by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
We were both eleven years old that May in 1939 when my best friend Wolfgang and I told each other goodbye.
The late sun above the tall roofs of Berlin’s Kurfuerstendamm was starting to fade when we returned from our afternoon walk and stopped at the street corner near the apartment house where I lived.
Emma, Wolfgang’s elderly nanny, left us there for a few more minutes together while she started on her slow trip to his building a few blocks away. Wolfgang held Gustl, his brown-and-white cocker spaniel, on her leash.
Wolfgang, brown-eyed and dark-haired, was tall for his age. When he smiled, he was good-looking. He was often mischievous and got into trouble without trying. But he could also be very serious. Someday he would be a handsome man like his father.
The next day Wolfgang’s family was set to travel from Berlin to Hamburg. From there they planned to embark for Cuba on a ship of the Hamburg-America line.
For the past year and a half Wolfgang and I had attended the same private school.
I enjoyed being with him. Every day he and Emma stopped for me before she walked us some distance to the Ferbelliner Platz where we boarded the streetcar to its last stop. Goldschmidt Schule was located at the corner of Roseneck in the Grunewald.
We did not attend the same classes, but we became inseparable after school. Every day we returned on the tram to be met by his nanny and Gustl. We spent afternoons and early evenings, sometimes even suppers, together at his house until the three of them walked me home before dark. Wolfgang and I grew close and in our unsupervised conversations often pledged we would always remain that way. We never believed that anything could part us.
Emma always wore the regional costume of the Spreewald where she came from. The many layers of petticoats under her black skirts, the tightly-laced colorful vest, and the elongated headcovering with its veil trailing halfway down her back never failed to draw the attention of onlookers we met on our way to the tram stop.
Our school days ended unexpectedly on the morning a group of brown-shirted troopers marched into the building and escorted us outside. They lined everyone up on the sidewalk in front of the school and made us watch the flames curl around Goldschmidt’s facade. The gleeful expression on some SA men’s faces left little doubt about the fire’s origin. Even the youngest student sensed what was happening.
It felt strange to ride the streetcar back home so much earlier than usual. We were both quite hungry and ate the sandwiches from our lunchboxes on the tram. Because of the morning’s events we had skipped lunch recess. We were agitated for still another reason. The fire had forced the school staff to leave along with the student body. No one could call our parents to meet us. That day we worried they would be angry to have us walk that long stretch by ourselves.
After that, no more school.
Now, as he held Gustl’s leash tightly, Wolfgang stretched his other hand out to me.
“Don’t look so sad,” he comforted me. “As soon as we land in Havana I will send you our new address and we can write each other.”
But I was sad. I had seen too many people I knew leave Berlin that year. Too many goodbyes are hard to take, even when you are very young.
“I know you will write whenever you can, but I will still miss our afternoon walks.”
This saddened Wolfgang, too. He looked down at Gustl whose golden curly hair shone in the late afternoon sun. He bent down and gently stroked her long silky ears. Gustl, the companion of our walks, would be left behind. Immigration quotas did not include pet dogs. Wolfgang’s father had arranged for Gustl to live with Emma who was retiring to her native village deep in the heart of Germany.
Despite the upcoming separation from Gustl, Wolfgang tried hard to be cheerful.
“It’ll be exciting to sail aboard such a large ship. We will practice Spanish on the way. Can you imagine my grandmother learning Spanish?”
We both giggled. Wolfgang’s grandmother — like mine — was proud and regal and tried to imitate the style of the English Queen Mary.
“Of course, we won’t be in Cuba long. When our American visas are approved we’ll go there. Someday, who knows, you and I will meet again.”
I nodded, wanting to believe him. Within a few days my mother and I, too, would leave Berlin on the journey to our new home. We were more fortunate: our visas were already approved and we would travel to the United States directly.
“I don’t want to go back to our apartment yet. Everything is so uncomfortable, with most of the furniture gone and all the suitcases standing around,” Wolfgang said. “And my mother has her nervous headaches again.”
“It’s the same way at our apartment. Most of the furniture is sold, but we’re not packed yet. There isn’t one soft chair left to sit in.”
