A Child Survivor In America

GETTING HERE:  July - September 1941

The voyage from Chateau Montintin, in Haute Vienne, a department or county in central France, is recounted in my book, Shattered Crystals [pp. 234-238]; the account is based on my sister Ruth's recollections and letters she and I wrote to our Mother who remained behind. Briefly, we travelled by train to Marseilles. There, somehow many of us had become infected with head lice. We had our scalps scrubbed with a kerosene substance and walked around with white turbans wound around our heads. Cared for by Quakers, we spent two weeks waiting to board our ship. We waited in vain. The Mediterranean Sea had been closed to Transatlantic shipping, but liners were sailing from Portugal. We traveled by train to the Spanish border, stopping at the internment camp of Gurs, where relatives of some of the children were waiting on the platform. They could not get out so they handed the bread saved from their previous days' meals to their loved ones through the window.

At the border we changed trains. Some of the children slept on luggage racks. Eventually we reached Lisbon, where we were housed in a boarding school whose regular students were on vacation. It was our first taste of peace and plenty in three years. For years I blamed my stomach upset on indulging in a new fruit, pineapple, but probably I just became ill from overeating.

I remember nothing of the voyage and it became real for me only at the reunion in 1989, when one of the men said to me, "I don't remember anything about you in France, but I know you were on the ship with me."

We arrived in New York on Labor Day, 1941. Ruth remembers that the ship couldn't dock and we couldn't get off because it was a national holiday. She says we were moored in the Narrows, and I suppose I had my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, though my own first memory is standing on the wooden pier, a manila baggage tag around my neck. I still have the tag with the number 24 printed in thick black lettering. Most of the other children saved their tags too; many brought them to the reunion in 1989. These bits of cardboard were a connection with France and tangible proof that we had made the journey. They were also a reminder of a place that was now full of danger but where, nevertheless, we lived in a spirit of camaraderie with friends whom we left behind.

On the pier at the request of a press photographer from the New York World Telegram the children were lined up in rows, the smallest in the front, the tallest on a bench in the rear, as youngsters are arranged for school photographs. I was in the front row. Then the photographer wanted the smallest children, and I found myself pulled forward with the youngest girl in our group, who was seven. Two little girls with short, straight, light hair wearing numbered cardboard tags, we made an appealing photo in the next day's newspaper. My foster parents got hold of the photo and to my deep but silent embarrassment would show it to their visitors.

Our first American home was a dark red brick building that looked like a 19th century New England factory but was the Hebrew Orphans Asylum on 137th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, located across the street from the elegant Gothic buildings that form the old campus of the City University's City College of New York. All I remember of that place is a large, poorly lit room filled with rows of cots on which we spent our days. My sister Ruth and some of the other children have told me more. In the name of sanitation and health, we were robbed of many of our possessions, things that were our tie with the past and the people we left behind. Some of the clothes we came in were taken away, and we were outfitted with new clothing. With the craftiness of children, we hid our small treasures. I still have the cloth covered, three-by-five inch book I sewed that contained autographs I collected from the Montintin children and teachers who stayed in France. And I treasure the dried yellow and purple pansies, buttercups and two rare four-leaf clovers found in the meadows of Montintin that I pressed between the pages of a slim copy book.

Within not many days we were dispersed, placed with people we did not know. A few boys were sent to an orphanage in California. But most of us went to foster homes. Some children had relatives willing to take them in. Others, like Ruth and me, went to live with friends or acquaintances of our parents. In no case did any of the children know these relatives or family friends. A third group of children was placed with families with whom they had no connection at all.

It had never occurred to me that Ruth and I would not be together, but we left the 137th Street building separately. In Germany my mother had known five brothers who, at various times, were boarders in my grandmother's apartment. In the 1920's they emigrated to New York. Now Ruth went to Brooklyn with one of these brothers. I went to the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon with another I have no recollection of saying good bye to my sister, leaving 137th Street or the trip to Mount Vernon. It was my defense against facing the unacceptable.

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