Tag Archives: coming of age

I Changed My Mind

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

I hated you.

I didn’t hate you at the beginning.

When I was a little girl … I guess you were pretty. I didn’t notice. I took you for granted.

Every Friday night, from the time I was old enough to sit with my family at the dinner table, which looked the same each week—white linen, matching china, glistening silverware and sparkling glasses—there you were in all your splendor, the two and a half foot silver candelabra in the center of the table. With your graceful four ornate sculptured arms and the eagle at your center reaching to the heavens, you looked ready to soar. That was you. I was too young to appreciate you or your age.

You were conceived, hand crafted, circa 1860, in Austria-Hungry. My father, the youngest of five children, inherited you. He brought you into his marriage and treasured you, his only family memento. You were old the first time I saw you but what did I know?

Before sunset each Friday, my Papa came home with a bouquet of flowers. My older brother and I washed our hands and sat at the Shabbat table. Mutti lit the candles, said a prayer; Papa followed, cutting the chalah and chanting the appropriate blessing. After the amen, we ate the customary meal: gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup and of course … the roasted chicken. The vegetables varied from week to week and so did the dessert; usually it was stewed fruit compote, apple cake, cookies and tea. Cold seltzer in a spritzer bottle (it was fun to pump) and wine for the adults was always on the table.

I didn’t hate you when I was little. You were just there … like a piece of furniture or a painting on our dining room wall. I had no personal relationship with you then. That changed when I became a teenager.

The chore my mother gave me, from the time I was thirteen, was to polish you every Thursday afternoon so that you would shine on Friday night when the four candles on your winged arms were lit. By then I was old enough to see how grand you were. But polishing you was another story.

It was not fun. Did you realize that the candles dripped on you and hardened? Your body had over a dozen pieces that fit into each other. Polishing you took over an hour. I wanted to do other things … even homework. But my job was not negotiable. I had to keep you shining for the Shabbat. And I did; until I got married, left my childhood home and you. One of my wedding presents was a beautiful, contemporary candelabra.

Of course I saw you whenever I visited my parents. By then I was an adult and admired your beauty. You were and still are stunning. Who polished you after I left? It was no longer my concern. I was free.

But nothing is forever. Many years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, he presented me with his family heirloom. Papa wanted you to remain in our family. I was overcome by the gift. At that time I was in my fifties and lived in an apartment in Miami, facing Biscayne Bay. The view was breathtaking. I displayed you in my living room on a beautiful oak cabinet that my son, Jeffrey, had built for me. You stood out like a prized possession, which you still are. People took notice of you the moment they stepped into my home. You were gorgeous.

My freedom didn’t last. I was back to polishing you. However, the feeling was different; I was older, smarter and loved you. But … there is a big “but.” After two years, the salt air from Biscayne Bay damaged your silver. It pitted you like a skin rash. You looked sad. I wasn’t going to ignore your condition. I was your caretaker. Through research and recommendation I found an expert who came to my aid. In 1975, I paid $400 to have you re-silvered and treated. The maven promised that I would never have to polish you again. That sounded like beautiful music.

Decades passed. I became irreligious and didn’t light your candles weekly. But you retained the place of honor in my home. I always loved Jewish traditions and on each holiday you glowed. My favorite simcha is the Passover Seder when I invite eighteen people to dinner. (The number signifies life in Hebrew.)

When my daughter, Susie, realized your monetary worth, she recommended that I store you in the attic in case of theft. I wouldn’t hear of it. What is the point of having something so beautiful and not being able to enjoy it?

This week I polished you. On Saturday I will again have eighteen people at my Seder table. All the food and desserts are homemade … with love.

I took a serious look at you while I was sprucing you up. I, almost half your age, am of advanced age. You’re an antique and I, an octogenarian. We have a common bond … we’ve aged. Your arms are shaky and my legs wobbly. You, newly polished and shiny, and I, with makeup and extra mascara, are still good looking.

I love you.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as fashion designer for forty years.

A writer as well as an artist and designer, Helga 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. She has also contributed stories to anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways and various magazines. The most recent collection, We Were There, 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 (offered at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus).

