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!