Soon after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the Nazis prohibited Lisa and Edith Kurcz's father from practicing medicine and requisitioned the Kurcz family apartment and adjoining medical office. In her testimony Lisa relates the family's struggle to survive during their three-year effort to emigrate to America, which was hampered by severely restrictive U.S. Immigration Laws. Not even two years old during the Anschluss, Edith writes that she was nevertheless profoundly affected by the event and all that followed.
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I was born in Vienna, Austria in 1932. My younger sister Edith [Edith Kurcz Jayne, '53] was born there in 1936. My father was a graduate of the medical school at the University of Vienna and practiced medicine for the Austrian state medical insurance system in a working-class neighborhood of Vienna. He was born in Hungary where my grandfather worked for the Austro-Hungarian state railways. My grandmother was from Stockerau, a suburb of Vienna. My grandfather died before the First World War, and my grandmother moved back to Stockerau, where my father grew up. Both my paternal grandparents, were nonobservant Jews, as was my father.
My mother was born in Bohemia. Her father was a railway stationmaster of a small town near the Polish border. My maternal grandparents were practicing Catholics, though my grandmother had been born into a Jewish family in Bohemia. She died when my mother was little. My grandfather came from an old Austrian Catholic family. After World War I he moved back to Korneuburg, Austria, another Vienna suburb, and remarried. My mother was raised by her stepmother in Korneuburg and went to trade high school in Vienna to become a seamstress. She was a non-practicing Catholic.
My parents met while my father was a medical student, and married after he graduated. Their circle of friends included many business and professional people, some of whom were Catholic and the rest of whom were ethnic but nonobservant Jews. Politically it was a liberal group, and religious and ethnic differences did not seem to matter. All this has a bearing on our story.
We lived in a ground-floor apartment in a workers' block in Vienna. The apartment had been put together from three or four small workers' apartments and included my father's professional office. My parents went to great expense in this apartment conversion, adding a modern kitchen and bathroom, a large tiled heating stove in the living room, and a great deal of modern built-in furniture, as well as all the medical office equipment. Since my father was earning a very good salary, my parents purchased paintings, oriental rugs and additional fine furniture. I remember my early childhood as secure, happy and comfortable.
All that changed forever on the morning of March 12, 1938, when Hitler's troops marched into Austria during the Anschluss. I was awakened at dawn by loud crowd noises and a lot of banging. Later I found out that this had been a Nazi mob outside our building, tearing down and destroying a socialist political placard outside the local socialist club next-door. My parents appeared frightened and somber, but did not say much.
Within the next couple of days, strangers on the street began to shout epithets such as Saujude, which means "pig of a Jew" at my father as he passed. Much of the general populace greeted the arrival of the Nazis with jubilation; some people in the neighborhood who had always been friendly or at least polite were suddenly confrontational and hostile. Within a few days, my father was told he was no longer an employee of the medical insurance system, though he continued to take care of his regular patients without pay for several weeks longer.
Soon after the Anschluss, a Nazi party leader came to our apartment, told my parents that it was being requisitioned for a party headquarters and they would have to vacate within a couple of weeks. Then pointed at pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures and said, "This stays." The rest we could presumably take to wherever we would now go. The next day, more Nazi goons came and took away my father's car, but continued to send him the bills for gasoline and tires they subsequently bought. Of course, he had to pay, since refusing would land him in trouble with the Nazis. Even before we moved out, I was forced to withdraw from my beloved kindergarten, which turned out to be staffed by Nazi sympathizers.
The first priority now was to get ourselves and what possessions we could keep out of the apartment, and find places to stay, until we could leave the country. Catholic friends of my parents, who owned a hotel in which they rented out rooms by the hour, offered to let them stay there as long as they needed. In order that, under the new Nazi laws, this Jewish family would not corrupt the morals of the prostitutes and their Johns who frequented the hotel, these friends vacated a whole floor of other clientele to let my parents stay there, even though it significantly reduced their revenue from the hotel for several months. Since my parents felt this hotel was an unsuitable place for two little girls, we and the family maid were dispatched to stay in Korneuburg with our Catholic grandmother. So Edith, not yet two, and I, not yet six, were uprooted from our home and sent to the country.
