Heinz Marchlowitz (23) and Richard Bomba (26) were two young German men who in 1938 were forced to make plans for a new life, choosing for the US. Marchlowitz is clearly a Jewish surname, and Bomba was also a not uncommon surname among Eastern European Jews, so it is highly likely they were trying to escape Nazi persection.
Richard was born in Berlin, and Heinz in Beuthen – once a German city with a significant Jewish population, and now the Polish city of Bytom. The Bytom Synagogue was burned down by Nazi SS and SA troopers during the Kristallnacht on 9–10 November 1938, and during World War II, the city’s Jewish community was liquidated via the first ever Holocaust transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was just a few weeks before Kristallnacht – when it was certainly a terrifying time to be Jewish and German – that Heinz and Richard made their escape by stowing away aboard an American ship. Contemporary news articles are not clear about where they departed from, but they got as far as South America before being discovered in the hold of the ship. They were arrested and placed on the US freight ship ‘Liberty’ which was sailing for Hamburg where they could be repatriated.
On the way to Germany, by this time it was October 1938, the Liberty docked at West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, where the men were locked in a cabin and placed formally in the custody of aliens officer, PC Charles Steadmen. Not long afterwards, Heinz and Richard disappeared. Newspapers later reported:
… they were locked in a cabin with a steel door and a padlock on the outside. Thomas Rutter, watchman on board the Liberty, said that the lock of the cabin in which the two men had been confined had been broken within twelve minutes, apparently with an iron bar. Somebody must have let them out.
The next morning, a number of ships in West India Docks were searched, but the men could not be found. This was not much of a surprise – there are countless places to hide in a large cargo ship, and perhaps they had already managed to climb over the dock wall and escape completely.
In fact, Heinz and Richard had found a place to hide in the hold of the British ship, ‘Jamaica Progress’, moored not far from the Liberty.
It is here that the men’s story and young lives came to a sad end. The hold of the Jamaica Progress was due to be fumigated – a common practice still carried out in order to destroy rodents, insects and other pests which might otherwise carry diseases between the different ports of call.
Before World War II, this was usually achieved with hydrogen cyanide gas. Ventilators were plugged with canvas, and gasmasked men released clouds of poisonous gas into the tightly closed hold of the vessel. Workers operating in pairs, with no man ever out of sight of another, dropped gas-emitting discs or emptied canisters (containing liquid which evaporated into gas) into the hold.
Harry Marner from Poplar, who was bo’sun on the Jamaica Progress, said that he had searched the hold before it was sealed, and fumigation procedures required also that warnings were shouted before the operation was commenced (later it was suggested that Heinz and Richard would not have understood the warnings anyway, as they did not speak any English). Satisfied that it was safe to do so, the fumigators went about their business of pouring the hydrogen cyanide fluid through the holes in the deck.
This is not the place to go into the effects of the inhalation of hydrogen cyanide gas on the human body, except to say that it is painful and lethal. If the men were ‘lucky’, they were dead within a few minutes.
Newspapers around the world reported the incident:
Later, an inquest was held at Poplar Coroner’s Court, and the coroner, Dr. R. B. Harvey Watt recorded a verdict of accidental death. The men were buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, and their burials are registered in the cemetery’s records.
I have no idea if their graves were marked and/or are still present, but if so, they deserve a visit. Heinz Marchlowitz and Richard Bomba were two young men, understandably trying to escape Nazi Germany, who died in a tragic accident in the dark hold of a ship miles from home.
A devastating irony of their deaths – which some readers would have spotted right away – is that they were killed by the type of gas which would later be used by the Nazis to murder approximately one million Jews and other prisoners in concentration camps – a cyanide-based pesticide for fumigation (Zyklon B in the case of the Nazis).
[ As for the ships Liberty and Jamaica Progress, both were torpedoed and sunk during World War II, with much loss of life. This story has no happy end. ]