China Boat

Chapter 59

Wednesday, June 2nd, 1937
4:30 p.m.
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China


The telephone rang, just as I was reaching for the doorknob.


I almost ignored it. I was leaving to take a quick run, before meeting Tom for dinner, and a movie. I needed to run; and after all, I thought, the front desk would take a message.


I wonder, still, if it would have worked out better for Tom, if I had ignored the call. It might well have. But by the same token, it would have worked out much worse, for someone else.

I know what Tom would have chosen. I am at peace, with my decision. With what happened to us.


"Hello — ?"

"Good afternoon, Mister Williamson. Your father is on his way up to his room; he asked that we call you, and requested that you meet him there, as soon as possible."


A quick stab of fear; a sudden, sharp stab of it.


"Oh … Yes. Thank you."


My first thought, was that Father had started bringing up blood. That would mean that his ulcer had become a perforated one. That was a life-threatening condition; it would mean an immediate trip to the hospital … 

I imagined myself arguing with Father, pleading with him, to go to the hospital now, while there was still time … He would, of course, not want to go — 


That fear, that expectation, made what met my eyes in the corridor outside of Father's room, all the more surprising.


"Oh, there you are, Rhys … " His eyes narrowed slightly, at the sight of me in my running-outfit; but he said nothing. "Mister Chen, this is my son, Rhys. Rhys, this is Mister Chen. You are, of course, acquainted with his own son."

I gaped at Father, a moment. I almost committed the unpardonable rudeness of ignoring Mister Chen. Father seemed well enough; there was no sign of distress, in his face, his color seemed better than it had been in days — 

I turned to Mister Chen.

"How do you do, sir — ?"

The usual pleasantries were exchanged. Mister Chen — who bore a family resemblance to his son, but was not nearly as tall — bowed to me, rather than offer his hand. Not knowing what else to do, I bowed in return, feeling ridiculous in my running-shorts, and bare-shouldered jersey. But, truth to tell, my full mind was still on Father — on his health, and on his absurd get-up, a costume almost as absurd as mine — 

Father paused outside the door to his room, looking, for just a moment, uncharacteristically awkward.

"Mister Chen. I hope you will forgive me; but I have an extremely sensitive matter which I need to discuss with my son, in his capacity as my Confidential Secretary. It may take some minutes. Would you do me the favor of waiting for us? Perhaps in the Terrace Lounge — ?"

I blinked.

Mister Chen — in a very understated way, I thought — looked unhappy.

"Of course, sir," he said, in English nearly as perfect as his son's.

"You will be the guest of this room, of course."

I thought I saw Mister Chen the Elder try not to wince at that, as so did I; and then, Father and I were in his room, together, alone.


A moment's pause, for breath.


"Father. What has happened — ?"


I saw several things, at once.

First, and most alarmingly — his face grew pale, again; and he let himself slump, a little, just noticeably. I did not move to support him, or to help him sit down; but the thought flashed through my mind. He was clearly still an ill man; although he had not wanted to show it, to Mister Chen.

But then, there was his costume.

He was wearing — although he was beginning to struggle out of it — a raincoat, which could only be described as, shabby. A raincoat, on this warm, Shanghai day, with temperatures in the mid-80's … His hat, a Homburg, was similarly nondescript, and completely unsuitable for the weather. But, I recognized the suit underneath his raincoat, it was one of his better ones, and as usual, his shoes were immaculate — 


All at once, I guessed. I knew, actually. It came, with a sinking feeling.


He tossed the raincoat over a chair, and followed it with the Homburg; and then he settled himself into an armchair, a little unsteadily. I could see him suppressing a sigh.

He looked up at me.

"I tried to visit Monsieur Simonov," he said, abruptly. "We failed to get through."

I sat down in the chair facing him, without seeking permission.

"What happened, sir — ?" I asked again; more quietly.

He exhaled, and looked away, for a second; and then, he looked back at me.

"I needed to see him, on an urgent matter. I enlisted Mister Chen's help, as my comprador. We attempted to visit Monsieur Simonov via taxi, or at least, to get as close to him as we could … "

A pause.

I could have told him what would happen; based on my own experience.

"It was impossible. The people in the streets, the traffic … We were blocked, completely, almost as soon as we crossed the Garden Bridge. But worse, we were surrounded by beggars, dozens of them; I have never seen such persistence. We could not even open the taxi-cab's doors, much less proceed on foot. Had we tried, we would have trailed a whole crowd after us — if we were not stripped and robbed, first." Another pause. "It was impossible to proceed."

A complicated look, from him. Father does not like to fail. He likes to admit his failures, even less.

I breathed in, and out.

"I am sorry, Father."

He regarded me, for a moment.

"How do you do it — ?" he asked me; a little bit of wonder, showing on his pale face. "You have been, many times."

I shrugged.