Just as we were getting used to living with this grandmother, the mayor of the town appeared at her house and told her that the people of Korneuburg had voted to become Judenrein," that is, clean of Jews. Therefore, these two little Jewish girls would have to leave immediately. So we all packed up, and moved in with my other grandmother in Stockerau, another move to another unfamiliar place for Edith and me. This town that still had a number of Jews. It even had a synagogue, at whose dedication the Emperor Franz Josef shook hands with my great-grandfather, who had been a synagogue official. Later, after the remaining Jews had emigrated or been sent to concentration camps, the Nazis turned this building into a horse stable. They also removed from the local World War I monument the name of one of my great-uncles who had died in the Austrian army on the Russian front, because he was Jewish.
Meanwhile, an amazing set of circumstances occurred, which ultimately saved us. Immediately after the Anschluss, my parents had received telegrams from my mother's two brothers, who lived in Czechoslovakia and Portugal respectively, offering us refuge with them. Then a high school classmate of my great-uncle in Stockerau, who was Catholic and had emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, happened to be back for a visit during the Anschluss, and promptly went to my great-uncle and great-grandmother and offered aid. They agreed that the ones who needed to get out of Austria most quickly were my parents and we two little girls. This man went to the American embassy and offered to sponsor us for entry into the United States. A sponsor had to guarantee to support immigrants he sponsored until they found work, so they would not become public charges. No one could enter the United States without such sponsorship by an American citizen.
But now a hitch developed. The United States controlled immigration using a quota system. Only a certain number of immigrants from each country would be admitted each year, depending upon the proportion of people from that country who had already been admitted to the United States at the time of the census of 1890. This setup heavily favored immigrants from northern and western Europe, such as Germany, the British Isles and Scandinavia, and kept the numbers from southern and eastern Europe very low. My sister and I, born in Austria, and my mother, born in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia by 1938), could have come over to the U.S. immediately, as those quotas were relatively large. But my father, though he was an Austrian citizen, had been born in Hungary through the chance of his father's employment there. Under U.S. law in effect at that time, he was declared to be from a country whose quota was miniscule and had already been filled for that year. The Germans would have been happy to see him leave, but the United States would not take him in spite of his having a sponsor. My mother refused to let the family be separated, so now our best option was to leave Austria and stay with one of my mother's brothers, until the Hungarian quota opened up in a future year. My parents chose Portugal.
Now My parents had to overcome all sorts of legal red tape to obtain exit permits, permission to move what of our possessions we could, and make plans for our departure. Again, good fortune intervened. A cousin of my mother's, who was a lawyer but also a Nazi, decided that family was more important than ideology, and offered to help. My mother ever thereafter referred to him as a "good Nazi," and she sent him CARE packages after the war. This cousin expedited the processing of documents and argued with Nazi officials on our behalf, until June of 1938, when we were cleared to depart in July. We also received permission to have our remaining furniture and clothing packed for the move to Portugal.
Not everyone supported the Nazis. Soon after the Anschluss, Jewish women were forced to scrub the streets on their hands and knees, often with brushes as small as a toothbrush. Before we had to move out of our apartment, some women from the neighborhood who had been my father's patients came and sat in my father's office all day every day, saying, "If they come to make Mrs. Kurcz scrub the streets, we will go with her and help her." Luckily no one ever came for my mother.
Another patient, a greengrocer who owned a truck, spent days cruising around the block in this truck, just in case the Gestapo came to pick up my father. In that case he was going to run in, declare that his daughter was terribly ill and needed a doctor right away; then he intended to try to get my father away from them. Luckily the Gestapo never came either.
