Tag Archives: refugees

Lisa and Stanley

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Shortly after the end of World War Two, I received an excited call from my husband’s Aunt Frima. Her voice was shaking with urgency as she told me, “I have a niece in Russia who wants to contact me. I never even knew her.”

The contact was an example of serendipity.  A young Jewish soldier from Brooklyn was determined to reunite as many Jewish families as he could, as passionate to do this as was his mother in Brooklyn. Lisa told him she had an aunt in Philadelphia. She knew her last name but that was all. He sent his mother Lisa’s scant contact information, and his mother placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper that served the Jewish community. One of Aunt Frima’s daughters saw the notice and asked her mother, “Do you have a niece in Russia named Lisa? She’s looking for you.” That started the ball rolling

My husband’s Aunt Frima and his Uncle Ben had been in America as immigrants for many years. They had five American born daughters and lived  a normal middle class life. When I was married to their nephew, we became part of each others families. She was particularly fond of me because I could speak Yiddish with her. She and Uncle Ben came often to our home for holiday meals. Aunt Frima was kosher so she brought her own food.  Uncle Ben ate what she brought and also what I made.

Lisa, 32, was widowed and the mother of two small children. She was evacuated from Moscow when the German army invaded Russia. A day after the invasion in 1941, the Soviets established a makeshift evacuation program to move Soviet citizens from major cities and the probabilities of German bombings. Tashkent in Uzbekistan, 1734 miles from Moscow, was targeted as the site. Lisa and her two small children were among the evacuees. Tashkent had become a makeshift refugee center, and Lisa and her family settled in with primitive housekeeping facilities, hoping the city would escape German occupation, and she prayed for peace.

Stanley, a single, unattached male, was also evacuated from Moscow to Tashkent. Stanley was a loner, a quiet intellectual with an absorbing profession. He restrung fine violins with horse tail hair for violinists all over the world. The war halted his business and he, too, wondered what his life would be like after Tashkent. Lisa and Stanley met and a romance developed in the detritus of the camp. They both wanted to emigrate to the States.

As was necessary, Lisa needed a sponsor in America to facilitate immigration. Aunt Frima and Uncle Ben accepted that role, and, with the help of their daughters, the flurry of paper work and bureaucracy began. After about a year, Lisa, Stanley and her children  arrived in West Philadelphia on Aunt Frima’s doorstep. She called me to say, “They’re very tired now but come here tomorrow to meet them.” I did and found Lisa and Stanley sitting stiffly and stone faced on a blue velvet sofa. I could understand their apprehension of this new life. How long could they stay in this house? How would they support themselves? Had they left familiarity for the unknown? Lisa had assured her aunt that she and Stanley had been legitimately married in Tashkent, but Aunt Frima was skeptical. She insisted on taking them to a rabbi to witness an official Jewish wedding.

They were quickly integrated into the entire family and turned out to be warm, intelligent and helpful. Although extremely grateful for Aunt Frima’s willingness to sponsor and facilitate their repaired lives, Stanley and Lisa knew they must find ways to take charge of themselves. Stanley got a job selling hot dogs at the Philadelphia baseball park and Lisa worked in a hat factory.  Eventually, Stanley was able to return to his unique profession, and Lisa became a designer in the hat factory.  They prospered and eventually retired to Florida.

I was very fond of them, and we became friends as well as family.  They were so grateful to be given a new chance in America. And I was grateful to have them part of my life.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

The View from the Rue Constantinople

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

We were both eleven years old that May in 1939 when my best friend Wolfgang and I told each other goodbye.

The late sun above the tall roofs of Berlin’s Kurfuerstendamm was starting to fade when we returned from our afternoon walk and stopped at the street corner near the apartment house where I lived.

Emma, Wolfgang’s elderly nanny, left us there for a few more minutes together while she started on her slow trip to his building a few blocks away. Wolfgang held Gustl, his brown-and-white cocker spaniel, on her leash.

Wolfgang, brown-eyed and dark-haired, was tall for his age. When he smiled, he was good-looking. He was often mischievous and got into trouble without trying. But he could also be very serious. Someday he would be a handsome man like his father.

The next day Wolfgang’s family was set to travel from Berlin to Hamburg. From there they planned to embark for Cuba on a ship of the Hamburg-America line.

