Chapter 1: Voyage to the Unknown
"Tell me a story, Mamma. Tell me about the time we got attacked by pirates!"
"I've told you that story already, Shoshana."
"But I want to hear it again. Pleeease?"
"OK, OK, my beautiful rose. One more time, then right to sleep."
Shoshana Levy's mother, Rivka, slowly lowered her very pregnant body onto the bed. She swept the brunette bangs from her daughter's large brown eyes, which glowed and flashed like a cat's in the candlelight. Everyone agreed that Rivka was the best storyteller in Nieuw* Amsterdam. Her vivid descriptions captivated the children who lived in the Dutch colony, a colony that would be taken over by the British a few years later and renamed New York.
Rivka smoothed her gingham dress, cleared her throat, and began:
"We were sailing on a little ship called the Falcon. Our destination was Amsterdam, where we lived before moving to Recife, Brazil."
"When did the Dutch take over Brazil?" Shoshana asked.
"In 1624. Before that, the Portuguese were in charge. They made it against the law to be Jewish. Jews who lived there had to convert to Christianity and even so, these new Christians continued to be punished for not being 'pure' Catholics. But when the Dutch took charge, everyone was granted religious freedom. Many New Christians who were living there, including your grandparents, converted back to Judaism. With Brazil suddenly a nice place for Jews to live, your grandparents invited us to join them there.
"How long did the Dutch rule in Recife, Mamma?"
"Almost 25 years," Rivka said wistfully. "During that time, the Jewish population flourished. By the time you were born, about 5,000 of us were living in Recife. Pappa's sugarcane business grew into one of the biggest in Brazil. Our community even had a synagogue. Then, in January of 1654, the Portuguese took back control of Recife, and everything changed for us."
Rivka fought back tears as she remembered their happy life withering like a leaf on the forest floor.
"The Jews were given three months to sell their homes, pack their belongings, and
get out," she said.
The Falcon was one of 16 Dutch ships that carried the Jews out of Recife. It set sail on February 28, 1654. Shoshana, her parents and sister were among the 23 Jews on board. A few of the ships took the Jewish refugees to Caribbean islands or Central America. But most went back to Amsterdam, Rivka told her daughter.
"Amsterdam is the capital of Holland," Shoshana pointed out.
"Correct. That was our destination, too. But a squall blew our little Falcon off course just a few days into our voyage. We were running out of drinking water and food, and some of our sails needed mending. So our captain planned to drop anchor off Jamaica, a large island in the Caribbean Sea. We hoped to replenish our supplies with coconuts and bananas, as well as fresh water.
"You, me, and baby Binah were on the back deck. You were tucking your doll, Muņeca, into her cradle. Do you remember that?"
"Not really," said Shoshana, who was only 3 years old at the time. She glanced over at Muņeca. Though a bit tattered, Shoshana's only doll occupied a place of honor, along with a book of Psalms, on the only shelf of her tiny bedroom.
"What happened next?"
"Suddenly, we heard a thunderous bang and crrrrack coming from the bow of the ship. The whole vessel shook. You were so scared that you dropped Muņeca and ran into my arms. Your father told us to stay put while he went to investigate."
"Pappa is so brave!" Shoshana interjected. Her father, Akiva Levy, was more than brave. He was a man of great compassion and a born leader.
"Then what happened, Mamma?" Shoshana asked excitedly, as though she was hearing the story for the first time.
"When your father reached the bow, he saw that a cannonball had ripped a hole right through the deck boards. Seawater was rushing in. Pappa and several others grabbed buckets and started bailing out the water. Meanwhile, the rest of us rushed around searching for anything that might be used to plug up the hole. Before we knew it, the ship that shot the cannonball sailed right beside us - and it was manned by piratas*! The piratas told us they were 'privateers.' They said their government gave them the 'right' to attack us and any other ship they wanted to loot. We didn't care what their government said. To us, those piratas were nothing more than thieves."
Shoshana snuggled closer to her mother, who wrapped her arm around her protectively before continuing.
"Using rope ladders and planks to link up our two vessels, the piratas forced their
way onto the Falcon and ordered all of us, even the children, to lie face down on the deck."
"That part I remember! I got a splinter in my knee," Shoshana said. "Mamma, why didn't Pappa and the others try to fight off the piratas?"
"We had only a few guns on board, and they were no match for the piratas' weaponry. In addition to cannons, the piratas wielded swords and guns far more powerful than ours."
Next, Rivka told how they robbed all the money and jewelry they could find from the passengers before emptying the ship's hold of anything that could be sold.
"They took our extra clothing, shoes, pots and pans, candles, soap, pillows, almost everything we had," Rivka said. "If I hadn't put Muņeca in my dress pocket, they probably would have taken your doll, too."
Rivka took a deep breath and let it out slowly to calm herself before telling the next part of the story.
With swords at their backs, the Falcon's four men, six women, and thirteen children, along with her captain and crew, were placed in a rickety rowboat and sent adrift in the tepid, blue-green waters. The rowboat had several tiny leaks, however, and it wasn't long before it would have to be abandoned. Fearing her whole family would drown, Rivka began to panic, until she realized that they were within a short swimming distance of Jamaica. Her husband hoisted Shoshana and her baby sister onto an empty wooden barrel that he'd managed to push off the Falcon during the melee. With one hand on Shoshana's back and the other on the baby's, Akiva and Rivka Levy kicked with all their strength until they made it to shore. Akiva immediately grabbed the barrel and ran back into the surf to help the others. He did this several more times until everyone was rescued.
Sopping wet and penniless, but grateful to be alive, the castaways watched helplessly as the pirates returned to their ship and fired two more cannonballs into the starboard side of the half-sunken Falcon. As the ship's three masts slipped below the surface, the Jews felt as lost as the driftwood that was strewn all over the beach.
They were wringing out their clothes and dumping water from their shoes when a French frigate called the Saint Catherine appeared seemingly out of nowhere and chased the pirates away. On the beach, the Levys and the other families jumped up and down, screaming and waving their hands wildly to attract the warship's attention.
"Then what happened?" Shoshana asked breathlessly.
"For that, you must wait until tomorrow night, my beautiful rose," said Rivka, looking tired. She blew out the candle on Shoshana's bed stand, tucked her in, and kissed her goodnight.
The run-in with those dreadful pirates was one link in a chain of misfortunes that the Jews of the Falcon would experience in their quest to regain a home and religious freedom.
(end of excerpt)
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