Another time, my father was riding the subway and was just going up the stairs into a station, when a stranger came down the stairs and yelled out to him, "They are picking up Jews at the top of the stairs." My father turned around and rode the train to another station. In those days, Jewish men often just disappeared like that. Later their families learned that they had been taken to Dachau concentration camp. Most of the time the man did not return. Sometimes a box with ashes was eventually returned, with a note saying the man had died in camp. Other times one never heard anything at all.
One negative experience that I remember clearly occurred on a day that I was brought into Vienna for shopping and to have a passport picture taken. It got to be noon, and I was hungry and tired. We walked past many restaurants. My parents had an excuse for not stopping at every one: This one had dirty tablecloths, that one had too many flies, another had food we would not like. Finally, we stopped in a very seedy-looking sort of pub, frequented by truck drivers and horse grooms. Much later that I found out that we could not enter any of the other restaurants, because they had signs announcing, "Jews not allowed"; the only one that did not was the humble one where we finally ate. Of course, we could no longer go to public parks or the zoo either, since they too had signs barring Jews. It was then that the Duke of Liechtenstein, who had a town castle in Vienna, opened up the private park around this castle and put up signs that said, "Open to Jews only." As the ruler of a foreign nation, he could get away with doing that, and the gesture was much appreciated by Vienna's Jews.
One of the regulations governing the departure of Jews was that one could take as much personal property and jewelry as one wanted, but only the equivalent of $4 per adult and $2 per child in money of any kind. The transfer of money to foreign countries was already forbidden. Thus it appeared that we would leave with the grand sum of $12 for the entire family. Accordingly, my parents spent as much money as they could on items to take with us in place of money. They brought Edith and me into Vienna for the day a few times to shop for clothes and shoes, in graduated sizes, that would last us for the next several years. My parents also bought some jewelry, that could later be sold abroad to raise cash.
Finally, they stocked up on non-perishable foods such as canned meats,fruits, and vegetables, crackers, cookies and candy, to take with us, so we would not have to buy food on our trip. After we were cleared to leave, they also purchased railway tickets for us from Vienna to Paris and on to LeHavre in France, and steamship tickets for a voyage from Le Havre to Lisbon, Portugal. The Spanish civil war was still raging at that time, so it wasn't safe to go all the way to Portugal by train, since this would have meant crossing much of Spain.
In mid-July, we left Vienna. Both grandmothers traveled with us part of the way before having to return home - my maternal grandmother as far as Munich, the other till Paris. When we said goodbye to the first one on the Munich station platform we all cried. Grandmother gave me her bracelet and Edith her necklace. We kissed, and off we went. I did not see this grandmother again until 1970, when I made my first return visit to Vienna. She had survived the Nazis, Allied bombings, and the Russian occupation but died shortly after our reunion.
On our 1938 journey we reached the German-French border, passed inspection by both sides, and were free at last. In Paris we stayed at a seedy Left-Bank hotel frequented by impecunious medical students - that's how my father had heard of it. It was cheap, and the proprietors were willing to give credit to medical students and doctors, an important consideration since we had so little money to spend. We were all crowded into two small rooms on the fifth floor, the top floor of the hotel, with no elevator. It was mid-July and hot as Hades in Paris, and, of course, this was in the days before air conditioning. Our windows were floor-to-ceiling, the original "French doors." In order to get some air but to keep baby Edith from falling out, we had to barricade all the windows with dressers and chests.
Most of our meals consisted of food we had brought from Vienna in a large steamer trunk, with hot foods heated on a hot plate we had with us. I think all we bought was bread and milk. To keep up family morale, our father typed out daily menus on the small portable typewriter we brought along. We did a little sightseeing; I remember going to see Napoleon's tomb in the Invalides, though I had no idea then who Napoleon had been, and the Eiffel Tower, which unfortunately was closed to tourists at the time.
One day in the Luxembourg Gardens we met friends from Vienna, who were also emigrating through Paris, and they treated us to lunch in a restaurant there. It is the only meal I recollect eating out in the entire four or five days we were in Paris, and it was only possible because our friends had managed to get a little extra money out of Austria by some means we were unaware of.
