Category Archives: Family history

If It’s Friday, It Must Be…

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

If it’s Friday, it must be chicken.  Our family’s Shabbat dinner in South Philadelphia was as ritualistic as Torah law.  The menu was chicken soup, vegetables (cooked in the soup), stewed chicken, challah, and dessert.  The day started with the purchase of the chicken.

The chicken store was one of the many storefronts, often mom and pop shops, that lined several blocks of Seventh Street, the shopping “mall” for South Philadelphia.  The shops on Seventh Street supplied all the necessities of daily living, from hammers to lingerie.  But on Friday morning the chicken store was the busiest, opening at 7 a.m., with some women, early risers, waiting in line for the indoor key to turn.

The chickens were also waiting, clucking nervously and pacing back and forth in their cages, as if they knew their final day had come.  The object of the buyers was to find the chicken with the fullest breasts, meaty thighs, and no visible flaws.  The women went to the cages and pushed their hands into the openings to find the chicken that met these requirements. I wondered how they could find what they were looking for through the flurry of feathers and bouncing chickens.  I was sure these fowls were insulted by this invasion of their privacy.

When the ladies found the chicken they wanted, they held onto its feet so it wouldn’t disappear into the crowd of identical looking poultry.   My mother was not among the early risers, so she had a harder time finding the appropriate bird. I started to accompany her for the chicken-choosing expedition when I was about ten, during school holidays and summers.  I worried that I might have to repeat this ritual when I was a grown-up with a family to feed.

The owner approached the cage, removed the chosen chicken, and handed it to the schochet (ritual slaughterer) for kosher decapitation.  This was done in a back room out of sight of the customers.  I thought about what my school friends said—headless chickens could still walk around—but I left that for myth and never tested it.

The headless chicken was then handed to a woman whose job was to remove the feathers and pinfeathers.  My cousin and I called her “the chicken flicker.”  The now decapitated, feather-free chicken found its way into a brown paper bag and was on its last journey.  The destination, our kitchen sink, then became a hub of activity.   My mother, who always found the flicking inadequate, used a tweezers to remove stubborn pinfeathers.  Although she asked me to help, I usually found an excuse to do something else.

The first task to cleaning the chicken, I knew, was to get out the insides.  I visualized this process on our walk home with distaste and averted my eyes at this surgery.  I marveled that my mother didn’t mind doing it.  I suppose she had no choice, but I never liked taking part in that process. The liver was turned into chopped liver which my father enjoyed the next day for lunch.  The chicken was then submerged in a pot of boiling water, accompanied by companions of carrots and celery, which hours later was transformed into our dinner soup.  Sometimes I watched the soup as it cooked, peering into the steaming pot.  The bright pieces of orange carrots seemed to dance toward each other like goldfish in a fountain.

When there was a non-fertilized egg inside the chicken, it was awarded to me at dinner as the older child. The tiny yellow ball was fuzzy like a miniature baseball. I had no idea of its abbreviated destiny.  The chicken parts were apportioned to the family according to seniority.  My father got the breast, my mother the thighs, my brother the wings and drumsticks, and I shared the thighs with my mother.   At the dinner table, the chicken had the company of the very soft carrots and celery and a boiled potato.  If my mother were ambitious that day, sometimes a kugel substituted for the potato.

Dessert was predictable: one week applesauce, the next week Jello.  Sometimes leftover chicken was transformed into chicken salad for a sandwich lunch the next day. But that wasn’t as absolute as chicken for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.

 

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

Perhaps due to my age, I was the only member of my family of four who had not been upset about unexpectedly leaving Berlin in April 1938. My parents kept their plans to emigrate a secret from me, fearing that I, a talkative child, might speak out and be heard by a Nazi. My brother, Eric, five years my senior, and I had opposite personalities. He was an introvert. For weeks he had known of the family’s plans and was treated as an adult. … and I …  as an afterthought.

I saw the horrors in the streets of Berlin, especially toward old, religious-looking Jewish men. Some were beaten, punched in the face, pulled by their long curly side-locks, flowing black robes, dragged by their legs through the streets or by the tzitzit of their prayer shawls. It made me shudder and wonder what the future held for Jews in Germany.

