I met Rachel before we had even acquired our sea legs.
The boat set sail at night, and after a evening filled with sadness and coated with booze, my family sent me away to marry my husband.
The whole night was wretched, and I wretched the whole night.
The lolling sea did no favors for my woozy head and sickly stomach. I was in no shape to be wandering about the next morning, but I had to put something in my belly to see if I could hold food down. I was on a mission for crackers or anything else easy to look at.
She found me in the mess hall, crying into my hands.
“Are you okay?” she quietly spoke to me.
I looked up at her, surely a wreck. “No, I’m not okay,” I sobbed.
Clearly I wasn’t, and I was too miserable to hide it.
“What do you need?” she asked, and she patted my shoulder.
“I need my Mutti and my pillow.”
“Aw, why is that?” she cooed.
“I need a glass of water and a cracker.”
“Well, that, my friend, I can help with.”
On a mission, she stood and aimed herself toward the rows of cupboards that lined the hall. She opened them up, one by one, until she uncovered a box of crackers. At the table that was decorated with a sweating glass pitcher of water, she pulled a cup from the stack of them, flipped it over, and filled it. When she came back to me, she offered these treasures as though they were gifts from heaven. And to me on that rotten morning, that’s precisely what they were.
From that moment on, we were fast friends. Rachel was every bit as kind as I was demanding.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Hamburg. But I’m a Jew,” she responded.
The look on my face must have been something akin to shock, though I’m sure it was entirely free from dismay. I was not raised to be prejudiced, and Hitler’s brainwashing tactics never worked for me. No one could tell me a person’s worth; I have always been quite capable of determining that sort of thing for myself.
“I was in hiding,” she said.
“And now?” I asked.
“Now I’m off to America to find my parents.”
“Wow.” I filled my cheeks and blew air up my sweaty face and across my glistening forehead.
“Are you afraid?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, “this is much less frightening than where I came from.”
Nowadays, I understand her bravery much better than I used to. Contrast is everything. But when we were younger, practically children, sailing across the great waters between our old lives and our new ones, I couldn’t help but wonder at her intense courage.