the passengers:
Symmetrically disposed along the rails, to port for the men and to starboard for the women, the crew had set up two pairs of shacks made of planks, without air or light; one contained a few shower-heads that were only supplied in the mornings; the other, barely furnished with a long wooden trough roughly coated with zinc, served the purpose one would imagine.
Almost mockingly, the ethnologist remembers the “delicate ones” who were “loath of collective squatting,” and he laughs because, instead of “land! land!,” the general cry “a bath, finally a bath!” resounded when an island pierced the horizon. No doubt, there is something ridiculous in the clash between the squeamishness of the passengers and the rustic “amenities” of the ship. Nevertheless, Lévi-Strauss does not fail to note a “discreet and pathetic” note in such hygienic yearning; for it is as if the latter betrayed a wounded human dignity that yet refuses resignation and, therefore, great strength in the face of suffering.
Despite the indignities of overpopulation, the vision of the life still awaiting them was never lost for the refugees aboard the Paul-Lemerle. Precisely it was this prospect which they had won by boarding the ship. If indeed they were inmates in a floating camp and if indeed they would still have to remain months in the le Lazaret camp in Pointe du Bout, this condition was merely provisional. In principle they were already free persons, each one contemplating differently the future before them.
After close to a month of voyage, on April 20th, the passengers peered out through the waves at the apparition of the Caribbean. Not everyone experienced this equally. Some, like Serge, had left “only to return” and never contemplated the “untold landscapes” of the western hemisphere as a definitive refuge—even if they were to perish there, like he did. There did not wrest their eyes from the old continent, which in its conflagration was still to be the stage for a continuing internationalist struggle in which they saw themselves as active participants. Among the forty “comrades” he counted on board, Serge felt desire for battle and confidence in the victory to come which increased as European coasts became remote.
Others, who must have been the majority, had their gaze fixed on the fantastic horizons opening in front of them. Breton describes “those who wouldn’t stop breathing in for that tip of verdure, sill in the distance.” I picture them, looking through binoculars that “ravished the distance between common perception and the dreams of the poet,” already savoring the succulent and sumptuous life that the sylvan splendor promised them. I do not doubt that Jacques and Leon were among them. Young and ready to forget the indignities they had borne, they were to make a new life in a Mexico that was opening its doors. There they built houses that still stand and they bequeathed to their families a place in the world. It is in memory of both of them that I tell this story.