When walking in the street it was common to hear thunderous sounds from blocks away of soldiers marching in high brown shiny leather boots, displaying the swastika armband on their brown shirts, and waving flags while marching on the cobblestone pavements. Besides the noise of goose-stepping soldiers, the storm troopers sang their patriotic songs in high decibel. Knowing the Nazis would be within our sight in a few moments, Mutti always quickly pulled me into a building’s doorway in order not to be seen. It was mandatory to salute the flag or be instantly arrested.

“Mutti, when will this stop?” I asked innocently.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t know.” Mutti always seemed to know everything. With that realization, my perception of where I lived changed. To this day I cringe when hearing marching music, and I am wary of the display of flags. Nationalism frightens me. In my geography class in Berlin, I became intrigued about that fascinating land, America, “The land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.” I was a cynic, even at such an early age. I didn’t believe the gold part, but dreamed of living in “The Land of Opportunity” and freedom.

I was not made aware of my parents’ plans to leave Berlin and travel to America until a week before our departure. Suddenly, large wooden crates appeared in our living room. It was then that my parents finally explained their agenda. I was happy and excited to escape Hitlerland, but the timing was too abrupt. I questioned myself. How will we live there? I don’t know English. How will people understand me? I’ll feel stupid in school.

My main misgiving was how I would tell my best friend, Ruthchen, that I’m moving to America. We’d been close, like sisters, since kindergarten: half of our lives. How will I say goodbye to her? The most serious question in my mind was: Will I ever see her again?

The difficult job was to convince my parents that I must say Auf Wiedersehen to Ruthchen. In 1938, Jews in Germany were always on alert when outside the safety of their home. (A year later, after Kristallnacht, there were no secure places.) Both families discussed the request and finally agreed for Ruthchen and me to meet; possibly for the last time of our young lives.

After all these years, I can still conjure the image of my dearest friend standing with her mother on the platform of the Berlin train station for the last goodbye. Our mothers had lectured each of us to control our emotions. For young girls, not yet eleven-years-old, that was difficult. We were also instructed not to bring the usual farewell gifts of flowers and chocolates.

It was a cool and sunny day that April in Berlin when we met at the railroad terminal. I remember Ruthchen dressed in a wool pleated navy skirt and hand-knit light blue jacket (to match her big, sparkling eyes), her blond curls escaping from her beanie hat that framed her round, sweet face. I probably wore something similar.

I recall clearly how our mothers were attired. Both wore well-tailored dark wool suits. Each had a fox (the entire animal, from head to tail) draped nonchalantly over their shoulders. The mouth of the animal was fashioned into a clothespin, to which the tail was secured. That look both fascinated and abhorred me. When I was very young, I hoped that the animal with its soulful eyes would loosen the clip somehow and spring from Mutti’s shoulder to freedom. To complete the outfit, they wore Marlene Dietrich type felt fedoras, leather gloves, purses, and clunky, dark oxford shoes. The young matrons did not look out of place: it was the style of affluent women of the 1930s.

For our exodus, my parents decided to separate the family for security reasons. My father and brother were to follow my mother and me by train a week after our departure from Berlin. That was a frightening thought. I wanted us to be together. My imagination went wild with terror. What if Mutti and I got lost? I’d want to be with my father … he could always make me smile. My mother was serious with no sense of humor. Or, what if something happened to Papa and Eric? What would my mother and I do to help? A month ago we heard that Hitler had marched into Austria and occupied that country “peacefully.” What’s next?

The plan was to travel to Belgium and stay with relatives in Antwerp and Brussels for six weeks while waiting for our visas to the U.S. Two sisters–my mother’s first cousins; one family living in Antwerp with her husband and son, the other with her spouse and daughter in Brussels–had moved to Belgium to escape Hitler two years earlier. The sisters, like my mother, were born in the same shtetl and moved to Berlin after WWI. My cousins and I, all the same age, had been very close in Berlin.

Although both cities are in Belgium, the spoken language in Antwerp is Flemish and in Brussels, French. My ten-year-old cousin, Vera, in Brussels, felt superior to Ziggy, in Antwerp. She tormented him for not speaking French and emphasized that Flemish is a non-language. I didn’t like being the third wheel. “Why are you so mean to Ziggy? It’s not his fault that he lives in Antwerp.” “I don’t care. Flemish is a stupid language and he’s stupid, too.” I later learned that in 1941 there was a knock on the door, and Vera’s father was forced out of their house, arrested, and shipped to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, never to be heard from again. The rest of the family somehow survived the war and got to New York five years later. Vera and her mother were never the same free-spirited people again.