At the end of these few days it was time to go on to Le Havre and board the ship for Portugal. There was another tearful farewell, this time with my Jewish grandmother who had to go back to Vienna and the Nazis. Fortunately, in 1939 we were able to get her out of Vienna and to Portugal to join us; from there she later followed us to the United States.
When we arrived at the ship's dock in Le Havre with our first-class tickets in hand to board the Jamaique, a French ship, we were informed that we were going steerage instead. It seemed that the ship was to stop in Lisbon, and then go on to somewhere in South America, either Brazil or Argentina. Most passengers were German and Austrian refugees going to South America, and the owners had double-booked them with those of us going only part-way. We now had to take the inferior accommodations or not sail at all. It was hardly a choice, since our transit visas to France were about to expire, and we certainly could not and would not go back to Austria. And so we sailed in steerage.
We were put into sections partitioned off similarly to modern office cubicles, with open space at the top and bottom. The four of us were in one section, with four hard bunks, which were filled with bedbugs. Sanitation was so bad that the toilets had backed up, and urine was sloshing around on the floor. Our first meal, served on wooden trestle tables, consisted of cabbage and potatoes with maggots in them. We obviously could not continue like this for the remaining four days of our trip, and the next morning my parents sought help from fellow passengers who had more adequate accommodations. A family from Germany agreed to let me share a bunk with their 6-year-old daughter. The bunk was narrow, so we slept with the head of one next to the feet of the other. Unfortunately, my bunkmate was a bed-wetter, and every night I was awakened by the warm, wet stream which soon turned cold. A young, newly married man, who had to leave his wife behind in Germany, let Edith sleep on a stack of pillows and blankets on the floor of his stateroom, in part because his wife was also named Edith. My parents found comfortable armchairs in the foyers of the rest rooms in the first-class public areas, and spent the remaining nights there. As for food, the other passengers who ate in the better dining rooms would order more than they could eat at mealtimes, and then bring the surplus food down to us. We arrived in Lisbon hungry, tired, and very dirty on August 8, 1938.
We moved in with my uncle, aunt and 13-year-old cousin. They had a very small apartment in Lisbon and were just barely getting by financially, but they opened their home and hearts to us in a most loving manner. My parents got my cousin's room, where they slept on a straw mattress on the floor. My cousin, my sister, and I shared the storage room, a dark windowless area, and we too had straw mattresses. Because of the trauma of all we had experienced in the last few months, I began to sleepwalk, and Edith wet the bed. My poor cousin Paul had to put up with us and help us. We ate meals in shifts, because the small dining table had room for only four people, and there were only four chairs. My father went to work for my uncle, who was in the export-import business, trying to wholesale fountain pens to clients.
But we were happy and thankful to be away from the Nazis. Of course, we were far from completely safe. Portugal was a dictatorship under Salazar, who was a Fascist and not unsympathetic to Hitler. Franco who had won the civil war in Spain also favored Hitler; when Germany invaded France and the pro-NaziVichy government was set up there, all the refugees in Portugal became very concerned that Vichy France, Spain and Portugal might just let the German troops move in, and catch all of us once again. So everyone's the major aim was to get out of Portugal and to the United States as soon as possible. In our case that took almost three years.
In spite of our relative poverty and the anxiety about getting to America before the situation in Europe got much worse, we children were very happy in Portugal. The container filled with our furniture and household goods finally arrived, and our two families moved into a larger apartment together. Now we all had beds, and a table large enough for all of us to eat together. My mother's gas stove and electric iron from Vienna made everyday life much easier. Until then, we had had to cook on charcoal braziers and iron with a large hollow iron filled with glowing charcoal. We still had to shop for food every day, as there was no refrigerator, not even an icebox. Milk arrived, unpasteurized, in a can on the back of a donkey each morning, and we had to boil the milk to drink it.