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Berlin afternoon

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I was on my way home from school that wintry day. It was a long walk for an eight-year-old carrying a school bag and a lunch box. That day it seemed even longer because there was no one to walk with.

Most days my mother came to pick me up at school and walk me home. This day something had prevented her from coming.

In my childhood memories of Berlin I see empty streets lining endless blocks of grey tall apartment houses. The buildings cast dark shadows onto sidewalks where no trees grew. I see no people on the streets, only a silent landscape of hard grey shapes.

When I look at a map now, so many years later, I find street names long forgotten. Suddenly the names are back and I remember the streets on which I walked daily on my way home from school.

I didn’t mind being by myself. I was always a bit of a dreamer and thought of all sorts of lovely things when I was alone, thoughts that could not run around in my head if someone was talking to me.

Adults always tell children, “do this,” or “don’t do that,” even on walks. I suppose children must do what they are told. I was told not to talk to strangers on the street, and I never disobeyed that admonition willingly. Yet, that afternoon …

I was daydreaming when someone appeared at my side and started talking to me. It was a young blond German man, but I couldn’t tell how old he might be. He suddenly came out of nowhere. I wasn’t even aware know how long he had been walking and talking with me.

“Little girl, I need some help,” he said. “You look as if you are just the person to help me.”

I was startled when he put his hand on my shoulder, but he continued to speak as he walked with me.

“You look like such a nice little Jewish girl… you are Jewish, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Then I am sure you can help me to find Rabbi Silberstein who lives on this street. I have been looking for his name in most of the houses on this block. Do you know in which house he lives?”

I had no idea who Rabbi Silberstein was or where he lived. I did tell the man that I didn’t know. He was talking so fast I am sure he didn’t hear me. Or want to.

At that moment I became quite desperate. I wanted to run away, but I was afraid to be so impolite. The nice upbringing won out.

Within a few seconds he stopped at the front door of the nearest large apartment building and asked whether I would help him look inside. Once in the lobby, I noticed that he didn’t look at the large area of mailboxes where each box had a name affixed to it. I showed the mailboxes   to him.

“No, no,” he answered impatiently. “His name isn’t there. We must look on the second floor.”

He pointed to the large staircase and motioned for me to go ahead of him.

It got dark early that time of the year. I had never before been aware how dim the insides of those big apartment buildings were. The late afternoon sun filtered through the leaded glass panels on the landing barely enough to light up the stairs but left the rest of the building in semi-darkness.

The man pretended to look at the nameplate of every door on that floor. Then he shook his head again and pointed upstairs to the next floor, making me walk up ahead of him again. I thought of the punishment that awaited me at home if my mother found out about this.

I got a tight grip on my school bag and turned around to face the man who stood just a step below me on the stairs. I wanted to tell him I could not stay any longer to help him and that he would have to search by himself.

Suddenly, before I could say a word, he reached out, grabbed my waist, and knocked me down. In the darkness of the stairwell I couldn’t see his face but his heavy rapid breathing warned me that I must get away quickly. Like a trapped animal I felt a desperate urge to escape.

It was suddenly clear there was no Rabbi Silberstein in this house. The man had lied to me. Intense fear warned that I must get away quickly. In desperation I looked for an escape.

At the same time I was terribly angry. Hot anger boiled in me and gave me the strength I had not felt before.

I sat up, ducked, and ran right through the man’s legs, swiftly down three flights of stairs, and out of the house. Never looking back to see whether he was behind me, I did not stop running for at least ten blocks. When I finally reached home I darted into the house entrance, up the steps, and into our apartment.

Not until the door was closed securely behind me did I feel safe.

I rushed into my room and lay down on my bed. I cried and cried. When my mother questioned me, I told her the man had wanted to hurt me. I sobbed too hard to be coherent. She felt my head for a temperature and put me to bed for the rest of that day.

The scare did not pass easily. The next day I did not go to school, nor the next. I was calmer and could tell my mother some of the facts, but I was still afraid to go out on the street alone. Perhaps the man had found out where I lived and was outside waiting for me?