"Mister Chen — my Mister Chen — says that automobiles, and especially taxis, are impossible, in the Hongkew. So, the first time, we took rickshaws. The times after that, we have ridden bicycles. We have dressed as office clerks; they are not liable to attract much attention … "

It struck me, that the younger Mister Chen might know the streets of Shanghai — of modern Shanghai, and of the Hongkew, in particular — somewhat better, than his father. If so, I could understand the look of embarrassment, on the elder Mister Chen's face, just now.

Of course, there was only one thing I could say, next.

"May I help, Father — ? I would be glad to visit Monsieur Simonov, for you; if I know what to tell him, or if I can deliver whatever it is you might want to give him … "


As it turned out, there was both; a message, and a package.

Or rather, two packages. Father wrote out the message, quickly but neatly, on Cathay Hotel stationery; he signed it, blotted it, folded it, and sealed it inside an envelope. This he superscribed with Monsieur Simonov's name and address.

I found it interesting, that he knew the address by heart.

Next, he opened his attaché-case, once again — 

I took a moment to wonder, that he thought his 'disguise' might be effective; between the expensive briefcase, and his shoes — but then, perhaps he had only thought to be misleading, through a taxi-cab's window — 

 —  he opened his attaché-case, and withdrew a fairly bulky packet; it had made the soft sides of his attaché-case bulge out. He brought the packet back to his chair, and sat down rather heavily — 

And then he looked at me; silently, and for some seconds.

I thought I could see, that he was debating something, within himself. His expression was — torn, perhaps; and not entirely happy.

"Sir — ?"

The silent debate continued, for several more seconds. And then, at last, came a reluctant sigh; and he handed the packet, and the letter, to me. His face seemed older than I was used to.

"You are not to allow yourself to be searched by the Municipal Police, or by any Military Police you may encounter, under any circumstances. Do whatever you need to do, to evade detention. For your own sake; as much as for the sake of — others. Is that understood — ?"

"Yes, sir," I said; in a tone which meant, I did not understand at all.

Another look from him, and then a sigh. He passed his hand over his face, once.

A pause.

"I have been sworn to secrecy in this matter. But it is not right to ask you to run the risk, without informing you of the potential consequences … And, in any event, you are unusually mature, for your age." Another look, from him. "In fact, you are almost old enough to serve in the military, hard as it is for me to realize it … I find the thought deeply disturbing. On a fundamental level." His expression grew bleak.

I said nothing.


Another pause from him; seconds, long.


"You do not need me to tell you," he began, at last, "that the plight of Germany's Jews is becoming increasingly grim; I know that you follow the German newspapers more closely than I. You are aware of the racial purity laws which have been promulgated, the restrictions on employment, the restrictions on business ownership; all the rest."

"Yes, sir."

The shadow of that horrible day in Berlin fell on us both. He did not mention it; but we were both thinking of it.

"The official policy of the German Government is to encourage Jews to emigrate; to leave the country. In practice, the Government makes it very difficult for Jews to do so. Obtaining the necessary exit visas and transit permissions is, apparently, extremely difficult; and all of the necessary documents must be in order, and properly dated, all at the same time, which is challenging. Then, too, there are severe restrictions on how much money Jews are allowed take with them, when they leave; for all intents and purposes, Jews who do manage to emigrate are rendered destitute. But all of those difficulties pale, in comparison to the primary obstacle these poor people face."

"Sir — ?"

A look from him.

"That is is question, of who will take them in — ? Which country, or countries, are willing to accept Jewish immigrants, in even the most modest numbers — ?" A very dry look from him, as he reached for his pipe, and tobacco-pouch. "The answer is, unfortunately, very few, indeed."

I blinked. I had been largely aware of conditions in Germany, although not in such detail. But this — ?

"Not even the United States, Father — ?" Jewish people were and are an integral part of the fabric of New York City, my home, after all.

Another dry look from Father, as he tamped the tobacco into his pipe-bowl.

"No; as it turns out. The numbers accepted are scandalously low. I had no idea. Your friend Emile and his family were extremely fortunate to be accepted when they were … It is, I'm afraid, the usual story."

He struck a match, and proceeded to light his pipe.

He was referring, of course, to anti-Semitism in the United States; the persistent, and pervasive anti-Semitism, of the sort that had so disturbed me, when I'd returned to school in America. If it is a prejudice less evil and vicious than the German or Austrian varieties, it is no less widespread; particularly within the white, Protestant confines of Society.

"Our own reluctance to accept Jewish immigrants is at least matched, if not exceeded, in much of the rest of the Western world … "

He removed the pipe from his mouth, and he looked at me, a little sidelong. I saw him take a breath.

" … and so, there has arisen a group of private individuals, who are attempting to help."


Full stop. A pregnant silence.

I began to draw the inevitable conclusions.


"To — help — sir?"


