Tante Rosa and Uncle Meyer lived in a six-room apartment on 162nd Street in Washington Heights, a section of upper Manhattan full of German Jewish refugees. They were my mother's oldest friends from Leipzig. They and their teen-age daughter were recent arrivals in America. Their son had come to New York three years before, so he was everybody's expert and guide on all things American.
Ruth came to Washington Heights about a week after I did. She had changed. Since coming to New York she had reached puberty. She had grown taller and gained 20 pounds. Her Brooklyn foster parents were childless and her "aunt" made a great fuss over Ruth. Helped by a clothing allowance from the Foster Home Bureau which was legally responsible for the OSE children, she took Ruth shopping to buy dresses, skirts and blouses, a pocketbook and, for her 12th birthday on October 29th, a new coat.
The Washington Heights apartment had a dining room with one door to the kitchen and a second to the living room. The family took its meals in that room; Ruth and I did our homework on the dining room table, and a cot was placed in that room for me. Ruth shared a room and bed with Tante Rosa's teen-age daughter. Tante Rosa's kept a kosher home, and her meals were more European than the ones in Mount Vernon.
Ruth and I were reasonably self-sufficient. We got up on time and left for school on time after folding our bedding and eating breakfast. We were integrated into the family, helping with chores, such as washing and drying dishes. I don't remember it as a demanding existence, although the teenage daughter told me years later about regular scenes brought on by my inability to use a needle properly. All young Jewish girls from Leipzig were taught how to sew by hand. Apparently, I was extremely clumsy, unable to manage tiny stitches, and Tante Rosa insisted I keep working to get it right, invariably bringing me to tears.
I now lived a bilingual existence, speaking German at home and English at school. Although there were many German refugee children at Public School 169, none were in my class. Classes were organized according to students' academic ability, and as Mount Vernon had given me a good report, I was placed in the top fifth grade class. Ruth, who had been assigned to the fifth grade in Brooklyn, received an immediate promotion to the top sixth grade class. School officials said since she was a year older than I was, we could not be in the same grade. Neither of us ever had any difficulty with our schoolwork there. In fact, rapidly overcoming the language barrier, we excelled from the start.
Often, when I finished my homework, I was urged to go outside, get some fresh air and play. Apartment houses, filled mainly by Jews, lined our side of the street. Opposite us were old brownstone houses occupied by Catholics whose children attended nearby Parochial schools and who did not play much with the few children on our side. It didn't help that I was a klutz. Occasionally I joined in, but I spent much of my time slowly bouncing a ball on the sidewalk silently chanting, "A, my name is Alice" or practicing hopscotch by myself. Later when I went to junior high school, I became aware of another divide. Amsterdam Avenue on the eastern end of the block was an invisible border between whites and blacks.
Less than two weeks after I came to Washington Heights, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. declared war against Germany, Italy and Japan. With patriotism at fever pitch, I decided that it was essential for me to disassociate myself from anything German. As soon as the French declared war against Germany, they had arrested my father as an enemy alien. So while I was extremely proud to be Jewish, I thought that New Yorkers might not differentiate between a German Jew and a German who was a Nazi any more than the French had.
The first step was to rid myself completely of any trace of a German accent. In school, on the street and in stores, I listened and copied not only words I heard, but their pronunciation. If asked where I had come from, I said France. To improve my English and expand my vocabulary as well as to occupy myself, I read voraciously, borrowing books every week from the local public library on St. Nicholas Avenue, less than a quarter mile from the house on 162nd Street.
In school we had air raid drills. We scrambled under our desks or lined up in inside hallways, when practice sirens sounded. I did not tell anyone I had lived through real air raids in France, nor that I thought these exercises silly. I was sure it would be impossible for Nazi planes to reach New York, but kept these views to myself as well.
One day my teacher announced to our class that we must all make sacrifices for the war. "How many children have fathers who are in the army or navy, fighting for our country?" She asked. "Raise hands!" She commanded. Almost half the children raised their hands. "Brothers?" she asked. More hands went up. "Uncles?" Now all the children except me excitedly waved their arms. I sat motionless. My father had been in concentration camps. He was still in France; he might be arrested again at any time. But that was not the teacher's question. Stunned and confused I began to tremble, unable to decide if I could or should raise my hand.
During our first months in New York, Ruth and I corresponded fairly regularly with our parents in France. Mama hid these letters with other papers and retrieved them after the war. Some time in 1942 their letters to us stopped. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that something terrible must have happened. I came to believe I no longer had parents, that they must have died, but I could not talk about this fear to anyone, not even to Ruth.
Like the other OSE children, Ruth and I were under the supervision of the Foster Home Bureau, and a social worker came to see us once a month. I would be alone with the social worker in the living room, sitting on the edge of Tante Rosa's sofa. She would ask how I was, I would say fine, and after a few minutes, she left. The social worker assigned to us changed often. This did not matter to me. I was not prone to confiding in adults, certainly not in these women who were total strangers to me.
The Bureau was responsible for our clothing. Periodically, I traveled with a social worker to a warehouse somewhere in the city. Open iron shelves were filled with large cardboard boxes that held underwear, socks, white cotton blouses and shoes. A clerk at a counter asked what size I wore and returned shortly with items of clothing I was entitled to. The social worker held them up and nodded. Shoe styles were limited to brown oxfords, so that's what I always wore. As the younger of two sisters, I also got hand-me-downs Ruth had outgrown. Oh, how I longed for clothing that was bought in a store just for me.
In school, I did not feel I was dressed any worse than my classmates, except in one respect. At the weekly school assemblies, girls wore sailor-like, white, V-necked cotton midi-blouses with a tab at the bottom of the "V" through which to slip a red tie. Girls who did not have midi-blouses could wear plain white tops, and I became one of that small group, because midi-blouses were not on the Foster Home Bureau list of necessary clothing. It was an insignificant matter, but at the time I felt so poor and ashamed in my ordinary shirt.
In the summer of 1942, when Ruth and I had been in Washington Heights for eight months, a social worker told us we were to go to a different home. Tante Rosa was not well and could not continue to look after us. It hadn't occurred to me that we caused a great deal of extra work. But surely, I thought, we could help ease Tante Rosa's burden by taking on more responsibilities in the household. That might make it possible for us to stay on.
We didn't have that choice. Ruth says we did have a choice of a new foster home. She recalls the social worker offering places in two different families, one with children and one without, but I don't remember that. Years later, Ruth told me that at the time she thought I had already experienced a home where there were other children; she felt the likely competition wouldn't be a good thing.
Imagine not having any recollection whatsoever of such an important discussion! Nor do I remember anything about leaving the family or the home in which I had grown reasonably comfortable. I suppose that I didn't want to go, didn't want yet another change, another home, another family. So, in my distress, I reverted to my old defenses and blocked out the memory.
The one advantage of the move was that it would free me from the son of the family, who teased me unmercifully every day, at every opportunity and invariably brought me to tears. Decades later during a condolence visit after Tante Rosa's death, he surprised me with an unexpected confession. "You know, when you lived with us I wasn't very nice to you," he said. "I used to tease you all the time and make you the butt of my jokes. I used to make you cry." He was silent for a moment, and then he said, "I don't know why I did that, but I remember it to this day."
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