My mother finally went to the police without me. When she returned from the precinct station, she said the police had taken down her story and promised to look for the man who fitted the details.

She took off her coat and sat down in a chair next to the warm, safe bed I did not want to leave and talked to me. She fed me sips of hot tea. She looked sad and gazed past me out of the window into the winter sky.

My big pink teddy bear, dressed in my outgrown clothes, sat in another chair and listened, too.

I wondered what she had really been told at the police station. Perhaps they did not believe my story and said it must have been a child’s fantasy. Or did they care at all and had put her off politely?

I had always taken my problems to my mother, confident she would find the solution to them and set my world straight again. Her sad face suddenly revealed that my protector was not as strong as I had always believed. That day I knew for the first time that my mother too, was vulnerable.

About six months later I thought I saw the man again.

My mother and I were with friends on a Sunday outing in Berlin’s Grunewald at an outdoor cafe where strollers stopped for coffee and cake after a hike through the woods.

My parents had recently decided to divorce. No one explained to me what that meant.

All I knew was that my father was no longer living with us. My mother and I now lived in a newer apartment complex in West Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Walking home the long blocks from my school on Bleibtreu-strasse to our new home took much longer. After that past winter’s episode I had been unhappy and withdrawn. When spring came she took me out often, hoping that fresh air and exercise would perk me up.

That Sunday afternoon we sat at a round table covered with a white cloth. The waitress had already brought our order. Suddenly I was aware of a pair of eyes looking my way. They were the eyes of a young, good-looking, blond German man who smiled in a way that was not nice at all. I could not understand that kind of smile, and I stiffened with fright.

I was not sure he was looking at me, or that he had even seen me, yet somehow I sensed he had recognized me and that his smile dared me to open my mouth.

“That’s him, that’s the man, “ I said to my mother. I pulled her hand to get her attention for she was talking to someone at our table.

“Mother, that’s the one.”

I was anxious to go home. Those staring eyes, that smirking smile had spoiled the Sunday outing for me.

During the months that followed there were several occasions when I thought I saw the man again, especially among crowds of people. Perhaps it was my imagination.

As time passed I could no longer completely recall his face. His eyes, however, stayed with me for a long, long time. Now, after many years, the eyes too, have disappeared from my memory. Only in an occasional nightmare do they still linger.

Just prior to the start of my third school year the Nazi regime decided its good German children should no longer be exposed to daily contact with undesirable minorities and permanently barred Jewish children from attending public school.

I did not mind at all that I could no longer go to school.

I was glad.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Jewish Identity: A Round-Trip Journey

by Donna Swarthout (Bozeman, MT)

A life-long discomfort with institutionalized Judaism is hard to shed once you reach the mid-life years. Sure, it’s great to keep an open mind, but there’s also the sense of not wanting to waste time on pursuits unlikely to enrich one’s life. Some of us narrow our options as we get older in a bargain to reduce the odds of having regrets.

Years of involvement with synagogue life had left me without a strong Jewish identity. This could be my own fault for not making a large enough personal investment, at least that’s what our rabbi and congregation president hinted at when we recently decided not to renew our annual membership. What was it that held us back? Years of trying to fit in, find meaning in the services, and carve out time and money for the responsibilities of membership had left us feeling….well, unfulfilled.

But something shifted when we moved to Germany in July of 2010. The vague contours of my Jewish identity gradually took on a clear shape. This was not a transformation of faith, but rather a return to the embrace of German Jewish culture, to the memories of my childhood when I was surrounded by relatives who all spoke with the same New York German Jewish accent and whose lives were a story from a faraway place that I could only imagine.

In a place where Jewish life had been all but extinguished, our family took part in building a new Jewish presence on German soil. A void was filled as I attended services in Berlin among people who shared my ancestry and my determination to revive a part of what had been lost. The sense of connection to Jewish traditions and rituals was present for me in a way that it had never been in the States, at least not since I had left the East Coast at the age of eight to become a California transplant.

Back in the States we were part of the melting pot of Jewish America. Despite all the benefits that come from our diversity, there was also something missing that I had never before been able to put my finger on. In Germany I realized that the missing element was a common cultural heritage that connects us.

