Many people of various nationalities wait in the heat of Veracruz, Mexico, on August 22, 1931, to board the North German Lloyd S.A. Vera, scheduled to arrive at Bremerhaven, Germany, on September 17. Some have urgent errands to perform before embarkation, while others simply kill the time. An elderly professor and his wife, the Huttens, share their lunch with their fat bulldog; a shrill, obnoxious young woman, Lizzi Spkenkieker, strides about with a little pig-snouted man, Siegfred Rieber; a solitary Swede, Arne Hansen, expresses indignation over the behavior of Mexican revolutionaries; a German couple, the Baumgartners, hush their young son, dressed in a hot leather riding costume; an American girl in slacks, Jenny Brown, strolls aimlessly with her boyfriend, David Scott; four pretty Spanish girls with their young men, a small zarzuela company, prowl through the streets and shops with disobedient six-year-old twins, Ric and Rac; a middle-aged American woman, Mrs. Treadwell, incredulously considers a painful bruise on her arm, inflicted in the street by a beggarwoman.
Aboard the Vera Dr. Schumann, the ship’s elderly physician, watches passengers mount the gangplank: a hunchbacked dwarf, Herr Glocken, who sold his newsstand in Mexico City; a dying old man in a wheelchair, Herr Graf, pushed by his young nephew, Johann; a young Mexican woman with her baby and their Indian nurse; two Mexican priests; a Texan youth, William Denny, who continually leers at the Spanish girls; a German Jew, Herr Löwenthal, lugging a sample case containing Catholic religious articles; and a beautiful bride and groom on their honeymoon. When the combined freighter-and-passenger ship sets sail, the passengers examine the facilities and settle into their cramped cabins. Dinner at the captain’s table that evening, presided over by Dr. Schumann, is served to a select German group, which includes the Huttens, Lizzi and Rieber, two elderly widows traveling alone, and Wilhelm Freytag, a presentable young German in the oil business. They eat and drink with pleasure and speak joyfully of their return to their fatherland.
During the first pleasantly monotonous days of the voyage, both friendly and hostile encounters occur among the passengers as they become acquainted. Jenny’s discreet flirtation with Freytag angers David; Lizzi’s loud vulgarity annoys her cabinmate, Mrs. Treadwell; the Huttens and their dog suffer from severe seasickness; Baumgartner embarrasses his family by failing to control or to hide his chronic alcoholism; Jenny befriends her cabinmate, an unattractive Swiss teenager returning home with her parents, hoping there to marry. Löwenthal, seated apart in the dining room, cautiously seeks amicable conversations with approachable Gentiles.
When the Vera docks in Havana, many disembark to amuse themselves on shore while new passengers are taken aboard. Deported from Cuba to their native lands because of a market failure, 876 Spanish sugarfield workers are crowded into steerage, where inadequate accommodations and inhumane conditions await them. Six Cuban students make themselves conspicuous by singing “La Cucaracha” endlessly. A mysterious Spanish countess, deported as a dangerous revolutionary by Cuban authorities, arouses considerable curiosity: About fifty, she remains beautiful, dresses elegantly, and adorns herself with jewels; Dr. Schumann treats her nervous disorder with drugs that she habitually uses.
As the Vera pursues its course toward Germany, the passengers discover more about each other’s personal histories and private lives, and their early affinities and animosities deepen. Many of the Germans voice anti-Semitic attitudes; Freytag confides to Mrs. Treadwell that his wife is Jewish—a confidence she later betrays; Ric and Rac throw things overboard, including the Huttens’s bulldog (a woodcarver in steerage loses his life saving it); the quarrels of Jenny and David threaten their already unstable relationship; Dr. Schumann and...
(The entire section is 1,497 words.)