What I shall not forget is my first meal with Uncle Irving's family. Aunt Miriam was a short buxom woman with wavy brown hair, who mistakenly assumed that German and Yiddish are closely related and spoke to me in Yiddish that I did not understand. There were three children. In age I came between the oldest, a girl of 11 and nine-year-old Noel. The youngest was a lively boy of four. The family was Jewish, but Noel was the French word for Christmas. I was uneasy.
In a square cheerful dining room filled with colonial furniture, Aunt Miriam served rare roast beef on brightly painted dinner plates. Red meat juices that looked like blood to me spattered on mashed potatoes and green vegetables. This could not be kosher. My head said the meat must be tref. I could not bring it or any of the contaminated food to my mouth. I had no words in my vocabulary to explain, but even if I had, I could not have told them what I felt. I shook my head and tried to hold in my tears. Filled with nausea, I staggered away from the table. They let it go, and took me to my room. It was small, sparsely furnished and the only time in my life I had a room of my own. I knew I had to eat, so after that first meal I ate small portions of what I was given, declining only butter on meat sandwiches or any combination of dairy and meat.
Aunt Miriam took me the local school, where my appearance presented a novel problem to the principal. Refugees did not move to this rich suburb. They settled New York City whose schools equated lack of English with overall academic deficiency and automatically placed refugee children one or two years below their age group, creating an immediate aura of failure for many of the newcomers.
My guess is that the Mount Vernon educator had not previously been faced with a non-English speaking child. He thought for a few moments, then handed me pencil, paper and an arithmetic book. I started adding and subtracting, sailed through multiplication, long division and decimal problems, but was at a loss when it came to fractions, which were new to me. After a while, he took the paper from me, patted me on the shoulder and placed me in the fifth grade, where I belonged by age. I've always regretted that I never knew the name of that rare and sensible principal who did me the greatest of favors.
The fifth grade teacher gave me some textbooks in English that I did not understand and then basically ignored me. Sometimes I tried to follow the lesson. More often, from my seat next to the window I stared at the swaying treetops outside or studied the top border of the blackboard where the 26 letters of the alphabet were written in Roman script. In my few months of school in Germany before Kristallnacht, I had learned German script. In the OSE homes no particular effort was made to teach Latin script. The emphasis was on history, literature and mathematics. Now I copied these letters over and over. I wanted to write like other children. It would make me more like them. My happiest time was the daily music lesson. Even today, when I hear strains of Flow Gently Sweet Afton, my mind drifts back to that Mount Vernon schoolroom.
Once a week we went to the school library. I had never been to a library. The teacher took me to a shelf with picture books, and I took one. The next week when she guided me to that same shelf, I shook my head and tiptoed along the aisles, searching for an author with familiar names. When I found Charles Dickens, I walked timidly up to the librarian, afraid she would not let me have it, but she stamped the book without a glance at me. That I had already read it in French helped me with the English version.
Because I had no brothers, I was not used to boys and tried to avoid 9-year-old Noel. Surreptitiously, I watched his 11-year-old sister, thinking that from her I could learn to be an American girl. I wanted her to be my friend, but she seemed not to want anything to do with me. She did not want a shadow following her around, especially one she could not understand and who must have seemed like a baby to her. Though our age difference was less than a year, I was short and skinny and still looked like seven.
On Halloween, she was invited to a party. After almost two months, I thought I was part of the family and the invitation must include me. Excitement mounted as costumes were stitched together, and then I understood that the girl refused to take me. Instead I was to go trick-or-treating with Noel and his friend. The costume I thought was for the party disappeared under my coat. I could barely keep up with the two boys as they raced from house to house. Often I never made it to the door to collect anything.
Back home Noel and I emptied our shopping bags. Except for three sourballs, I gave him all my meager pile. Through all the rest of my childhood, I hated Halloween.
The days passed in a haze. I spoke little, asked for nothing, read and played with the 4-year-old boy. Without my realizing it, the language barrier ceased to be the major problem it had been when I arrived. I don't remember learning English when I was ten anymore than I remember learning to read when I was five. Somehow, I absorbed it, though I was still far from fluent. Gradually the two older children must have realized I was not a threat to them, and they became more patient with me.
One evening toward the end of November, speaking in a German rusty from 20 years of disuse, Uncle Irving told me I would leave Mount Vernon at the end of the week. I was to live in New York City with Tante Rosa and Uncle Meyer, my mother's best friends in Leipzig who had arrived from Europe. They had settled in Washington Heights and were willing to have both Ruth and me. He would take me there on Saturday, he said.
I would have to try to make a place for myself all over again. It would be my seventh move since Kristallnacht two years before. I had no friends in the schoolroom and said nothing to anyone there. On Friday afternoon the principal came for me. In his office he gave me a record of my three months' schooling in America. It was an important paper that I must take to my new school. "Do you understand?" He asked. "I take the document to my new school," I said, pronouncing document the French way. He beamed, took my hand in both of his and said, "You are a fine girl. Good luck."
I packed my clothes, toothbrush, the slim souvenir books I had brought from France and a Mount Vernon school notebook. Except for underwear and socks, I had acquired few new possessions in Mount Vernon. What I acquired was my first taste of America, an upper middle class suburban America of well kept, detached houses with backyards and basements and well tended lawns, houses where children had their own rooms, where kitchens had gleaming white stoves and refrigerators filled with meat, cheese and fruit and where no-one ever went hungry, houses that were homes with families where the father came home every night.
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