For the past year and a half Wolfgang and I had attended the same private school.

I enjoyed being with him. Every day he and Emma stopped for me before she walked us some distance to the Ferbelliner Platz where we boarded the streetcar to its last stop. Goldschmidt Schule was located at the corner of Roseneck in the Grunewald.

We did not attend the same classes, but we became inseparable after school. Every day we returned on the tram to be met by his nanny and Gustl. We spent afternoons and early evenings, sometimes even suppers, together at his house until the three of them walked me home before dark. Wolfgang and I grew close and in our unsupervised conversations often pledged we would always remain that way. We never believed that anything could part us.

Emma always wore the regional costume of the Spreewald where she came from. The many layers of petticoats under her black skirts, the tightly-laced colorful vest, and the elongated headcovering with its veil trailing halfway down her back never failed to draw the attention of onlookers we met on our way to the tram stop.

Our school days ended unexpectedly on the morning a group of brown-shirted troopers marched into the building and escorted us outside. They lined everyone up on the sidewalk in front of the school and made us watch the flames curl around Goldschmidt’s facade. The gleeful expression on some SA men’s faces left little doubt about the fire’s origin. Even the youngest student sensed what was happening.

It felt strange to ride the streetcar back home so much earlier than usual. We were both quite hungry and ate the sandwiches from our lunchboxes on the tram. Because of the morning’s events we had skipped lunch recess. We were agitated for still another reason. The fire had forced the school staff to leave along with the student body. No one could call our parents to meet us. That day we worried they would be angry to have us walk that long stretch by ourselves.

After that, no more school.

Now, as he held Gustl’s leash tightly, Wolfgang stretched his other hand out to me.

“Don’t look so sad,” he comforted me. “As soon as we land in Havana I will send you our new address and we can write each other.”

But I was sad. I had seen too many people I knew leave Berlin that year. Too many goodbyes are hard to take, even when you are very young.

“I know you will write whenever you can, but I will still miss our afternoon walks.”

This saddened Wolfgang, too. He looked down at Gustl whose golden curly hair shone in the late afternoon sun. He bent down and gently stroked her long silky ears. Gustl, the companion of our walks, would be left behind. Immigration quotas did not include pet dogs. Wolfgang’s father had arranged for Gustl to live with Emma who was retiring to her native village deep in the heart of Germany.

Despite the upcoming separation from Gustl, Wolfgang tried hard to be cheerful.

“It’ll be exciting to sail aboard such a large ship. We will practice Spanish on the way. Can you imagine my grandmother learning Spanish?”

We both giggled. Wolfgang’s grandmother — like mine — was proud and regal and tried to imitate the style of the English Queen Mary.

“Of course, we won’t be in Cuba long. When our American visas are approved we’ll go there. Someday, who knows, you and I will meet again.”

I nodded, wanting to believe him. Within a few days my mother and I, too, would leave Berlin on the journey to our new home. We were more fortunate: our visas were already approved and we would travel to the United States directly.

“I don’t want to go back to our apartment yet. Everything is so uncomfortable, with most of the furniture gone and all the suitcases standing around,” Wolfgang said. “And my mother has her nervous headaches again.”

“It’s the same way at our apartment. Most of the furniture is sold, but we’re not packed yet. There isn’t one soft chair left to sit in.”

“Will you walk me back to my corner once more?” he asked. “We could talk a little longer that way.”

I was glad to. I didn’t want to go home, either.

We tried to prolong it, but finally the moment came when I petted Gustl’s shiny coat and shook Wolfgang’s hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I knew such girl stuff would embarrass him.

“When it’s your turn, have a good journey, too,” he said.

I thanked him. “Oh, what’s the name of your ship?” I asked before he turned to go.

“The St. Louis. Mach’s gut.”

He walked away. Only Gustl turned her head and looked back at me once more.

Wolfgang kept his word. Within a few days I received a post card from Hamburg with a picture of his ship on it. The card was postmarked May 13, 1939, his sailing date.

“We’re hoping for a wonderful trip,” he wrote. “My parents and I wish you the same.”

I thought of him often later that month when my mother and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on our own journey. By this time his ship was due to have landed in Havana and I wondered how it felt to be in sunny, romantic Cuba.