“Will you walk me back to my corner once more?” he asked. “We could talk a little longer that way.”
I was glad to. I didn’t want to go home, either.
We tried to prolong it, but finally the moment came when I petted Gustl’s shiny coat and shook Wolfgang’s hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I knew such girl stuff would embarrass him.
“When it’s your turn, have a good journey, too,” he said.
I thanked him. “Oh, what’s the name of your ship?” I asked before he turned to go.
“The St. Louis. Mach’s gut.”
He walked away. Only Gustl turned her head and looked back at me once more.
Wolfgang kept his word. Within a few days I received a post card from Hamburg with a picture of his ship on it. The card was postmarked May 13, 1939, his sailing date.
“We’re hoping for a wonderful trip,” he wrote. “My parents and I wish you the same.”
I thought of him often later that month when my mother and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on our own journey. By this time his ship was due to have landed in Havana and I wondered how it felt to be in sunny, romantic Cuba.
A few days after we arrived in Louisville to a joyous reunion with my father the picture of a ship appeared on the front page of the local newspaper.
The caption read “SS.St.Louis refused landing permission in Cuba. 930 Jewish refugees face certain doom if returned to Germany.”
The month of June brought hotter weather than we had expected. There was so much else to get used to — a new language, new faces, new surroundings.
I sat on the front steps of the house where we now lived, speaking to no one. When it was too hot outside, I came in and sat some more.
“Eat a little something,” my mother urged often. But I wasn’t hungry.
“Why is she so quiet?” a new neighbor asked my mother.
“It’s the hot weather. We are not used to these high summer temperatures in Europe,” Mimi answered. But she knew the real reason and did not tell.
The story of the St. Louis stayed news for only a few days. When she sailed out of Cuban waters — after no country in the West accepted her cargo of refugees — she lingered near Miami…hopefully. Then she finally turned back toward Europe.
I waited for the paperboy every afternoon, but the press had dropped any mention of the ship’s fate.
On the September day when news came of Poland’s invasion by Germany, Mimi and I sat at our small kitchen table and cried. Now it seemed certain that contact between us and our relatives and friends in Europe had been lost, perhaps forever.
Sometime during that fall a letter arrived for me from Paris. The Red Cross had been able to find Wolfgang.
“We were lucky, after all,” he wrote. “France took in many of us. It was a long trip. We thought it would never end. Now we live in the Rue Constantinople. We’re on the top floor and from our window we can see the Place d’Etoile and the Champs Elysee behind it. We hope you and your parents are well. I think of you often.”
I started school in Louisville. The first few months were hard for me. Everything was so totally different. I was homesick a lot. Perhaps I really did not question what I was homesick for since nothing I had known existed anymore. I carried Wolfgang’s letter in my pocket. Sometimes, while I was in the schoolyard and the other children played their recess games, I leaned against a wall and read the letter.
Another few months passed, and then a second letter arrived. It was postmarked Limoges, France.
“The Jewish Committee sent us here to be safe in case the war spreads. Limoges is very beautiful. They make china here. But we liked it in Paris and wish we could have stayed there while we wait to enter the United States. Now we must hope the war will end soon. My father and my grandmother are well. My mother worries a lot and suffers from headaches.”
I wrote back, sent good wishes from my family, and said we hoped to see all of them again before long. I told him the American people seemed to understand how bad things were with Jews in Europe and would make it possible for them to enter this country. “Everybody here is very nice. We have been helped to a new start. The same will happen to you when you come here.”
In June 1940, France fell to the Germans. The radio spoke of fleeing refugees camping by the roadside. The newspapers showed photographs of the miseries of war. The Vichy government turned over the Jews of France to the invading Nazis. In our synagogue special prayers were said for those Jews trapped in the Occupation zone.
Once more I tried to find my friend. I wrote directly to the mayor of the city of Limoges and asked for his help in locating Wolfgang’s family.
Many months went by. One day an official-looking letter from France arrived at our house.
“Our records do not show that any family by the name you mention ever resided in the city of Limoges. I regret we cannot help you.” It was signed: The Mayor.
I knew then Wolfgang would not write again.
Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.