Then my father was hired by the Jewish community of Lisbon, an old Sephardic community, to be the physician in their dispensary and soup kitchen, which had been set up to aid the Jewish refugees arriving from central and Eastern Europe. In order to qualify for this job, he had to be licensed in Portugal and had to pass the Portuguese licensure exam. All the textbooks used were in French, and the exam itself was in Portuguese. Fortunately, father already knew French and learned Portuguese quickly. But the professor in charge was a flagrant anti-Semite, who did his best to fail father and any other Jewish applicants. Luckily, his assistant was sympathetic, and sent some of the exams to be read by other professors as well. So my father passed and could return to the practice of his profession.
Edith and I were now in another new home, in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language. I believe the situation was a bit easier for me than for her, because I understood more of what was happening and why, because I was older. In addition, I was going to school - to first grade, which involved me in with a peer group. It was a private German school for Jewish and Christian non-Nazi children. There had been a German school in Lisbon for many years previous, with an integrated Christian and Jewish faculty and student body. As soon as Hitler came to power in Germany, the Jewish teachers were fired and the Jewish students expelled. One of the fired teachers then set up her own elementary school. The students were mostly Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, some Christians whose parents lived and worked in Portugal and opposed the Nazis, and a few Portuguese children whose parents wanted them to learn German.
It was a small school of only three classrooms, kindergarten, grades 1-4, and grades 5-8, housed in a former private home. We had instruction in both German and Portuguese. So, in addition to having to learn to read and do arithmetic, I had to learn a new language, and to read in that language as well. Except for penmanship, I was a pretty good student, and as soon as I learned reading I loved to read. During those years in Portugal, I read many European and American classics in either German or Portuguese translation. Most of these books were borrowed from friends, as there were no public libraries. Since most of these friends had sons rather than daughters, the books were heavily slanted toward boys' outdoor-type adventure stories. I read few girls' books till I arrived in New York.
In the spring of 1941, as it became more and more evident that the United States would soon be drawn into the war, it became more imperative than ever for us to get out of Europe and across the Atlantic as soon as possible. But there was still the obstacle of my father's Hungarian quota. Finally, a remarkable consular official at the United States embassy in Lisbon did something wonderful and probably illegal. He decided to open up the quota numbers for future years then and there, and let people use them right away. Accordingly, my father was allowed into the U.S. under a quota number for 1948 or 1949.
We left Lisbon on an American ship, the Siboney, in May of 1941. We had sold most of our possessions in Portugal and brought little with us except for our clothes and a few personal mementos. My paternal grandmother, who had joined us in Portugal in 1939, remained with my aunt and uncle. A month later she too sailed for America, sponsored by her younger brother who had gotten out of Austria and was living and working in the United States.
To manage to transport more people out of Europe, and also because she was soon to be converted to a troopship, the owners of the Syboney had turned some of the dining areas into dormitories with double-decker bunks. My father was put into the men's side, my sister, mother and I into the women's. There were about 40 of us sharing one large room, with only a public rest room with a few stalls and washbasins down the hall available for all of us. This we had to use in shifts.
But this ship was much cleaner and better than the one on which we had come to Portugal. And the food was plentiful and excellent. I remember eating canned Niblets corn and also cream cheese for the first time in my life. Even before the ship began to move away from the dock, the woman in the bunk below mine announced she was seasick. She remained in bed, vomiting sporadically, for the rest of the voyage. The trip took ten days and was relatively uneventful, but we were worried about German submarines, which were patrolling the North Atlantic and had sunk some neutral ships. Therefore, our ship flew a large American flag day and night, and at night she had all her lights on with a spotlight on the flag, so any subs would know we were a neutral ship. Also, we had some German agents on board. When the ship made an unscheduled stop in Bermuda, British military personnel came aboard and took them off, presumably to prison.
We landed in New York on a Monday morning in late May 1941. The first land we had seen had been Coney Island the evening before, when we anchored there temporarily. Now we came in through the Narrows in a slight fog, barely able to see the houses of Brooklyn Heights and the many tall buildings of lower Manhattan.
