Thursday, July 19, 2012

Guest Blog: Sophie Schiller on the History Behind “Transfer Day”-Part One

In this post and the next, Sophie Schiller, the author of the novel “Transfer Day” (New Historical Novel Set in St. Thomas–“Transfer Day” by Sophie Shiller) shares her story of how she researched and wrote her book.  In it she discusses some lesser known aspects of Virgin Islands history.  Thanks to Sophie for sharing this with all of us at 200 Years in Paradise.


By Sophie Schiller
Fort Christian
Fort Christian: the sight of a suspenseful breakout scene in the novel.
While growing up in St. Thomas, I was always obsessed with a single, nagging question: Why aren't there more books that illustrate the rich, vibrant history of the Danish West Indies? Since there was nothing available to read, I resorted to roaming the alleyways and side-streets of Charlotte Amalie, drinking in the history, imagining what life was like back then, back during Danish times. Sometimes on Fridays before sunset, I would wander down to Market Square and sit on the benches near the Salvation Army where the religious women preach God's word to the downtrodden. I would gaze at the Danish colonial architecture, the Danish street names, the red-roofed houses, the Dannebrog fluttering up on Denmark Hill, and my mind would drift off. However, as the sun inched closer to the horizon, I always left feeling despondent, wanting more. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I would write my own novel.

One day when I was a teenager, I was combing through my father's library. Hidden among the dusty volumes was a hidden gem, a curious little Danish book of short stories entitled "In Danish Times" by Lucie Hørlyk. Lucie lived on St. Croix in the late 19th century and recorded her vivid, colorful memories about life in the tropics, a topic that proved quite popular with her fellow Danes. But more important, Hørlyk left behind a telling glimpse about what daily life was like in the islands, the attitudes, mannerisms and behavior of the people in all social strata. In fact, Hørlyk's book is a virtual treasure trove, and became an invaluable resource in recreating life in the Danish West Indies.
One of the questions that often swirled in my head as a child concerned the ubiquitous island name Maduro. Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro; it's almost as common as Smith or Jones are in the States, even belonging to a certain popular Senator. But the name always struck me as unusual, odd even. Undoubtedly, island names such as Maduro, Robles and De Castro had an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring to it. Where did they come from? How did these inhabitants of a former Danish colony wind up with a Spanish-sounding name? To my surprise, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th and 9th century immigrants whose roots spread all the way back to Holland, Portugal and Spain. This surprising discovery made my curiosity grow by leaps and bounds.

Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro: St. Thomas'
most famous Sephardic Jew.
History relates that the name Maduro was adopted by 16th century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland in order keep their Jewish identity intact. These Spanish-Portuguese Jews later crossed the Atlantic and settled in tolerant Dutch colonies such as Suriname and in the Netherlands Antilles, most notably Curaçao, Saba and St. Eustatius. The Sephardim arrived in St. Thomas in the early 19th century and helped it to become the commercial and shipping centre of the Caribbean.

For my novel, I focused on a descendant of one of those early Sephardic families. I made the main character an orphan girl who is facing turmoil, uncertainty, and change during the time of the transfer (1916-1917). In those days, many Caribbean islands had been depleted of their male population with the building of the Panama Canal, dooming the women back home to spinsterhood. I wondered what would happen if, all of a sudden, a man suddenly appeared who could change the fate of one of those unlucky young ladies. A man who was running away from his past, yet fearful of what the future would bring. Moreover, what if he happened to be a German, just as America was getting ready to enter the war?

I began to read everything I could on WWI, from novels like All Quiet on the Western Front to histories like The Guns of August and Men Around the Kaiser. I devoured everything possible about major battles, heroes, trench warfare, the sacking of Belgium, new technology, famous figures, espionage, sabotage, and especially, everything I could find about U-boats.

I discovered that the Germans viewed the submarine as a practical weapon to starve out the British and sink their cruisers. Indeed, the Germans had every reason to prize their U-boats. As early as September 1914, the Germans experienced a major naval victory that boosted their self-esteem and gave them hope for an early victory. Soon after the war broke out, the U-9—manned by the legendary Otto Weddigen—sank three British cruisers in the span of less than an hour, killing over 1,400 British soldiers.
Like many Americans, I was captivated by the 1981 German film, "Das Boot" when it first came out. I even recall cutting school on numerous occasions to watch it in the company of my best friend, Beth Nagle (R.I.P.). Aside from "All Quiet on the Western Front", "Das Boot" was the first depiction of WWII from the enemy's perspective. And the amazing thing was the characters were sympathetic. Those gripping images in "Das Boot" stayed in my subconscious for years. I began to consider the possibility of introducing a U-boat character in my novel. But my character would be different, he would desert his ship during the war to avoid causing the deaths of any more civilians, and hide out on a quiet, neutral Danish island until the end of the war. Unbeknownst to him, however, he's being watched. The island has a strong German presence and once they discover a German deserter is in their midst, they decide to exploit him in the cause of the Fatherland. Later, after the island is transferred to the United States, our deserter suddenly finds himself in really hot water. He is no longer just a German deserter, he becomes a German soldier trapped behind enemy lines who morphs into a wanted German spy.

The idea intrigued me greatly. No doubt, creating a believable German U-boat character posed a tempting intellectual challenge for me. But there were still many barriers to cross. For one thing, could I actually create a believable German soldier character? And even if I did, how on earth would I get him to St. Thomas in the middle of a war? And finally, were World War I era U-boats even capable of reaching the West Indies?

Next time we’ll see how Sophie Shiller answered these questions in Part Two.


  1. "Sophie",
    Hurry up with part 2, you have me totally enthralled. Since I read your book, I'm hoping you write another. I'm telling everyone how good it is.
    You are right about there not being many VI books.
    A Reader & Fan

  2. Dear Reader,
    Thanks for your kind words! I'm very honored that you enjoyed Abby and Erich's story. Reading your words makes it all worth it!
    All the Best,
    Sophie Schiller