My six weeks in Belgium were a wonderful experience of new things and foods that we all had been craving due to years of rationing for Jews in Germany. After leaving Belgium, my parents, Eric, and I, were scheduled to travel to Paris. The land journey would end in Le Havre. There we’d set sail on the magnificent SS Normandie and be on our way to New York. In order for it to appear as if we were on holiday, my father bought round-trip tickets. My brother had studied English for the past three years and offered to teach me rudimentary phrases. I was thrilled.

Brussels and Antwerp were interesting cities, but nothing compared to the splendor of Paris. I loved watching people while sitting in cafes, eating al fresco, and smelling the perfume from the flowers in window boxes that seemed to be everywhere.

I was impressed by French women, who all tended to be slim and wore simple, elegant clothes. They were masters at draping scarves and making every outfit, no matter the price, look unique. It instilled a style I adopted and empowered me to become a dress designer, which I’d been dreaming about. By comparison, I found German and Belgium females were rounder, had no sense of style, and wore too much makeup and jewelry. I learned a lesson from the French: be classic, understated, and you will look like “a million dollars.” I liked that American expression.

Never will I forget the abundance of food of every kind, especially the meats. (Kosher meat had not been available for several years for us in Germany.) I must have had a grin on my face when I finally bit into the juicy hotdog that snapped with every bite and as the liquid ran down my arm. Mutti permitted me to have as many as I wished, knowing that eventually I’d have my fill. Even the mustard was luscious. Eating freshly baked butter-dripping croissants and crunchy warm baguettes every day was unforgettable.

My one regret: I wish I had been older to experience and understand more of the uniqueness of the trip. Even as a young child, I recognized that Paris was more vibrant, artsy, and sophisticated than Brussels, Antwerp, and even cosmopolitan Berlin. More important than the food I craved was the freedom of speaking in public … not worrying about being overheard by the Nazis. Unfortunately that changed after the war started.

I would not have objected to living in Paris, but America was waiting for me. I was ready,

A writer, artist, and fashion designer, Helga Harris has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune. and The Tampa Tribune. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways, and, most recently, We Were There, which was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever. She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota.

“Unexpected Departure, 1938” is an excerpt from her most recent memoir, There’s A Witch In My Room.

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen 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.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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A Savory Recipe

by Jane Ellen Glasser (Lighthouse Pt., FL)

        for my daughter on her 16th wedding anniversary

I would never have thought sixteen years

a sweet anniversary, a rejuvenation of love.

That was the year your father and I divorced.

          I was confused as a child watching Mother pour

          sugar on seasoned meat. Like her marriage,

          I knew some things didn’t belong together.

I have watched you and your husband

navigate differences, repair cracks and leaks

with the plug of sweet acceptance.

          After the meat was browned with onions,

          after the cup of sugar, Mother added in sour salt

          before simmering the meal stove-top for hours.

What I didn’t learn from my parents or my own failed

marriage, you have mastered: love’s work

takes opposites, sweet needing sour to grow a marriage.

          When the meat was tender, Mother

          thickened the sauce with ginger snaps.

          No one made a more savory brisket.

Just days ago, you hosted family and friends for a seder

on heirloom china. You served brisket and a recipe

for a loving marriage to pass down to your children.

Jane Ellen Glasser’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Hudson Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Reviewand Georgia Review. In the past she reviewed poetry books for the Virginian-Pilot, edited poetry for the Ghent Quarterly  and Lady Jane’s Miscellany, and co-founded the nonprofit arts organization and journal New Virginia Review.  She won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry 2005 for Light Persists and The Long Life won the Poetica Publishing Company Chapbook Contest in 2011. Her seventh poetry collection, In the Shadow of Paradise, appeared from FutureCycle Press in 2017. Her work may be previewed on her website: www.janeellenglasser.com

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, Passover, poetry

Water and Stone

by Aslan Cohen (Chicago, IL)

I never knew there was a real connection between laughter and death. To me, death was the solemnity of the shiva: covered mirrors, torn shirts, itchy beards. When I first visited my grandfather’s grave, I silently placed a small, unpolished stone above the black rectangle of his marble tombstone. Only rocks, in their mineral mutism, can adequately represent the congenital silence of our ancestors. I took that as a general truth. After all, only rocks remain.

