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History has recorded that over half a million Jews were crowded into the Warsaw ghetto between October and November of 1940. The squalor, starvation, disease, exposure to cold, and the daily shootings claimed the lives of about 5, 000 to 6, 000 Jews each month. In Ship of the Hunted, the Heshl family struggles to survive this trend. Like so many others living in the ghetto, Golda and her son, Yossel, scavenge the blocks, looking for any items that can be smuggled out of the ghetto in exchange for food. After his father and older sister are deported, Yossel is confronted by Golda, who wants him to stop smuggling.
“ ‘This stuff buys food. We have to eat, Mama.’
‘Yossel, you’re still a child. You know they shoot children for scavenging!’
‘They shoot mothers for scavenging, too.’ ’’ (Elberg, 17)
This conversation demonstrates the desperate measures taken by the Jews to obtain food. The raids in the ghetto also caused their numbers to dwindle. Daily, thousands of Jews were removed from the ghetto and transported to concentration camps. After surviving one such raid by hiding in a bunker, Golda surfaces to find out about another raid on a hospital. “Liquidated, floor by floor. On foot and by stretcher, they had been sent off – a man with an incision still open; an infant, newly born.” (Elberg, 23) These raids led to deportations, which eventually led to extermination. News spread, and those who refused to be led away to death took part in what would be one of the greatest periods in Jewish history. The Warsaw ghetto uprising began on April 19th of 1943, as the surviving inhabitants of the ghetto resisted the German troops and police who had come to deport them. This battle held out for 20 days till the Germans finally overpowered the lightly armed Jews. In the novel, Golda is a witness to the uprising and its end.
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“The ghetto was ablaze, and out of each flaming hulk came the horrifying smell of scorched human flesh. Some survivors were being led away with their hands over their heads.” (Elberg, 119)
Elberg brings to life the historical truths about life in the Warsaw ghetto from the standpoints of his two fictional characters.
During the Holocaust, the only way most Jews could survive was to hide. Marek Edelman, a hero of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, estimated that about 18, 000 Jews went into hiding in Warsaw. In the novel, Elberg provides two examples of when Hannele, Golda’s youngest daughter, has to go into hiding. Yurek (formally known as Yossel) has the advantage of having blonde hair and blue eyes, and can therefore pass as an Aryan. However, Hannele has very Jewish features, and when it becomes clear that the Nazis are deporting all children, Golda sends her son to find a place to hide Hannele.
“ ‘Did you find something?’ she whispered.
‘I think so. The Wilchinskis want ten dollars a month for each of us.’ ’’ (Elberg, 24)
The Wilchinskis provide a haven for Hannele and a place for Yurek to sleep for nearly three months, during which Hannele is restricted to the innermost rooms of the house, away from windows. Later, Yurek and Hannele are forced to leave the Wilchinskis and look for another hiding place. They travel to Shwider, where Yurek finds work as a farmhand and manages to hide Hannele in the attic of his employer’s barn. Like many others in hiding, Hannele has to remain quiet and motionless throughout the day. Her food consists of meager portions of bread and water, and for nearly two years, she lives in filthy and unhealthy conditions.
“The attic was swarming with insects. Hannele’s dress was a breeding ground for lice, and they multiplied faster than he could pick them out. Her poor little body was all chewed up.” (Elberg, 89)
These examples give an idea as to what many Jews had to tolerate while living in hiding.
Another historical aspect of this novel is the Brichah movement of Jews out of Poland and into Israel. After the war, remaining survivors were eager to leave Nazi-influenced Europe and move to Israel. However, the British mandate allowed the British to control the amount of immigrants into Israel, and due to pressure from the Arab states, they began to limit immigration. This caused much anger amongst the Jews, who felt that their situation and their treatment during the war warranted them access to a better life. The British did not back down, and therefore, the Brichah organization was formed which began the illegal movement of Jews into Israel. In the novel, Yurek joins the Brichah and their tireless effort in helping Jews get out of Poland. After contributing money to the organization, he finally decides to play a more active role, and participates as a medic during the transportation of Jewish children to Marseilles, France. On the second night on the road, he begins to realize the amount of effort needed in the transportation and is advised by a friend to catch up on his sleep. “Tomorrow will be a tough day: checking lists of arrivals, assigning quarters, distributing food. Try to catch a few winks.” (Elberg, 234) In Marseilles, preparations are made for the trip to Israel. A ship is bought, and like the famous Exodus, it is fitted with bunks, toilets, compartments, etc. The Brichah also make sure that thousands of passports and visas are obtained. “In Marseilles, Leibl’s office was again out of bounds: they were busy forging passports. The Colombian consul promised to stamp visas.” (Elberg, 264) At sea, the ship, like the Exodus and so many other Jewish ships from that era, is encountered by the British. The British mandate that limits immigration to Israel also gives them power to stop any boats carrying illegal or suspected illegal immigrants going to Israel. In the novel, the captain of the ship ignores the British command to turn around, and so, they face the consequences. “A mighty impact shook the whole ship. Two destroyers slid into either side. Many on board were knocked off their feet.” (Elberg, 293) This encounter, like others in history, caused the deaths of many of the Jewish people. Those who survived were either sent to a detention camp in Cyprus or returned back to Poland and the rest of Europe, where anti-Semitism still raged. Although the ship and the passengers on it did not exist, their involvement with Brichah represents the hundreds of Jewish ships that attempted to carry Holocaust survivors to Israel after the war.
Ship of the Hunted is a novel that contains more fact than fiction. However, the fictional aspects of the book allow more room for imagination and interest, and the fabricated characters help readers have a better understanding of the book on a more personal level. This novel is a classic example of historical fiction as Elberg describes historical elements such as life in the Warsaw ghetto, hiding as a means for survival, and Brichah’s involvement with the transportation of Jews to Israel, while stirring in a little fiction to give a name and a face to the many whose stories will never be told.