As assimilated Americans, we have Jewish identity issues that German Jews don’t have. We come together to share Jewish rituals, but the feeling does not always or often run very deep. We remind ourselves that we come from a long historical tradition that must be kept alive, but we may not feel this in our bones. We worry about things like building funds and membership growth, but how do such pressures help build our Jewish identities?

It was the return to the States that cast a sharper light on the questions that I had struggled with for so long. The journey back to my roots had helped me to find the core of my Jewish identity, but the old doubts about how to lead a meaningful Jewish life resurfaced upon my return to Montana.

One of the first discussions I had with our rabbi after our return was about my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Olivia had been struggling for quite some time to decide if her coming of age ritual would be a bat mitzvah or something outside the Jewish faith. As I listened to the rabbi recite the long list of official guidelines, I was stunned to hear that she would be required to keep a punch card to mark her attendance at services. She would need to have ten punches on the card during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, with no free coffee or hot chocolate to reward her at the end!

I’m troubled by the image of my daughter holding up her punch card to the rabbi after Friday night services. Would my daughter really be more Jewish when the card was full? If she learned her Torah portion and the requisite prayers, why couldn’t she carve her own path to her bat mitzvah and Jewish adulthood? Wouldn’t a single profound experience at services be worth more than half a dozen boring ones? Judaism in America feels formulaic at times and the punch card rule symbolized a structure within which I often feel more constrained than inspired.

The end of a journey can bring emotions that range from elation to relief, from fulfillment to exhaustion. I returned from Berlin enriched by my involvement in one of the smallest, but fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. But I also had renewed feelings of ambivalence and doubt about my connection to American Judaism. Now I must weave these two strands of my Jewish self into a single thread of my identity. And I must not abandon the effort to find community amidst the melting pot of Jews in America.

Donna Swarthout lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle. Her work has appeared on The Jewish Writing ProjectAVIVA-berlin.de, Tikkun Daily, and in Tablet. This piece first appeared on Jewesses with Attitude (http://jwa.org/blog) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Jewish Women’s Archive.

 

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Sh’ma – On the Matter of Hearing

by Elliot Holin (Dresher, PA)

When I was a child, I loved hearing the phrase “Hero Israel” because it brought to mind such wonderful and powerful images of men riding horses across the desert, swords held high, whooping with delight, their robes billowing in the wind. I admit that my vocabulary was more limited then, but I am sure that the pictures in my mind were vivid. In time, my list of heroes expanded from Moses to Abraham, but I don’t think Aaron ever made it. He wasn’t even on the ‘B’ list, though I’m guessing that David might have been because the Goliath story was pretty cool.

You can imagine my stunned disbelief when adults got around to telling me it wasn’t “Hero Israel,” it was “Here, O Israel.” That called for a new way to frame the image, and so I quickly decided that it was a call to being somewhere, but where, exactly? Where is “here”? I understood it when the words were recited at our synagogue, but I also knew that friends of mine worshiped at other synagogues, so could “here” be “everywhere”? Yes! Now I understood what my parents and other adults meant when they told me that God was everywhere! Here, too, and there, as well! That certainly made the phrase that people said and sang with such fervor all the more personal. I mean, heroes from a distant past were one thing, but to say that God is “here” made the possibility of relationship with a God who cares so much to be “here” for me pretty dramatic and meaningful.

But then (here we go again), people told me that the word isn’t “Here,” it’s “Hear.” That was pretty deflating. I mean, I went from heroes, to God being “here,” to something that my parents told me I didn’t do very well. All of a sudden a word that had meaning suddenly sounded, well, parental and disapproving. “You’re not paying attention! Do you hear what I’m saying! Why do I have to repeat things three times?”

When I calmed down, I wondered what it was that I was supposed to hear. The sounds of the world around me? The words of Torah or prayers speaking to me? God addressing me? How would I know if what I was hearing was important? If it was, what was I supposed to do?