"Yes. With money; of course. But also with the necessary papers. Occasionally, forged German exit visas and permits, I'm told, although those can be very dangerous to those who hold them. More often, with transit visas and entry visas and residence permits to a variety of Central American and South American countries. Sometimes they are forged; sometimes they are the products of the bribery or blackmail of the relevant officials who issue them … "


Father kept his face very controlled, as he admitted to this illegal activity. The last pieces clicked into place, in my mind.


"Monsieur Simonov."


"Yes." A tentative puff, on his pipe. "Yes; I was told that Monsieur Simonov operates the finest network for forged documents in Shanghai; and Shanghai being what it is, that is saying a very great deal."


A mix of emotions, rushed through me. Shock — again. Embarrassment; that I had approached Monsieur Simonov for my own forged passports, all unknowing — 

Embarrassment, mixed with the shame, that Monsieur Simonov was aware of the extent to which Father had not trusted me.

But then, a surge of admiration, and real affection, for Monsieur Simonov — 

And a much larger one for Father. Oh, such a surge of respect, of admiration, of love, of love, for him, to have taken on this task, this risk, on top of his official duties — 


The risk.

He had just mentioned blackmail, after all.


"Father. How well do you trust the person, or persons, who set you to this task — ?" My concern was for him. I believe it showed, in my expression.

Some of the controlled tension left Father's face, as he studied me for a moment. He puffed twice on his pipe; and then he answered simply.

"With my life. You see, I was approached on this matter in Washington, in March, by Secretary Morgenthau, and his wife … and by Mrs. Roosevelt."


I stared at him.


"Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt — ?"

A dry look from him. "Yes."


At some point, I would have expected my capacity to be surprised would fail. It did not. I blinked at him, for several seconds.


"Does the President know — ?" I dared to ask it.


An ironic expression crossed Father's face.

"On the best of days, it is generally impossible to be sure of what the President really knows, or thinks, on any given subject … but in this particular instance, I believe, not."


Father then explained to me, how the Jewish question had become something of a sore point, between the President and Mrs. Roosevelt; that the upper echelons of the State Department were inhabited largely by openly anti-Semitic individuals, who blocked Jewish immigration, but Secretary Hull refused to address the issue, and the President would not in turn press Secretary Hull … 

"That is, by the way, quite characteristic of the President; he resists confrontation, and conflict, with those about him, at almost any cost; it is a trait I, myself, have seen in action … "

He paused, to take several puffs from his pipe. When he continued, his voice was quiet, and serious.

"Were the news about these — arrangements — to become public, it would create — as I'm sure you can imagine — the very greatest scandal. It would certainly ruin Morgenthau, and Mrs. Roosevelt. It would severely embarrass the President; at the very least, there would be hearings in Congress, and calls for criminal charges." He looked at me, directly. "So. You can see, now, that when I spoke to you of the risks involved in carrying this package — I was not referring exclusively, or even primarily, of the risks to you, yourself. If you choose to convey this package, the responsibility will be very great."

Including the responsibility for keeping Father's name free of scandal, along with the others. He characteristically did not mention the risk to himself.

"Of course I will go, Father." Just the chance to help anyone, anyone at all, to leave the nightmare of Nazi Germany … 

Father merely nodded. I was glad to see he was unsurprised my my answer.

"Might I know, Father, what it is I am to carry — ?" I asked it, a little tentatively. "Are these, forged documents, then — ?" I hefted the package, to feel the weight of it.

"On the contrary. They are perfectly real entry visas and residence permits, for twenty-three individuals, for the nation of Uruguay; all properly signed, counter-signed, and stamped by the appropriate authorities. A number of families will be departing Bremen, for Montevideo, quite soon."

I blinked at him. "Then — ?"

"They are also, presently, quite blank; lacking the bearers' names, personal details, and photographs; and so, they are perfectly illegal. The relevant photographs and information are provided, separately, within the package. Monsieur Simonov, or his people, will fill in the forms, affix the photographs, and apply the final necessary over-stamps … Also, there is four thousand dollars in U.S. currency, to assist the recipients on their way." A puff on his pipe, again. "That is why I suggested you not allow yourself to be searched. If blank diplomatic documents were found, and the Uruguayan government contacted, and the officials who provided them questioned … the entire edifice could come tumbling down, very quickly."

A long pause.

"I see, sir."

I took a few breaths; still trying to come to grips, with what I'd just been told. All of what I'd just been told. There was a great deal to think about.

"There is one more consideration, son. We are time-constrained." A look from him. A look which said, 'Responsibility'. "These papers were very late reaching me; they should have arrived several days ago … and the completed forms must be on the boat for Bremen, on the morning of the fifth. That is very little time."

"Sir — ?"

"I'm afraid you, or I, or someone, will have to leave for Monsieur Simonov's, as soon as possible. He must receive this packet today. He is expecting it." His face was pinched, as he said it.

I shrugged, and then I stood up.

"Then with your permission, sir, I'll go change clothes. I can leave right away."

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