On September 24, 1937, my grandmother, mother, and aunt traveled to Europe aboard the SS American Farmer. My grandmother, Elsie, kept a detailed account in her diary. In this excerpt, Pol, fifteen years old, is my aunt and Bar, seventeen years old, will be my mother ten years later.
“Third day out, Sunday. Sept. 26: Pol and I started the day by going to a very brief church service. However I first enjoyed a good bath and a good breakfast with the people across the way- very nice from Chicago. I’m so glad we’re on a slow boat with our own bathroom and comfortable stateroom. The storm is abating but the waves are still very high. The captain appeared at noon & and [sic] for luncheon. A very jolly middle aged soul – Bar is still very sick. slept all day – a rather dreary day- In the eve I sent a cable back to Henry.”
On August 26, 1939,Barbara escaped from Poland seven days before the German Army invaded. On September 9, she wired her parents for money.
Elsie wrote in her diary, “They are not allowed to cable sailing dates and names of steamers—all must be kept in secrecy because of the German U-boats sinking so many steamers. “Athenia” with 1500 passengers the first day. Almost all lives saved.”
From Belgium, my mother returned to England and purchased passage on the SS American Farmer, the same ship she had sailed on two years earlier.
Late evening September 17, the second day out from Liverpool, England, German U-53 surfaced near the Farmer with twenty-nine survivors from a British Steam merchant ship she had torpedoed. The Kafiristan had been enroute from Cuba to Liverpool with a cargo of 8870 tons of sugar. Six crewmen had been killed during the attack by U-53.
U-boat captain Ernst-Gunter Heinicke hailed the Farmer to take the survivors aboard. The Farmer lowered her lifeboats, motored to U-53, and loaded the Kafiristan crewmen. The Farmer’s loaded lifeboats were midway back to the Farmer when a British bomber swooped down out of the sun and strafed the U-boat. The bomber circled, came in low, and dropped a bomb on the U-boat’s conning tower, a sure death-knell for the German submarine. U-53 sank with all on board. Or so the world thought.