NEW YORK (AP) — When Armando Lucas Correa was a child in Havana, his grandma would say that "for the next 100 years Cuba would pay for what it did to the Jewish refugees."
She was referring to the case of the St. Louis, a transatlantic liner that arrived from Hamburg with more than 900 immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, which Cuba rejected after letting in only 28 passengers. Also rejected by the United States, the ship was forced to go back to Europe, where 287 passengers were given asylum by Great Britain. From the rest, many died in concentration camps.
The story led Correa to write his acclaimed debut novel, "The German Girl."
"I grew up with that, arguing with my grandmother, blaming (Fulgencio) Batista, that was the chief of the army, discussing who was to blame, how did they not accept those Jews, saying that it was a disgrace," Correa said in a recent interview in New York, where he lives and works as editor-in-chief of People en Espanol.
Published by Atria Books in Spanish and English (with a translation by Nick Caistor), "The German Girl" follows Hannah, a young Berliner who arrives in Cuba with her family on the St. Louis, and Anna, a girl of the same age living in today's New York, whose paths intertwine. It is narrated in the first person by the two girls in alternate chapters that take them from Germany's capital to the Big Apple and a colorful Havana.
The first line of the novel captures the reader's attention: "I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents," Hannah says.
"The beginning started as a page, that page turned into three paragraphs, those three paragraphs into one until I got to that sole phrase," Correa said. "I wanted to get you inside of that world and see the level of desperation of a girl that can make such a drastic decision."
After a long and obsessive research process — Correa not only read all the books about the St. Louis, he also brought them along with many related artifacts — the author shaped his novel inspired by his own family's experiences and found the voice of his young Hannah at home: "All the time, while I was writing, I thought about my daughter. I felt like a father to those children," he said.
He recalled that when he started middle school in Cuba, he was taught Russian, not English, so his grandmother would send him to get English lessons from a grouchy German teacher that all the kids hated — they called him the Nazi.
"Then, when I went to college, I learned from a friend that that old man was actually a Jewish refugee that my grandmother was helping," Correa said.
Hannah, when growing up in Cuba, becomes an English teacher who's called "the Nazi" by the children. Her mother, Alma, says in her old age that Cuba will pay for what it had done for the next 100 years.
Correa has met with some of the St. Louis survivors. He plans to write two more books about their stories.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner