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.