Which is why I thought the goyim were so mistaken in using flowers. Most of the flower market in Av. Revolución, far from where the Jews live on the Western edge of Mexico City, consists of oversized funerary arrangements. People have them custom-made for their lost ones. And I just couldn’t understand how those kitschy amalgamations of colorful impermanence could be used to coronate the most serious thing in life.

Little did I know. Because many years later I went with some ‘goyim‘ friends of mine to the graveyard that is in Santa María del Tule, in the outskirts of the city of Oaxaca, on the Day of the Dead. It was an extremely humble place, about a five minutes walk from the Tree of Tule, a cypress of a species we call ahuehuete (which means “old man of the water” in Nahuatl), and which is said to be one of the oldest trees alive. If you go there you’ll find small children that, in exchange for a coin, will give you a tour of the shapes around its wide, wide trunk, and which included, when I was there, the ass of Shakira and the nose of Celia Cruz.

The path to the cemetery was adorned with long strings of petals, which, as I later found out, connect the individual graves with the particular house where the dead person used to live. Through this endless network of smells, life branches in and out of the cemetery, reminding us that our vane pursuits are nothing but a meaningless dance we perform during the short trajectory that goes from our doorposts to our graves.

I mention dance because there was music inside the cemetery. People danced to it in pairs. I remember there was a huge trombone playing with the band. The tunes were not particularly sad, but neither were they frivolous. Something in them captured the sweet-and-sour irony of the encounter of absence with life. This is the irony on which the Mexican Day of the Dead is predicated.

But the exact feeling it gave me is very hard to convey, especially because it was accompanied by the sight of whole families sitting in a circle around the place where their loved one had been buried, drinking and talking with the dead. They tell them about last year: a grandchild’s birthday, the departure of such-and-such who went looking for a job to the United States. They bring the dead their favorite meal. I saw apples and bottles of Coca-Cola over the tombstones. They placed them at the very same spot where I had once burdened my grandpa with a stone. I even saw a bottle of Corona in one of them.

And further down I saw a widow, a very old lady filled with wrinkles, who had brought nothing more than a single glass of water to share with her late husband. She told me that. And I remember being very moved. I am moved to this day. The images of that graveyard have been mostly blurred out from my mind, but I can still see the brown jícara (calabash) with still, transparent water enclosed in it. And I realize it is the very opposite of my grandpa’s stone. But, when all is said and done, they are really the same thing.

Aslan Cohen was born in Mexico City, where he grew up in the Syrian Jewish Community. Today he lives in Chicago with his wife, where he pursues a PhD in Biblical Literature at the University of Chicago.

 

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Family Gathering

by Carol Westreich Solomon (Montgomery Village, MD)

Past Pennsylvania farms, harvest-bare,
I drive to the cemetery
Where my uncle waits for my aunt
Beneath a half-empty headstone.
Next to me, Aunt Dellie rambles
About Yiddish class
Until crackling gravel announces our arrival.

“Come, so many to visit,” she says,
Scooping stones into my cupped hands.
She dips beneath the gate chain
Protecting the dead.
By height, tilt, shade,
She navigates the headstones
To those she’s come to see.

Her aunts.
Her sister.
Her father.
Her mother.
Plop go the stones, our calling cards.

Tucked among thinning headstones
Her grandmother’s grave.
Faint numbers record the length of her years
But not her strength
When a husband wanders.

Near my uncle’s grave, an alabaster headstone
Straight and proud,
Not yet buffeted by winter winds
Or chipped by mower-churned stones.
Cousin Linda.
“So young.  See all the stones.  They all came for Linda.”

“Who will come for me?”
She brushes dead grass from her husband’s headstone,
The ground uneven,
The marker leaning in.
No family gathering in granite awaits the rest of us.
Planes, schools, jobs
Have scattered us all.

Her reunion done,
Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands,
Then dips beneath the chain
Separating her from her loved ones.
Still, she invites them into my car
And they travel with us
For the rest of the day.

Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love–creative writing–after exploring literature and writing with high school students in Maryland.  As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing to adults in corporations and government agencies.  Her YA novel Imagining Katherin was designated a 2016 Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  Her work has also appeared in Lilith,  JewishFiction.net, Persimmon Tree, Poetica, Little Patuxent Review, Pen and Ink, The English Journal, and The Washington Post.

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The Watch

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

It sat under a glass bell in my china closet for many years, a slim gold watch meant to be worn on a man’s waistband. Whenever I looked at it, I remembered its original owner, my father’s older brother, my uncle Max.

