October 1939 – leaving Germany

After my recent post, My trip to Germany, a reader of the blog asked for details of my father’s exit from Germany. I don’t know if his story is any more than an interesting anecdote, but the story has some drama and gives a little insight into the world in 1939, so here it is.

Before it was too late, one of my father’s uncles realized it was time to leave Germany. In 1937, the family applied to immigrate to the United States. Just after the Depression, the US was not nearly as welcoming to immigrants as in previous years and there was a small quota of visas permitted. In March of 1939, my grandfather’s number came up and he got a visa to the US, but could not bring the entire family. After arriving, he was directed by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization, to possible opportunities. He landed a job in Herrin, Illinois, a coal mining town in the southern part of the state. Members of the small Jewish community signed an affidavit pledging that his family would not become “wards of the state” and visas came through for the rest of the family.

So in October, 1939, after Poland had fallen, my father, 10, and his younger sister, 9, set out with their mother to sail from Holland to the US (an older sister was already attending high school in England, where she stayed for the duration of the war). The trio traveled from Stuttgart, in the south, to Düsseldorf, in northern Germany, where they stayed with relatives.

A week before their ship was due to sail, my grandmother and her two young children left for Holland. The Dutch would not let them enter, saying it was too soon before their voyage. The German border guard would not let them back into Germany, leaving them in no man’s land between the two countries. At this point, my grandmother, a customarily deferential woman who I never saw assert herself, told me that “she lost it,” not knowing what would happen to her and her children.

She berated the guard in a way that struck home. “This is how you treat the wife of a man who fought and was twice wounded for the Fatherland.” My grandfather had fought for the Kaiser in World War I and was left with a short leg and special boot resulting from one of his bullet wounds.

It was as if a switch was flipped inside the guard. His behavior went from mean to obsequious in an instant. He welcomed my grandmother and her children into the guard shack and said, “Here, Mutti [mother], sit down. Can I get you something to eat?” My grandmother answered him, “I wouldn’t touch your food if it was the last thing left on earth.”

The confrontation over, my father, his sister, and mother started back to Düsseldorf to wait out the week before leaving. But there was more drama. Returning late at night by train to Düsseldorf, they finally found a taxicab. A German officer said he was commandeering the taxicab and that they had to leave it. A Dutchman who arrived on the same train came to their aid. “So this is the vaunted chivalry of the German army?” He shamed the officer into letting the mother and her two young children take the taxi.

A week later, the trio traveled to Rotterdam, this time successfully. On Friday night, they ate Shabbat dinner in a boarding house with 100 or so other German Jewish refugees before they were all due to sail in the morning. Someone said they should say the Birkat Hamazon or Grace after Meals. As he knew it by heart, having attended a Jewish day school after Jews could no longer attend German schools, my grandmother volunteered my father and he led the group, their last Shabbat dinner before emigrating.

Some of my father’s relatives also made it to the US before or soon after the war broke out. Others secured visas to Chile, where some still live but most have emigrated to the US or to Israel. But not all were so fortunate. His hosts in Düsseldorf, Uncle Felix, Aunt Herta, and cousin Lutz, along with other relatives, perished in the Holocaust.

After arriving in the US, the trio stayed a few days with relatives in New York before reuniting with my grandfather in Herrin. In 1944, the family moved to Chicago, where my father grew up, raised a family, and still lives (in the suburbs). He has been back to Germany, once. In 2001, he returned to Stuttgart, the city of his birth, as a guest of the region, Württemberg, where he was born.

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2 Responses to “October 1939 – leaving Germany”

  1. Sheryl Marcus Says:

    Very interesting, Steve! I’m really glad you filled us in. Every story is unique–even if they are similar. You’re so lucky you know so much family history.

    Alan and I went to Berlin a few years ago and we were very ambivalent. I couldn’t really appreciate it until I met an Israeli whose home is now in Berlin, and his Jewish German friends, at Beit HaT’fuzot in Tel Aviv a year later. He was able to put things in better perspective for me–especially the Holocaust Memorial near the old American Embassy. He said his son has a cafe opposite the memorial. When he stops by the cafe, he often sits and observes the visitors to the memorial and says it is very powerful.
    I wish I’d met him while we were in Berlin. It would have helped frame my perspective.

    Sounds like it will be a great “tour.”

  2. Jonathan Fredman Says:

    Thanks for sharing that. It is important to keep those stories alive.

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