“Now hear this! Now hear this!” Like the sound of a submarine dive alarm blaring throughout my adolescence whenever girls entered a room, scaring me to death with their poise and grace, and rendering me mute most of the time that I was around them, all that I really heard was the sound of my heartbeat, pounding me into submission through embarrassment. I had no vocabulary around those giggling, pretty female forms, and so I entered a new phase of my life.

Later, when things sorted themselves out – by which I mean that my silence was often interpreted as introspection, an assumption that worked so totally to my advantage that if ever proof of a miracle was needed, well there you had it: a bull’s eye scored by a blind man shooting blanks –  I came to understand over time the difference between just hearing and really listening. It wasn’t a dramatic moment that brought me to that realization; it was more like years spent connecting the dots.

But here’s the interesting thing: in the midst of those journeys, I always considered myself to be one of the children of Israel, and that always made me feel special. I heard something right for me pretty early on. Then I listened to the wisdom of our sages throughout the ages, and my hearing got better.

Elliot Holin, a native of San Francisco, is the founding  rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. He is married with three sons, enjoys people, world travel, photography, and the San Francisco Giants and 49ers.

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My Grandmother’s Kitchen

By Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

My grandmother’s kitchen smelled of
allspice and cloves,
hot frying oil,
pungent sour salad
all mixed up with summer heat
and years of family dinners.

Give me the recipes,
Grandma, I begged
as I sniffed at the pots
on the old-fashioned stove.
She smiled her Mona Lisa smile
and told me to take
a glass of this,
a soup-plate of that,
mix it and fry it
and there it is;
no magic about
the nose teasing smells,
the tongue pleasing tastes.

But when I tried it
somehow mine wasn’t the same.
Perhaps my soup-plate
was too big or
too small.
The pinch of salt
she neglected to mention
made a difference
though not enough –
something was missing.
When I asked her why
she shrugged with innocence.

It took me years to discover
that the food she cooked
was her gift to us,
our inheritance,
her life reflected
in the shimmering oil
of the frying pan.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. You can visit her website for more information: www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/

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My Father Is Arrested

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

The knock on the door of our Berlin apartment came around five o’clock one dark morning in May of 1938.

It was the favorite time of day for the Gestapo to make house calls. Their victims were usually asleep and not many other people saw them at such an hour.

When my mother opened the door, two men in dark raincoats stood outside. One of them muttered, “Geheime Staatspolizei,” and pushed the door open and let himself and his partner in. Their clothing was as anonymous as their faces. Perhaps secret agents are picked for their faces. Only members of a Secret Service look like this, no matter what their country. No one ever remembers them afterwards.

We lived in a time of constant rumors, all of them threatening. Even I, a child, had recently heard of an impending roundup of Jewish men in our Berlin community. There would be a mass raid, a razzia. Why–and what was to happen later–no one knew. A pre-dawn knock on the door was dreaded, almost expected, that summer. The only speculation was for whom that knock would come and when. Yet when it came for us, it surprised my father and mother.

Inside the apartment, the agents confronted my father in the foyer and announced their orders for his arrest. My father asked permission to take a little of their time: he needed to shave and dress. There was no way of resisting.

Permission granted, one agent remained in the bathroom with him and took up a position by the window facing into the room. The other man stayed in the foyer with his back against the slightly open bathroom door.

I tried to be unobtrusive. From my spot in the small entrance hall, I peeked into the bathroom. Inside, I saw my father’s face in the mirror over the sink. I thought him calm and accepting. But I noticed how his hands shook while he freshened up.

My father had suffered several recent gall bladder attacks. My mother said it was bad nerves. Conditions in Berlin were more than favorable to nervous tensions that spring in 1938, especially if you were Jewish and in a prosperous business.

Now she went into the kitchen and got ready a dose of his medication. She came out holding a small bag in her hand and said he must be sure to take it with him. One of the agents remarked drily there would be little chance for using it.

I saw my mother’s eyes starting to blaze. I cowered as she turned on the two Gestapo agents. Fearlessly, she chastised them for barging in on our peaceful household at such an hour, for taking away an innocent man when everyone knew how wrong that was. How could they face their consciences performing such a mission?