Recently, a ray of sunlight landed on the contents of my china cabinet and fell directly on Uncle Max’s watch in its glass housing. Almost instantly I thought of its history: it had survived three concentration camps during its existence.

I was very fond of chubby, jolly Uncle Max, who called me “Kindchen” (little child) when I was young. I thought that he had forgotten my real name before I understood he meant the term as an endearment.

“What can I bring you the next time, Kindchen?” he’d say at the end of many a Sunday afternoon at Berlin’s Café Dobrin where he and my father met and I was invited to come along.

While the two men drank their coffee and talked, I walked over to the magazine rack where newspapers and magazines on long wooden handles were hung for the customers to read.

My favorite publication at that time was a magazine entitled “Simplicissimus.” It was a satiric political magazine of which I understood nothing except that I laughed at the cartoons it featured, all of them making fun of the political situation then current in Germany.

Suddenly, I remembered an evening long ago in in 1937 in our Berlin apartment. Uncle Max was visiting, and he and my father sat chatting in the upholstered lemon-wood chairs of our living room. Finally, Uncle Max pulled out the watch from his waistband and said: “I must leave. Tomorrow will be a busy day. And Elsa will be worrying about me being out this late.”

Elsa was Uncle Max’s gentile live-in girlfriend.

“But again, Leo,” he said, shaking his finger at my father, “Let me tell you. We have nothing to worry about. It is mainly foreigners they are arresting. Our family has lived in Germany for many generations. We are honorable, productive members of this country. Why would anyone want to do us harm? All these rumors about the Nazis coming after us are surely exaggerated.”

With these cheerful words Uncle Max put on his coat and left us.

I glanced at my father before the door closed. He was smiling. What a wonderful feeling it was to have so much optimism around us!

Early the following morning the telephone rang, and my mother picked it up. When she hung up, her normally rosy face was ashen as she turned to my father and me.

“That was Elsa…calling from a public phone. She could hardly speak, she was crying so hard. She said the package she expected last night had not been delivered. She was beside herself.”

My mother held on to a chair. All of us knew instantly: Uncle Max had been arrested.

We did not know where he was. We had no news whether he was even alive.

Before long we had our own frightful news. Around six o’clock on a May morning of 1938, two black-clad Gestapo men rang our apartment doorbell and arrested my father. He was sent to the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

While leaving our apartment door that frightening morning of his arrest, my father managed these words to my mother: “I have a cousin in America. He lives in a city called Louisville, but I have no address. See if you can find him and ask him to help us.”

The incredible next step was “beshert.” My mother’s letter to the mayor of Louisville reached the American cousin via a miraculous route. Our relative and his friend, the mayor, met once a week over a card game!

Shortly afterward a most desirable document arrived at our Berlin address containing an affidavit for my father to come to the United States. The document assured that he would never become a burden of the country since the cousin declared himself liable for his upkeep.

Once he reached the United States my father was able to send for my mother and me.

On May 26, 1939 at Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, one of the main train stations, we said goodbye to the rest of the family amidst tears. Everyone sensed we would not meet again.

During the autumn of 1939, the German invasion of Poland started the war in Europe. News of the loved ones we had left behind in Germany stopped. In Louisville my mother and I sat crying after every evening’s newscast, feeling we would never see our family again. My mother hoped her mother and sister would survive. My father wished his only sister and three brothers would make it through the war.

Eventually, with the income from my parents’ menial jobs and the help of our American cousin, we were able to purchase a house of our own in Louisville, a lovely home at 1638 Edenside across from Tyler Park. We moved in on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, a very important date in American history.

It would be a long time before the end of World War Two. The days seemed even longer without news of our family members.

On a quiet August Sunday afternoon in 1945 my parents and I were relaxing at home when suddenly my mother screamed from the living room where she sat reading.

“Leo, Ellen, come here and bring a magnifying glass. It’s in one of the kitchen drawers,” she yelled in an urgent voice. “Look at this!“ She pointed to the newspaper she was holding, the “Aufbau,” a publication aimed at German Jewish refugees living in the U.S. Her trembling hand pointed to the paper’s front page, to a photograph of a ship. “It’s Max! Your brother Max. He’s leaning over the railing of this ship.”

And there he was……Uncle Max on board an ocean liner named “Henry Gibbons.”

