How It Began
My parents were German Jews who didn’t know each other in Germany. Coincidentally, they both left Germany on the same day in 1933. As fierce Libertarians, they left for freedom of expression, after seeing overt signs of Nazism. My father, a renowned journalist who had openly criticized Hitler, was even on a watch list. They each went to Paris, where many intellectuals went, and met at a literary cafe. Everything changed when Germany invaded France in 1940. Starting in late 1939, my father was sent to a series of labor camps in France. At first my mother lost touch with him; after finally locating him, she stayed in a town close to the camp so they could be together whenever possible. I was born in 1940 and shortly thereafter, my parents made plans to flee Europe.
Into the Night
My father had heard of Varian Fry, an American who rescued hundreds of writers and painters including Chagall. My father and mother must have had help from Fry to get across the border. My mother walked across the Pyrenees into Spain to catch a ship to freedom. My father was in a disciplinary camp, so my mother made the trip alone, carrying me across this dangerous terrain in the night. Fortunately, the ship was delayed and my father, with help from HIAS, was released from prison and able to join her before the ship took sail.
A Parent’s Protection
My parents and I boarded this notorious freight ship, SS Navemar, along with 1,120 other refugees, although the ship was built for just 15 passengers. The bunks were up the wall in unventilated holds, there was no sanitation, little water, and even less food. We traveled like this for 52 days from Spain to Bermuda to Cuba and finally arrived in NYC. People died but somehow, we survived.
My fervent childhood dream was to know my grandparents (who were killed by the Nazis), not just for myself, but because I knew the only thing that would ever make my mother happy again was to have her mother back. My mother always had a big smile, but sad, sad eyes.
At the dinner table, I spoke English, my father spoke German, and my mother spoke French because she said she would never ever speak German again as long as she lived. Yet, I know she missed Europe. Immigrants, even those who fled the Nazis, are nostalgic in a way. I find this nostalgia very strange and yet understandable. Home is home, right? I was born in France and although I didn’t grow up there, I feel at home when I’m there. I know there were collaborators and that my father was in camps there, but kind French people helped save our lives.
An Immigrant Perspective
Being an immigrant was embarrassing to me. We were poor. My clothes were hand-me-downs. I was always conscious of being an immigrant, of feeling less somehow. That was me then, and it still is me to an extent. I can look at myself and say I’ve accomplished a lot and that I’m no longer living in poverty. But I’m still careful. The United States didn’t really want us, the Jewish refugees. I’m grateful every day to be one of those who got in.
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