I like to think the Gestapo men remembered that scene. I did, all of my life. It took incredible guts to speak out the way Mimi did. She remained lady-like, even in her scolding. But she certainly exploded that morning. She had good reason. The Gestapo men knew that, too.

In later years, when her health and mental strength failed, she was often afraid of things that seemed childish to outsiders. But I remembered Mimi’s courage and I recalled how she stood in the hallway of our fashionable apartment, wagging her finger under the nose of the Gestapo agent, backing him against our bathroom door. Would I have such guts were I put to the test?

That dark morning the man at the door just shrugged his shoulder while the other one inside the bathroom ignored her. None of that deterred her. “Where are you taking my husband?” she asked repeatedly until the second man finally answered.

“To the police station.”

The landing outside our apartment door was still dark when they took my father out. My father, wedged between both agents, turned to Mimi.

“I have a cousin in America. He lives in Louisville (he pronounced it Lewisville), in the state of Kentucky. Try to contact him and see if he can help.”

Mimi dressed quickly, then she helped me with my clothes. We began the rapid walk to the police station just a few short blocks away. Just as we arrived, breathless, at the precinct, several police vans pulled out. All the vans were fully loaded. The razzia had already produced sufficient results.

Inside the station Mimi asked again and again about the destination of those departing vehicles.

“Alexanderplatz,” was the desk sergeant’s brusque reply.

She decided we would follow them. A long taxi ride brought us to the center of Berlin. The driver stopped at a large, dark gray, forbidding-looking building. Threatening, just like the mood of everything else that morning.

Many years later I saw the dreaded headquarters of the Gestapo in a television newsreel. Even after many decades that view crystallized the special and horrible aura I once felt. I could not know what went on in that building, what unspeakable and excruciatingly painful torment people experienced there. What I sensed at age ten was that it was an evil place.

The day I entered it with Mimi, I saw a warren of dark corridors filled on either side with windowless, small, brown cubicles. In one such sparse hole in the wall I waited quietly at her side while Mimi faced a heavy-set official behind a desk. The chubby man rustled some papers pretending to look up my father’s name.

The prisoner, Leopold Nussbaum, he informed us, was on his way to an interrogation center, but the family would probably have some news from him within a few days.

Not encouraging information, yet the official was a shade kinder than others we had encountered on our way in. Why that was, I couldn’t tell. The way he looked at Mimi was definitely less insolent and arrogant.

We stood waiting for the streetcar at its Alexanderplatz stop. Buildings just as dismal and forbidding as the one we had just left surrounded the traffic-filled square. I glanced across the street at another evil-looking dark, tall structure. I felt Mimi shudder as she looked at it, too.

“The Volksgerichtshof,” she volunteered without my asking.

In later years I learned more about the People’s Court and its use by the Nazi regime.

Mimi might have known even then what kind of place it was. Few prisoners left it without an order for their execution, if they left the building alive at all.

The long ride home on the streetcar was bleak. Mimi looked discouraged and fearful. My feelings of course, were a reflection of hers. She was quiet and sad and barely spoke. It was May, yet everything around us was still gray and cold. It started to drizzle. Times were suddenly desperate. I had a dreadful sense of foreboding.

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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Ticket to New York

by Harry Lazarus (Tenafly, NJ)
Interviewed by Bruce Black

When I was growing up, I used to love listening to my grandfather, Harry Lazarus, z”l, retell  stories about his childhood in Zharnov and how he made his way to America. Before his death a number of years ago, I recorded one of our story-telling sessions in his apartment in Tenafly, NJ. In this segment, he describes how he made his way from Europe to America.

BB: So you came to the Jewish section of Berlin?

HL: I came there with another two boys, and the people came over and said, “What’s the matter with you?” And I told them the story that I ran away and I wanted to go back to Vienna.

And they said, “All right, we’ll buy you the ticket. You’ll go to Czechoslovakia and from there you’ll go to Vienna.”

And I said, “A ticket? That’s very nice.”

But when we came to Czechoslovakia, the inspectors looked up and asked, “Where’s your passport?”

I said, “I have no passport. I just got a worker’s book that shows I worked in Vienna.”

They said, “That’s not a passport.”

