by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)
About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.
My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.
Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.
After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.
We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother.
My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her. So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.
“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”
Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.
After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.
At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.
Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.
A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life.
The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.
Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.
“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.
“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”
My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac.
“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”
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 children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.