Following this worldwide concern, Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. What many will not recall, however, is that the first vessel to be sunk in the Atlantic was not an Allied war ship. Instead, on Sept. 3, the British passenger ship Athenia was the first to fall victim to Axis torpedoes. Arguably a case of mistaken identity, several passengers would make it to lifeboats, and a new home in the U.S. Others, 128 passengers and crew, were not so lucky and perished in the incident.
The sinking was not deemed a war crime, nor widely publicized, until during the Nuremberg Trials.
With this state of confusion in mind, La Jolla-based author Tom Sanger captures this universal presence of worry, and at times, excitement, in his historical novel “Without Warning.” Coming up on the 78th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, Sanger will host a reading and booking signing at the Gilford Library on Saturday, Sept. 10.
Sanger was born in raised in Los Angeles, but his interest was piqued after he discovered a 14-page essay that his grandmother, a survivor of the incident, had written from her own recollection. Sanger’s career has spanned all realms of journalistic-and other forms of fact-based interpretation.
His novel, “Without Warning,” can be classified as a historical novel, one in which his journalistic background proved to beneficial in researching and writing about this oft-overlooked topic.
“In all honesty, this incident chose me,” said Sanger. “I discovered my grandmother’s (Barbara Cass-Beggs) essay in 2010, for she sailed on the Athenia the day that the Germans invaded Poland. They departed from Liverpool, and were about 250 miles off the coast of northwest Ireland, thinking that they were ‘out of harm’s way.’ My grandmother happened to be on the starboard side of the ship, looking out over the Atlantic sunset, when the torpedo struck the port side.”
“Without Warning” follows eight principal characters, comprised of concerned English folk, a distraught Polish farmer and his family and even the commander of a German U-boat who ultimately fires upon the Athenia.
Whether highlighting German “Oberleutnant” Fritz-Julius Lemp’s eagerness to “claim a few prizes (ships) of his own, or Spirydon Kucharczuk’s growing preoccupation with leaving Poland, the impending invasion is debated by all the work’s subjects. Lemp’s war hungry ambition ultimately led to his decision to fire upon the Athenia, believing it to be an Allied warship.
“Either Poland gives the Nazis what they want, or they will come and take it,” says Spirydon Kucharczuk, the Polish farmer. “Sooner or later, we will all be living under Hitler’s boot.”
As Cass-Beggs and her family set out towards Canada, where her husband will be lecturing at the University of Toronto, they are uncertain as to how long they will be removed from England – if ever to return at all.
“This may be our very best chance to live in a society where we are not defined by parents’ pedigree, the school we attended, or the clubs we belong to,” she says optimistically.
Her husband, David, replies “I dislike this antiquated system as much as you,” but how can we with ourselves if we go to Canada and England goes to war?”
“Without Warning” truly takes a hyper-personal approach to individuals across all spectrums of nationality and societal standing during these trying times. Ultimately, the work humanizes a rather savage chapter in the history of man, through telling the history of a forgotten tragedy.
WHERE: La Jolla Riford Library, 7555 Draper Ave.
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 10 from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
CONTACT: 858-552-1657 or visit www.sandiego.gov/public-library/locations/branches/ljbranch.