A nostalgic love story

San Jose Island

This post is also available in: Spanish

On-the-Water by Ilene Little

This holiday season I thought I’d tell the story of a young German girl who ran away from her home in Germany to sail away to Panama with a sailor, where she eventually settled on San Jose Island in the Perlas Archipelago, until she returned home to her homeland in 2012. It’s a favorite tale told by Panamanian yachtsmen familiar with San Jose Island

San Jose Island is the second largest of the Pearl Islands, located on the south end of the archipelago, in the Bay of Panama.

San Jose Island

Greda’s sailor was Dieter Leve and they ran away in 1945 and sailed across the world ending up on a deserted island in Panama. You might say this woman’s story is the true “Survivor Reality” story; no cameras, no support team standing by to rescue you from dehydration or starvation or disease. No safety net at all. Just a leap of faith.

Here is the story as told to me by Les Auchincloss, who visited Greda Leve twice in 2011, a few months after her husband Dieter passed away.

Dieter Leve.

Dieter Leve.

“In 2011, myself and three friends were sailing in this area and we heard about this couple living on the island so we decided to call in and meet them. I rowed to shore, and this lady came down out of a hut and welcomed us ashore and asked ‘why don’t you come up and have a coffee?’ off we went up a very tortuous little path up to a higher level on the island,” said Auchincloss.

“We saw she was living in what was essentially a tin shack that had been thrown together with bits of wood and bits of this and that. She served us with a lime-flavored gin that she had distilled herself, then she told us her very interesting story.”

“Greda Leve was from Hamburg, Germany. Towards the end of WWII, when they were all starving, she went to work on a farm where at least, there would be something to eat. She must have been around 15 years old, or younger, at the time.”

“She finally married the farmer, a former Nazi, with whom she had two children but when he began brutalizing her she started an affair with a farm equipment salesman”

“One morning the salesman phoned and told her ‘I have bought a boat, and I’m leaving today. Do you want to come with me?’ She said ‘Okay,’ packed a bag, left a note to her children and walked off the farm forever.” That’s what we call taking a ‘leap of faith’.

Greda and Dieter Leve’s home porch and dining area, San Jose Island, Panama.

Greda and Dieter Leve’s home porch and dining area, San Jose Island, Panama.

“Dieter and Greda sailed all over the world in their 28’ steel ketch named Seeferdchen (Little Sea Horse).”

“Finally, they ended up in Panama on San Jose Island, where during WWII the Americans had carried out chemical warfare tests. In those days, no one was supposed to live there,” said Auchincloss.

“The Leves found a freshwater stream and decided to go ashore and set up camp,”.

“For over fifty years, the couple survived on the island by living off the land and the sea. They started their homestead version of farming. They got three sheep from somewhere in Colombia, and the sheep started to multiply. When we were there in 2011, Greda had about 30 sheep,” said Auchincloss.

Dieter Leve’s home on San Jose Island, Panama

Dieter Leve’s home on San Jose Island, Panama.

“They had planted an orchard, so there were avocadoes, oranges, grapefruit and other kinds of fruit growing there. And she had a dog that looked like a Rottweiler she described as ‘very useful because he goes hunting and brings me animals to eat,’” Auchincloss said.

“On that visit, Greda said her husband had died about four or five months previously, so she was living out there alone. She said she was 64, but she must have been much older than that,” said Auchincloss. “She told me that after her husband had died, she and her children were in contact. They were telling her to return to Hamburg”

Today Greda is back in Hamburg. She returned to Germany in 2012, and has since remarried and is reunited with her son and two daughters after half a century.

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