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The White Star Line that owned the Titanic paid Marcelle’s passage to America on the Oceanic, so that she could personally claim her children. There was some suspicion of whether Marcelle was truly their mother. However, when Madame Navratil arrived on May 16, New York was impressed.

 

Marcelle Navratil was 21 years old, Italian, “and as pretty as the two children whom even the sea spared,” the papers wrote. “She is rather slender, lithe and graceful, with a wealth of lustrous black hair, big brown eyes, and a complexion of peach-bloom. She wore deep morning, and dark shadows under her eyes told of many days and nights of yearning she had spent for her children since first she learned of their fate and came to recover them in a strange land.”

Marcelle Navratil

 

The reporters learned Marcelle had socialized very little on her voyage, except with one American woman who spoke fluent French. She had been consumed with worry that her young sons would not recognize her.

Madame Navratil was detained only a short time by customs formalities about her baggage she had only two pieces, a small suitcase and a little valise. Her reunion with the children was picturesque. The door was flung open and the boys’ reaction showed she was indeed their mother. “Mes enfants!” she cried. “Mes petits.”

Michel was sitting in the corner of the window seat, with a big pictured alphabet book in his lap. The little one was scrambling over the floor awkwardly trying to piece together a puzzle picture, and crowing contentedly to himself the while in a language no one else could understand. “A growing wonder spread across over the already serious little face of the bigger boy, while the little one, stared in wide-eyed bewilderment at the figure in the doorway.”

Edmond

 

Edmond let out one long wail and ran with tiny outstretched arms to his mother. The mother was trembling with sobs and she ran forward and picked up her boys. Little Edmond cried, “Oh Maman! Oh Maman!” As if his heart would break, while Michel cried softly. Madame Navratil and her two boys were left alone in the room for nearly an hour.

Later, Madame Navratil declared to “la presse” that she had not asked the children a single word about their experience on shipboard or thereafter, nor about their father, who had parted with them on the titanic and gone to his death with the ship. “I do not want them to think about that,” she said. “They must be only happy from now on—only happy; no more distress.”

The White Star Line paid for their passage home to Nice, France at the end of May.

 

This is Part 2 of The Waifs of the Sea. Read Part 1 here!

Michel Navratil, Sr. died during the night. His body was found floating in the Atlantic the next day and taken to Nova Scotia, with many other fatalities. He was identified as the passenger Louis Hoffman, and based on his last name, officials assumed he was Jewish. His body was taken to the Jewish cemetery in Halifax.

Michel Navratil, Sr.

 

His sons were amongst the 705 passengers who were rescued on the Carpathia. The boys were placed in a mail sack and hauled up the side of the Carpathia. When the ship docked in New York on April 18, no one knew who the little boys were, but there was wide-spread suspicion the children were traveling under assumed names.

A young woman named Miss Margaret Hays took the boys home with her until some of their family could be found. Margaret Hays had been a first-class passenger on the Titanic, and she spoke fluent French. The boys spoke French and chattered together but Margaret could learn nothing about who they were from them, not even their names. This was very difficult for the authorities who were trying to restore the boys to their families. They could not or would not give their names, nor say whether their father was Louis Hoffman. Margaret took to calling the boys by nicknames. Michel was “Louis” and Edmond was “Lump”.

The French consul in New York came to see the boys but came away none the wiser. To each question he asked of the older boy, the child merely replied, “Oui.”

Is your name Louis? Oui. Is your name Paul? Oui. What city did you come from? Oui. Do you remember traveling on the big boat? Oui.

Someone who lacked any sense of the ironic gave the boys tin boats to play with, and they loved their new toys. The newspapers hastily invented a story to fill the gaps in what was known of the boys. They probably boarded at Cherbourg, they speculated, and came from an upper crust family.


Margaret Hays was engaged and would be married soon, and she had no intention of keeping the boys herself, though she had grown fond of them. If no one came forward to claim them, she had already promised to send them to a Montreal couple that wished to adopt them.

Several papers wrote of a man named Frank Lefebre, a recent immigrant from France who was living in Centerville, Iowa. Lefebre had a wife and four children in France, and he had been working for a year to fund their passage to America. He had not heard from his wife, and thought his family must have been on the Titanic, and only two of his sons had escaped. He had seen the pictures of the boys and he thought they may be his own children.

 

At the same time, a special cable from Nice arrived. Marcelle Navratil had seen the photos of the lost waifs, as the paper called them, and was eager to claim her sons. Marcelle knew, of course, that Michel had kidnapped the children, but she had never suspected he would leave Europe with them.

Go to Part 3!

The early spring morning was chilly in Southampton. Michel Navratil, Sr. repressed a shiver and smiled down at his small sons.

Michel was a tailor and a Slovak by birth, though he had lived in France for some time. He had come to Nice to teach sewing classes and met his Italian wife Marcelle when she began taking classes with him. They had gone to London to elope, and the following year Michel, Jr. had been born. Two years later, Edmond followed.

He crouched down next to the boys, straightening their clothes, and reassuring them by saying what a fine time they would have on the steam ship. Michel, Jr., 3½, and Edmond, 2, seemed bewildered. The frequent angry outbursts between their parents had given way to a series of rapid changes in their lives. First, their father had moved out of their home, then they were shuttled back and forth between he and their mother for a few months, and now they had been ripped away from France altogether.

Their father told them they were going to America on a big boat called the Titanic, and reminded them they would have pretend names. He was Louis Hoffman and the boys were Lola and Momon Hoffman.

It was anything but a game. Michel Navratil had kidnapped his children, and was posing as a widower named Louis Hoffman with his two sons. After learning Marcelle had a lover, Michel moved out. Still burning with anger, and convinced his wife was incapable of raising the boys properly with the stigma of her infidelity, he decided to leave the country. And he would take Michel, Jr. and Edmond with him. He purchased tickets on the Titanic, in the second-class cabins. It was a bold plan, but he was a bold man.

On board, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Michel was reluctant to let the boys out of his sight. One night, he played cards with a few other men, and left them in the care of a nurse who spoke French.

Many years later, Michel recalled the fateful night the Titanic struck the iceberg. “My father entered our cabin where we were sleeping. He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms. A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”

Navratil put his sons in Collapsible D—the last lifeboat leaving the ship. His last words to his eldest son were: “You will convey all my affection to your mother.”

“I don’t recall being afraid; I remember the pleasure, really, of going plop into the life boat,” Michel, Jr. said.

There is some debate about little Michel’s memory. The newspapers reported that Michel, Sr. had rushed to the lifeboat with his sons. Michel, Jr. wore only a flannel shirt and Edmond was naked. The other passengers wrapped them in blankets and urged Michel, Sr. to get into the lifeboat but he refused, adding that the boys’ mother would be waiting for them.

Go to Part 2!