Nevermore at Bermuda
In addition to fighting the fury of the Atlantic and of his mutinous crew (most of them ran away in Havana), he was compelled by the RAF to steer his miserable ship into the most beautiful harbour of Bermuda, there to submit to a very thorough search and investigation. — G Faludy, My Happy Days in Hell, 1962
It was a nightmare spectacle — Hollywood could have used it for a setting in a new production of Dante's Inferno. The great, gloomy caverns, the tiers of bunks rising on all sides. Old men and women gasping for breath in the insufferable heat, lying motionless on their bunks, while children tossed and cried. — Victor Bienstock, Report on SS Navemar at Havana
Like some other animal species, humans have a habit of destroying their own if left in the clutches of mad men, an enterprise now tabled under the epithet of genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, coined the word in 1943 and his definition of the destruction of a people formed part of the legal foundation of the Nuremberg Trials. Lemkin himself lost 49 relatives, who were among the 3 million Jews in Poland and Lithuania put to the torch by Hitlers mad men in the genocide now known as the Holocaust, some being killed by the Communist Soviets when they annexed lands from the German empire, as the Nazis hold on Eastern Europe waned. In the concomitant ways of genocide, most who fled or survived the Holocaust did so with only the shirts on their backs, for part of the process of such de-humanification is to relieve the injured party of their earthly possessions, for the wealth-enhancement of the victors.
Such highway robbery of the highest order deprived individuals of their livelihoods, their homes and their material possessions, especially those of value, such as antiques and artwork. Bermuda stood to be tarred by the black brush of genocide in late 1940, when a shipment of some 500 Old Masters was discovered on the SS Excalibur of the American Export Line in local waters. Worth many billions in current prices, the artwork by Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, Picasso, etc., was sent on to Montreal, as it was thought that Bermudas humidity might dampen their value. Those great works were appropriated from Jews and others on the auction blocks of genocide, and some still hang unclaimed without proper provenance in museums, the inadvertent death-gifts of many a decimated or eradicated European family.
The following year, Bermuda would again be directly touched by hand of genocide, as another cargo ship, loaded, if you will, with intellectual capital, swayed at anchor in Five Fathom Hole. Labeled Nevermore by its benighted cargo, the presence at Bermuda of SS Navemar, out of Seville, bound for New York via Lisbon and Havana, was brought to our attention by Mrs Marion Gumprecht Portman, a recent visitor to the National Museum.
Marion, sisters Karen and Renate and their parents Werner and Edith Gumprecht left Hamburg in July 1941, after fond goodbyes to their parents and relatives whom they would never see again, for Seville to embark for the United States on the Navemar, one of a number of notorious refugee ships. Another was the MS St Louis, which had 937 German Jews on board, but was denied entry to Cuba, United States and Canada in 1939. On the Voyage of the Damned, back to Europe they went and several hundred ended up in the ovens of the Nazi genocide industry.
Those on the Navemar had visas for the United States, but as they were due to expire, they had to put into Lisbon to have them renewed. In the bureaucratic way, they had only several days to get the new visas, but the Consulate did not have enough typewriters to process the paperwork in time. An American Jewish refugee committee sent cash to buy up typewriters in Lisbon, upon which the lives of the Navemar passengers depended.
At Bermuda in late August 1941, the women and children were allowed off the ship and were given a picnic by the ladies of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire and the Bermuda Womens Auxiliary Force, for which a notice of thanks was published in The Royal Gazette and Colonist. Among the Navemar complement at the tea party was Hannah Arendt, perhaps the most important female philosopher of the last century who coined the phrase banality of evil, Marc Chagalls daughter Ida, and Lucille de Saint-Andre, who wrote a fictional account about the Navemar and the infamous Vichy French concentration camp, Gurs, entitled, Bye Bye, Baden-Baden. For many on the Navemar, it was bye bye to everything they knew, owned and loved in Europe.
Perhaps the sentiments of most on the potential death-ship were echoed in the words of Rosi Moses-Scheuer: After we had given up all hope of arriving in America, we docked in New York harbour. The day of my arrival in the New York harbor was one of the happiest of my life. Only one thing dimmed my joy: the thought of those who could not come here, of the friends and fellow sufferers we had to leave behind. That thought still haunts me. I know only too well with what fear, need, and doubt those people live.
Before we laud ourselves for their first experience of such humanity on their voyage, we are reminded by the doyen of the history of Bermuda tourism, Professor Duncan McDowall, that starting in the 1930s, we basically banned Jews from visiting the Island, or segregated them, as we did with black people, from the better hotels hereabouts, until the repeal of an odious hotel Act in 1959. However, it is only by continued attention to human rights that we may say nevermore at Bermuda.
The Navemar, by the by, perhaps still filthy from its Voyage of the Damned, was sent to the bottom on January 23, 1942 by the Italian submarine Barbarigo, not too distant from the port of Seville.
The writer thanks Marion Gumprecht Portman, Lucille de Saint-Andre and National Museum intern, Kathryn A. Bennett, for their assistance with this article.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-5480
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