The ship docked in New Jersey. A friend came to meet us, and we took the tube to Manhattan. Our first apartment was in a brownstone on 73rd Street. It had two tiny rooms, a small bath, and a kitchenette in a closet. There were only two beds, so every night we dragged the mattresses off and put them on the floor for Edith and me; our parents slept on the box springs. When our grandmother came, she got one of the mattresses and Edith and I shared the other. The place was filled with cockroaches. I remember shooting them off the bathroom walls with a water pistol before taking a bath! And it was a constant struggle to keep them out of our food.
My mother found a job dipping cherries in chocolate in a candy factory, for the sum of $10 a week. My father tried to learn English as quickly as possible to take the English language exam and then the medical boards, so he could be licensed to practice medicine. Movie theaters became his classroom. He sat through double-feature movies twice every day. It cost only 10 cents for a double feature if you got there before noon, and besides it was summer in New York, and the movie theaters were the only places that were air conditioned.
Edith and I discovered Riverside Park and spent most of the summer there in company of Grandmother. We lived extremely frugally. Some nights dinner consisted of potatoes with butter and cottage cheese, because we could not afford meat. Sometimes we made goulash out of chicken gizzards, which could be bought for 5 cents per pound. We found that a local bakery sold pies for 25 cents, but half-pies-as a special promotion for 10 cents. My birthday "cake" that June was two half pies pushed together, so we could save the extra nickel. My grandmother discovered a local produce store whose owner would sell us fruits and vegetables that were beginning to go bad very cheaply. Every couple of days she and I went and bought a big shopping bag full of this stuff, then came home and cut off the bad portions, so we could eat the good ones. We ate a lot of fruit salad.
In September we moved to a better apartment on 77th Street. We bought most of our furniture second-hand at the Salvation Army. I think I was in high school before I realized that the Salvation Army was a religious organization and not just a place to buy used furniture cheaply. My mother now worked as a sewing machine operator in the garment district for slightly more money. After work she would come home and scrub our clothes and linens on a scrub board in the kitchen sink. We had no washing machine and could not afford the laundromat.
Edith and I began school at P.S. 9 on West End Avenue and 82nd Street; she was in kindergarten, and I was repeating the second half of third grade, because I had forgotten how to do long division during our emigration from Portugal and the long summer. Perhaps it was that I just did not understand the English directions on the placement test. I was mortified to have to repeat part of a grade, and to be put in the slowest section at that. As a result I worked extremely hard, learned English as fast as possible, and by the end of the term in January had earned the class blue ribbon as the top student in the class. By the next year I was in the New York City "Opportunity" program for gifted students.
I also discovered the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library and literally read my way through the entire children's room until in 8th grade I had my card stamped "Admit to Both Departments" and could use the adult room as well.
In 1942, my father successfully passed both the language and medical exams and was licensed to practice medicine in New York. He had now passed his third medical exam, in his third language. We moved to West End and 82nd Street, where he opened up an office in our apartment, just as he had done in Vienna. When we first moved there, he had just enough money to pay another month's rent. He joked that if the patients did not come, we would be evicted after those two months. Luckily they came, and he practiced medicine until he retired in the late 1970s. My mother soon quit her other job and went to work for him as his receptionist, secretary and assistant.
Still, life in New York and study at P.S. 9 were a difficult adjustment for me especially at first. My first classmates in the slow class were mostly working-class Irish and Italian children, who had little in common with me and resented my being the class "brain." Later my classmates were middle class Jews, who were first or second generation Americans and derided me as a "greenhorn" because I was an immigrant. I also looked different. I had long braids, wore knee socks when everyone else wore bobby socks, carried my book bag on my back, which no American did in those days, and certainly sounded different. I never felt at home in P.S.9 in all the years I went there. I always felt as if I was the oddball. I had a few friends, and was never part of a group.
