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.
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.