As he nears the end of his life, Karl Frank writes an account of his coming-of-age as a legacy to his grandchildren so that a part of his family’s history will be preserved. ‘This is the story of how I became a man,’ he tells them. In particular, it is the tale of a fifteen-year-old boy caught up in one of the remarkable episodes of the Jewish exodus from Nazi Germany. In May 1939, the SS St Louis left Hamburg for Havana carrying 900 refugee asylum-seekers. During their weeks at sea, they were turned away by Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the USA, and had to sail back across the Atlantic to a Europe on the cusp of war. In fear of enforced return to Germany, the refugees were finally taken in by Belgium, the Netherlands and France, only for many to perish under the subsequent Nazi occupation. The 200 or so admitted into Britain were the lucky ones. Michael Arditti places his fictional hero among them; more than six decades later, retired from an Oxford professorship, Karl Frank (formerly Frankel-Hirsch) sets about recording his time on the St Louis.
Arditti’s challenge is to characterise a teenager through the eyes of the octogenarian he has become. In less capable hands, this literary conceit might have remained just that – a device to introduce a sophisticated adult tone and perspective into an essentially juvenile narrative viewpoint. On the whole, though, Arditti