It was not until I went to Hunter College High School in 9th grade in the winter of 1946 that I felt fully accepted by my peers and part of the group rather than an outsider. I think that was because Hunter was so much more diverse. There were girls of all religions and races, rich and poor and middle class, native-born and immigrants, and we came from diverse neighborhoods all around the city. I now felt like I was truly an American, especially after I got my citizenship papers in 1947.
Unfortunately not all my relatives were as fortunate as we were. Almost all of my father's relatives on his father's side died at Auschwitz in 1944, close to forty people in all. My mother's brother in Czechoslovakia was put into a slave labor camp by the Nazis, worked for years in an underground munitions plant in France, and was wounded twice in Allied bombing raids. But he did survive to return home. My great-grandmother had to leave her home and move in with strangers in Vienna. All her children and grandchildren had emigrated and she was alone. She died in her bed at age 82 just before she was to be deported to Auschwitz.
I was born in Vienna in June 1936 and had an uneventful first year and a half, suddenly shattered by the Anschluss. Our apartment was requisitioned for Nazi Party use, and my parents sent us off to stay with various relations while they got entry documents and made travel arrangements to flee to Portugal, overland via Paris and by ship from Le Havre because of the Civil War in Spain. My sister who is four years older was given explanations about all these upheavals, but no one thought to explain anything to me, perhaps because they thought I was too young to understand.
I remember snatches from that time, mainly of confusion and fear, grown-ups whispering and staying with people I hardly knew. By the time we reached Lisbon, I had started bed-wetting again, something that continued throughout my childhood and was only finally conquered well after I had started Hunter.
As I was still under two years old and rather a novice at talking (in German, of course) I found living in Portugal confusing beyond belief. I could not understand what was being said to me by shopkeepers or the maid, and they, of course, could not understand me either. That was to be repeated later, when I started kindergarten in Manhattan, knowing no English whatever. Both these experiences have had lasting effects. I found it terribly difficult living in Belgium on a posting, when my husband was sent overseas by his company, as I knew little French. I still prefer travelling in places where I speak the language. Today my age is 76, but very early deep insecurity seems to well up even now in times of stress as a foreigner abroad.
I never really thought of myself as a Holocaust victim, as, thankfully, all my immediate family was able to flee from Vienna and survived the war, though cousins and their families did not. But I realize that these early experiences have had profound effects on my life. I have always felt a slight outsider in any gathering. I certainly didn't feel "Austrian" but not fully American either; and growing up in a mixed faith household - my mother was Roman Catholic - meant more mixed identity issues. Interestingly, almost all my childhood friends were also of similar mixed identity and immigrant backgrounds, something I only noticed years later.
I enjoyed my years at Hunter and found it an accepting place for all kinds of differences. I felt finally that I belonged.
As to reactions to trauma/refugee status I had two different role models. My father went into a deep depression and took to his bed while my mother went out and organized our departure, bought clothes and luggage, got visas, etc. In America she supported us as a factory hand in a dress manufacturer’s. It was quite a good object lesson. I try very hard to model my behavior on my mother’s – to get on and try to problem solve – to remain hopeful and keep trying.
Being a refugee and having to flee of course has had other implications as well. One is the need to somehow justify my worthiness for being saved – so I felt I needed to do ‘useful’ work that helped people. I enjoyed teaching – in the first instance very young children and later teachers in training and teachers on advanced degree programs. Another is the vague dread of being homeless. Thus when my husband’s restaurant failed and we had to repay a loan against which the house was pledged- I went into an absolute tailspin.
I worked for Teaching English at Home (a charity I volunteered for) – and felt I had extra skills to bring to the work having had a similar experience myself. I’m still in touch with one of my young mothers – an Iraqi woman who could not have gone out to learn English as she had young children. In both of the communities where I’ve lived post-retirement I have either worked for or raised money for refugee charities.
As I write this (in 2013), I am deeply thankful for a fulfilling life, wonderful family and close friendships.
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