So they kept me there, again arrested in Czechoslovakia. If I wouldn’t have the book, the inspectors said they’d send me back to Poland. But I had the book showing that I had worked in Vienna, so they sent me back to Berlin.

They sent me back to Berlin with a soldier on the train. Back to Berlin.

BB: And when you got back to Berlin?

HL: I came back to Berlin and went again to the Jewish section, and they said, “All right, we’re going to buy you a ticket to go the other way through Dresden.”

They bought a ticket to go to Dresden. We went to Dresden. We went down, me and another boy, we had a few pieces bread, and we came there.

And we met a boy there, and I said, “You should smuggle us over to Vienna.”

And he said, “All right, I’ll go in and ask my father.”

If his father went along, he would smuggle us over to Vienna. Not to Vienna, but to the border. And that’s what happened, you know? He smuggled us over  the border, and then I took a train and went back to Vienna. And I was in Vienna.

That was the terrible time I had when I went to visit Zharnov.

BB: Where was your brother, Manny, during all of this?

HL: He was in Vienna. He didn’t go. I was the only one who went crazy.

BB: Did he know the trouble you were in?

HL: He didn’t know, but he found out when I came back to Vienna.

BB: Once you were back in Vienna, what did you do?

HL: A little while later we ran away to Paris.

BB: You and Manny? You didn’t need special papers to get to Paris?

HL: We couldn’t get passports. So, I bought a passport in a Polish consul. And that was my trouble. I bought a passport.

And the fellow says, “What should I write in?”

And I heard in America they needed engineers. So I told him, “Write in that I’m an engineer.” And Manny wrote in that he was a tailor. If I would write in that I am a baker, I would be safe. But I wrote in an engineer.

And I had the passport, you know. And in Paris we were about three months there. We kept on going to the consul and going again, and we had to wait, and every time he told us we needed something from America to prove that we got there somebody in the country.

We got letters from Izzy and everybody but the consul didn’t recognize it. So we were about three months in Paris and we spent a lot of money there. And then I decided, “Well, if we can’t go to America, we’re going to go to Canada.” So I got somebody, you know, and he made me out to go to Canada. I gave him some money, you know, and he made me up to go to Canada.

BB: So you went straight from Paris to Canada?

HL: We decided that we got a brother in England that we’re going to go to England to visit him and from England we’re going to go to Canada.

We came to England and he was very nice to us. He was a tailor, too, and Manny worked for him a little bit and me, I wanted to go there to work in a bakery, but I couldn’t do nothing.

Anyhow, we were there about two weeks and decided that we should go to Canada. We bought tickets, you know, to go to Canada. When we came to Canada, they let Manny out, they let my brother out, but me? They arrested me.

BB: Arrested you? Why?

HL: Because I wrote that I’m an engineer. They said, “What kind of engineer are you?” So they kept me back, and I was there, not just me, it was about fifty boys they kept back. We were in a prison, a house, and Manny wrote letters to Meir, to my brother Meir in New York.

He told him if they sent me back to Poland, they’d kill me.

So Meir was a very good person. He decided to come to Canada and take me out from there. He came to Canada, you know, he took me to the consul, and he said, “He’s in the bakery business and he’s all right.”

He said that he was going to take me into the bakery, but the Americans wouldn’t give me the okay to go there. Just because I said I was an engineer. They thought I was a liar, a Communist or something. They wouldn’t give me an entry visa.

So Meir paid for a lawyer to take me out. He paid $500 for the food while I was there, and he paid a lawyer $200 to take me out. And then I had to pay some money, you know, to a fellow to smuggle me over to America.

And that’s what it was. I went on the train and I went to a farmer about 4 o’clock in the morning and he put in a horse and wagon and he took me over.

I thought he was going to throw me down somewhere in the woods. It was winter, you know? But he took me over and he showed me the station, Over there, he said, you have to buy a ticket to New York.

That’s all I knew. Meir spent about $1,000, you know, my brother Meir. He spent about $1,000 to take me out of Canada.

When I came to the station, I said, “Ticket to New York.” And they gave me a ticket.

Next: Finding romance in New York…

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