We looked over her shoulder and saw the following article beneath the photograph:

On June 12, 1944, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was established in Oswego, New York, by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be operated by the War Relocation Authority. Named “Safe Haven” It is the first and only refugee center established in the United States.

By August of 1944, the shelter has already received 982 refugees of predominantly Jewish descent and of various national backgrounds, especially Yugoslavian, Austrian, Polish, German and Czechoslovakian.

The refugees had undergone great trauma, and, as a result, needed to recuperate. Nearly 100 of the refugees had been imprisoned in Buchenwald or Dachau. Many of them had been refugees for 7 or 8 years, and almost all had suffered through food shortages, disease, torture and trauma. They arrived in the United States as part of a convoy of American ships traveling the Atlantic Ocean under wartime conditions. The largest ship among the convoy was the ocean liner “Henry Gibbons.”

The next day, a Monday, my father telephoned the “Aufbau” in New York and was able to consult a list of passengers arriving on the “Henry Gibbons.” The name of Max Nussbaum was on the list!

I saw tears run down my father’s face as he received the news. It was the first time I had seen him cry since the day he came home to us from Buchenwald.

The next outgoing call on our phone went to the ticket office of the Louisville-Nashville railroad. Within days my parents and I sat up in the coach section of the Oswego-bound train for the day-long, warm journey toward Canada.

We had wired the proper authorities at Ft. Ontario of our planned visit and requested permission for it. We had no idea what to expect of “Safe Haven,” so when our taxi left us off it was a shock to see a former army post still surrounded by its original barbed wire-topped fences that kept its inmates from leaving and its visitors from entering.

After sufficient clearance, Uncle Max was allowed to greet us in a front office and from there to lead us to his cell.

When he first walked toward us, I was shocked. The man I remembered from Berlin days was now completely bald with a black beret covering his head. He had lost much weight and was dressed in a loose-fitting dark garment. To me he looked more like a religious friar than my jolly, chubby uncle. In fact, had he worn a white outfit, he would have resembled Pope Francis.

He took us to his barrack where he invited us to sit down for a snack of tea and the cookies my father had bought him, even knowing Max was diabetic.

He had photographs of his parents on a shelf over his cot. On a folded man’s handkerchief next to the pictures I saw his watch.

“How did you get the watch past everyone, Uncle Max?” I asked him.

His face seemed to gain more color. “You shouldn’t ask that question, Kindchen,” he answered. “You wouldn’t like the answer.”

Uncle Max and my father sat on his cot as he told us his story. My mother and I made do with the two collapsible chairs in the barrack.

“… The Americans liberated us at Dachau on April 29, 1945. I think it was the Rainbow Division of the Seventh Army. They told us to get away as quickly as we could, to walk southward, and walk we did, toward Italy,” he continued his narrative. “Gradually, some dropped out from fatigue, others just fell down and had no more strength. They were left behind. Several of us walked through most of Italy. We stopped only when we found a cave where we could sleep at night. At times we walked alone and were stopped by Italian carabinieri who wanted to arrest us. I spoke no Italian, so I pretended to be a deaf-mute and it worked. Especially since I looked like a beggar.

“I did not know that the Americans had a plan for us after liberating us from Dachau. But President Roosevelt had ordered for many of us who were homeless and had no place to return to be sent to this place here in America until the war was over. Most of us were gathered in Naples. I guess that’s why the American soldiers who liberated us told us to walk toward Italy. In a little town called Aversa an abandoned insane asylum had stood empty for some time. That’s where they took us to wait until we could be brought to America. And that’s where we stayed for over a year until enough of us refugees had been gathered for the sailing. From Aversa they took us to Naples where we boarded the “Henry Gibbons” and the seventeen days’ sail.

“And now this is the third time I am in a camp. Why”

We listened to his plaintive question and attempted to make plans for my uncle’s future, which turned out to be in Bogota, Colombia, where my cousin Kurt (Uncle Max’s nephew), furnished an apartment for him and took him in as a “silent partner” in his business. “Senor Max” spoke not a word of Spanish but sat behind a desk in the “officinal,” beloved by all the staff who could not communicate with him but were gratified by his smiles to their attempts at communication.

Uncle Max died in Bogota and was buried in the Jewish cemetery there. During his next visit to the United States, my cousin gave me the watch to keep for its family value.

I have since passed it on to my older son as a reminder of one segment of our family’s story. The watch is still ticking.

Born in Germany, Ellen 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.

 

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