A few days after we arrived in Louisville to a joyous reunion with my father the picture of a ship appeared on the front page of the local newspaper.

The caption read “SS.St.Louis refused landing permission in Cuba. 930 Jewish refugees face certain doom if returned to Germany.”

The month of June brought hotter weather than we had expected. There was so much else to get used to — a new language, new faces, new surroundings.

I sat on the front steps of the house where we now lived, speaking to no one. When it was too hot outside, I came in and sat some more.

“Eat a little something,” my mother urged often.  But I wasn’t hungry.

“Why is she so quiet?” a new neighbor asked my mother.

“It’s the hot weather. We are not used to these high summer temperatures in Europe,” Mimi answered. But she knew the real reason and did not tell.

The story of the St. Louis stayed news for only a few days. When she sailed out of Cuban waters — after no country in the West accepted her cargo of refugees — she lingered near Miami…hopefully. Then she finally turned back toward Europe.

I waited for the paperboy every afternoon, but the press had dropped any mention of the ship’s fate.

On the September day when news came of Poland’s invasion by Germany, Mimi and I sat at our small kitchen table and cried. Now it seemed certain that contact between us and our relatives and friends in Europe had been lost, perhaps forever.

Sometime during that fall a letter arrived for me from Paris. The Red Cross had been able to find Wolfgang.

“We were lucky, after all,” he wrote. “France took in many of us. It was a long trip. We thought it would never end. Now we live in the Rue Constantinople. We’re on the top floor and from our window we can see the Place d’Etoile and the Champs Elysee behind it. We hope you and your parents are well. I think of you often.”

I started school in Louisville. The first few months were hard for me. Everything was so totally different. I was homesick a lot. Perhaps I really did not question what I was homesick for since nothing I had known existed anymore. I carried Wolfgang’s letter in my pocket. Sometimes, while I was in the schoolyard and the other children played their recess games, I leaned against a wall and read the letter.

Another few months passed, and then a second letter arrived. It was postmarked Limoges, France.

“The Jewish Committee sent us here to be safe in case the war spreads. Limoges is very beautiful. They make china here. But we liked it in Paris and wish we could have stayed there while we wait to enter the United States. Now we must hope the war will end soon. My father and my grandmother are well. My mother worries a lot and suffers from headaches.”

I wrote back, sent good wishes from my family, and said we hoped to see all of them again before long. I told him the American people seemed to understand how bad things were with Jews in Europe and would make it possible for them to enter this country. “Everybody here is very nice. We have been helped to a new start. The same will happen to you when you come here.”

In June 1940, France fell to the Germans. The radio spoke of fleeing refugees camping by the roadside. The newspapers showed photographs of the miseries of war. The Vichy government turned over the Jews of France to the invading Nazis. In our synagogue special prayers were said for those Jews trapped in the Occupation zone.

Once more I tried to find my friend. I wrote directly to the mayor of the city of Limoges and asked for his help in locating Wolfgang’s family.

Many months went by. One day an official-looking letter from France arrived at our house.

“Our records do not show that any family by the name you mention ever resided in the city of Limoges. I regret we cannot help you.” It was signed: The Mayor.

I knew then Wolfgang would not write again.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel.  Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

From the Promenade

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My parents passed the Statue of Liberty,
refugees from the ravages of the second World War
searching for a piece of the American dream pie.
Child of immigrants, I stand now, some 60 years later
staring out at the same lady from the Promenade
in Brooklyn where earlier strangers to the shore
battled the British with meager resources.
Before me, across the busy East River,
lie the jagged teeth of the city skyline,
blocking the exposed cavity of 9/11.
Other immigrants, other times, same religion
came through the cavernous halls
of Castle Garden where they were
accepted or rejected for arbitrary reasons.
This harbor of my Jewish forefathers
seems less welcoming now, awash in the tide
of a resurgent radicalism loath to let in
anyone new and foreign and strange.
The port of New York sits warily
across the railing of the Promenade,
keeping its once wide open door cynically ajar.
Fortunate now, I see America in parts.
Then, would I have even been permitted in?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss. For more information about Mel’s work, visit his website: http://www.melglenn.com/

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history