Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

English Was My Fifth Language

- Viola Hurtig Morse ‘64

Refugees from the Nazis, Viola’s parents found refuge in various countries.
She was born in Egypt in 1946 and arrived in New York in 1952.

Both my mother and father were chased out of Nazi Europe. My father was German and my mother was Austrian.

When things became more and more difficult for Jews in Berlin in the mid thirties, my father was able to see the handwriting on the wall and began to look for ways to leave Germany. He had two job opportunities in which he would be able to use his training as an engineer who specialized in X-Ray. One was to come to the United States and work at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. The other was to go and work for Phillips in Cairo.

He picked Cairo in part because there was an established European community there, but also because Phillips was a Dutch firm. The U.S. was seen, at least by my father, as a wild place with cowboys and Indians. As I understand it, prior to the rise of the Nazis, American universities were not held in high regard as research centers, so fewer people emigrated in earlier periods to take jobs in the U.S. Hitler, of course, changed all that. I don’t know the actual date my father arrived in Cairo, though it was certainly somewhere between 1935 and 1936. He brought his mother and brother with him to Cairo.

My mother, a violist, and my uncle, a violinist, were living in Vienna in 1936, along with other family members. Both were recruited by Bronislaw Huberman to play in the newly formed Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, later to become the Israel Philharmonic. My uncle, Felix Galimir, had just won a seat in the Vienna Philharmonic, but was precluded by the Nazis from taking that seat. Huberman told my mother and uncle that things were going to get much worse for Jews in Austria in the very near future, and the best thing for them to do would be to leave Vienna immediately. They were in the Palestine Orchestra for the inaugural season, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. The first concert was in December 1936.

After a year or two with the Palestine Philharmonic, my Uncle Felix moved to New York City, where he became part of Toscanini’s newly formed NBC Orchestra. My mother remained with the Palestine Orchestra, and met my father while it was on tour in Cairo. They married in 1944 and within a year my brother was born. Then in 1946, I was born, also in Cairo.

Shortly thereafter, in late 1947, fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs. Because we were Jewish, once again we had to flee. We left Egypt overnight with falsified papers and very little else. First we went to Holland, as my father could find work there through a connection he had. After a year, however, life had “settled down” in the new State of Israel, where my father’s mother and brother had relocated. So, we moved to Israel.

Unfortunately, shortly after we landed in Israel, my father died. By that time my mother’s surviving family [her father and siblings] had come to America and were living in the New York City area. They wanted us to join them, as they believed that life would be much easier there for my mother and her two young children. I was three, and my brother was five at the time. It was a hard decision for my mother to relocate again, but we finally left Israel after living there approximately three years.

Once she decided to move us, we learned that we could not go directly to the U.S., since they had a quota [for the number of immigrants that could be admitted from a given foreign country], and we could not get a visa at that time. However, we were told that the “easy” entry route then was to come through Havana, Cuba. If we were to come this way, we could surely get our visas in a matter of weeks. In reality it took close to a year, during which time my brother and I went to a Catholic school, because it was the only good school around. Even more important was that in that school we could learn English as well as Spanish. I already knew French, German and Hebrew.

We finally arrived in New York City in 1952, where English became my fifth language. After a brief stint in a local public school and four years in private school, I took the Hunter exam and entered the Hunter College Elementary School in 5th grade. From there I continued all the way through, until I graduated from the high school in 1964.

After Hunter, I went on to receive my Bachelor's Degree at NYU, and approximately ten years later, I went to Suffolk University in Boston for my MBA. I have worked primarily in the non-profit world (health care, academia and human services) in marketing and program management. Although I am currently not working, I am still quite active with several nonprofits at the board level.

As we all know, people reacted to the Holocaust in many different ways. My family was one that pretty much never talked about it. I remember only one incident, when there was some program or film that was going to be on TV about the Holocaust. I told my mother about it, and she very definitively told me she had absolutely no interest in seeing it. According to her, she had already lived it. She had no need to be reminded of it or to hear anything more about it. She would rarely even answer any questions that I asked, though I must admit, I never had many questions as a child or even as a young adult. I heard about the "early" happier family times in Vienna, and then about their arrival in the US. What happened in between was like a big blank. I gathered that there was some level of guilt borne by those who escaped with their lives, especially those like my mother and her siblings who had lost so many of their relatives in concentration camps.

Like others whose stories I read on this web site, I too was ashamed of my background. I was more embarrassed that my mother spoke English with an accent rather than be proud that she spoke eight languages. America was indeed a wonderful place to land, but at that time, it was not a good thing to be a “refugee.” Without getting too political, I must say the recent years in the United States have made me wonder whether we’ve regressed back to the early 1950s with our attitude about immigrants and refugees.

I moved to New England in 1974 and married a true ‘Yankee’ in 1982. His mother was descended from one of the original pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. There was a mixed reaction in my family about my marrying a Protestant; however, most were supportive, particularly when it became clear that I had no intention of denying my heritage and would continue to practice my religion proudly and openly. As life always manages to throw surprises, we learned early on that we could not have children, so we decided to adopt two infants from Ecuador in South America. Our son, Alex has just graduated from the University of Vermont, and our daughter Julie is going into her junior year at college. Ironically, because of the discrimination that I faced as a youngster, I felt better able to help my own children face their “difference” in the world we live in today.

- June 2008

Home    Previous    Next

All content on this site is copyright 2000-9 by the various authors.   All rights reserved.