OSE Children In Foster Homes

A Teenage Boy's Account

Henry Schuster, a member of the first OSE transport, recalls his immigration.

My Life with Uncle Sam

The first years in the land of milk and honey were not sweet for many of us. This is not my story alone; many immigrant children experienced similar unpleasant times. As a fifteen-year-old I arrived in New York in 1941 with a children’s transport of approximately 100. From 1939 until May of 1941 had lived in France in refugee homes in various cities. We were like a large family and felt that we were all siblings. The hard times of war and hunger were bearable as we had each other.

Passing the Statue of Liberty in the morning was one of the most exciting experiences we ever had. We all knew the story of the Statue. Upon debarking from the Portuguese freighter on Staten Island we were bussed to an orphanage on 137th Street in the city. We all thought that this was to be our home until we became adults. It was not to be. The organization that rescued us from France decided it would be best for all of us to be placed all over the United States with relatives, distant relatives, foster homes, or orphanages.

I had close relatives living in New York and Illinois. My father’s brother lived in Bloomington, Illinois and wanted me to come and live with him. This would have been wonderful as I felt Uncle Moritz was my surrogate father. He had so acted after my father died in 1935. I loved him and I’m sure he felt the same toward me. As he had only been in the U.S. for two years, the organization in New York felt that it would be better to live with an American family.

Our transport was disbanded almost immediately. I was the last to leave. Through some research, the authorities that sponsored us discovered that a distant relative of mine lived in Shreveport, Louisiana. They had their roots in the United States since 1859. None of them spoke my native language, nor did I speak any English.

By coincidence the lady of the house was visiting New York from Shreveport. She came to the orphanage to look me over. Prior to my face to face meeting with her I was tutored in my first English words. "Nice to meet you."

It so happened that the woman I called Aunt Perle’s daughter-in-law were on their honeymoon in New York driving their new 1940 Chevrolet convertible. The four of us left New York the following day for Shreveport. This was luxury beyond my belief, but I also had an empty feeling to leave my so-called siblings. I had no idea what the future might bring.

As I was brought up in an orthodox family and in orthodox children’s homes, I had no idea what the various meat dishes were. I did know that we never mixed dairy with meat. To my dismay I was fed funny looking meats and dairy at the same time. I knew this was wrong. To please my host, I ate the dairy food and left the rest on my plate. As I didn’t understand the gibberish conversation between them, I felt guilty for my actions.

The trip to Shreveport was pleasant but I had an anxiety about what was to come. As soon as the newlyweds left Shreveport, I had the feeling that I was not wanted.

The family consisted of Uncle Sam (actually my father’s cousin), who was a self-made man. He was Chairman of the Board of a multi-million dollar corporation. He was a decent man and was good to me. He felt a certain affinity towards me, because his father, my grandfather’s brother, was born in the town of my birth. Sam was born in 1873 in Kentucky. When I came to live with the family, he was 68 years old.

The others in the family were Aunt Perle; Julius, a 23-year-old with Down Syndrome; and his live-in nurse, Sue. For some reasons unknown to me her actions towards me were belligerent as she felt threatened by me. After three months, however, Sue became my friend. Julius called me a "Nazi" even though he had no idea what a nazi was. Perle’s attitude towards me changed drastically. She didn’t like me and let me know it in no uncertain terms. By now I spoke and understood English to a certain degree. She remarked to me at the dinner table that I should not sit near her, that I smelled. Maybe I did, as I was not used to the American custom of showering every day.

As summer was coming to a close they had to decide what to do with me. Perle wanted me to become an apprentice to some tradesman. She felt that I didn’t need an education. The principal of the local high school heard about me and invited me to attend his school. At the urging of several relatives Perle agreed to have me attend high school. I did well; in fact I graduated in three years. During my three years living with them I tried to avoid Perle as much as I could, as her resentment against me increased. Many unpleasant episodes between us occurred quite often.

Upon my eighteenth birthday I registered for the draft, and shortly thereafter, I was inducted into the Army Air Corps. After I was discharged from the military in 1946, I visited Shreveport to express my gratitude to Sam and, yes, to Perle for having me in their home. Many years later my wife Anita and I visited Perle and she apologized to me for her attitude toward me.

After many years when I found several of my former siblings, I became aware of other stories similar to mine. Many had an even harder beginning in the U.S. than I did. Several of them living with either relatives or foster parents became maids to their host families. Several boys were treated like house boys. They were not allowed to go to school and had to work to pay their foster parents for their room and board.

One of my friends was reunited with his mother and her new husband. He and his stepfather did not get along. After the mother’s unexpected early death, the stepfather made life very difficult for him. As the situation became intolerable, he left at the age of sixteen and cared for himself.

In another case two brothers had not seen their parents since they were very young. Miraculously both parents survived separate concentration camps and were reunited in German after the war. They then had two other children. One of the two older boys who came with me to the U.S. couldn’t cope with this and went into a deep depression from which he never fully recovered.

Most of us became adults, got married and had children and grandchildren and are proud of our achievements. All of us are grateful to have had the opportunity to come to the United Sates and become good citizens of our great country.

The original of this appeared in Aufbau (German Jewish Monthly) in 1997.   Reprinted by Permission of the Author.

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