A Child Survivor In America

THE THIRD FOSTER HOME: July 1942 - October 1946

Led by the social worker, my sister and I left Tante Rosa's house on a sunny August day in 1942. Ruth was to start junior high school in September, but, our guide pointed out, as our new family lived just two blocks away, I was very lucky; I wouldn't even have to change schools.

When we stepped off the curb on 162nd Street and Broadway, the woman said, "Look, look, there she is, your new foster mother." She began to wave, and I asked, "Where?" I didn't see anyone who could fit the role of mother. "There, across Broadway. See, she's waving back."

Something was wrong. The heavy-set, white-haired woman in the faded, print housedress with its uneven hem was so old she could not possibly be a mother for us. But she was. We were to call her Auntie, not aunt anyone, just Auntie. Her husband, a taxi driver whom we met later that afternoon, was Uncle.

We walked the two blocks to their first floor apartment in a six-story building somewhat newer than Tante Rosa's. It had five rooms, a living room, kitchen and three bedrooms, one for Auntie and Uncle, a second for their two single adult daughters and the third for Ruth and me. Their oldest daughter, who was married, had an apartment in the same building. She and her two sons, aged 10 and 4, were waiting to welcome us.

Now we were with a truly American family. Auntie was born in the U.S. around 1880 and Uncle arrived in America as a teenager before the turn of the century. He was without family and had always made his own way. All seven of their children had been born in America. For many years the family had lived in a small city in Pennsylvania, a world away from Washington Heights with its Jewish refugees and a world away from Nazism. Unlike the fathers in my first two foster families who worked in the fur trade, which was dominated by Jewish immigrants, Uncle had been a baker before he became a taxi driver.

Auntie was a good, kind woman, who certainly saw to all my basic needs. Hardworking all her life, she had successfully raised seven children, including five daughters, and now had nine grandchildren. A tenth was to be born the year after we came. It was not her fault that I did not warm to her. The divide between us was more than that between a 65-year-old woman and a young girl. It was the difference between her American roots and living in safety in New York and my own uncertainty and displacement brought on by Nazism.

Being forced to leave Tante Rosa's home added to my uncertainty. The lesson from that enforced move was that no place was secure, that I could never count on having a permanent home. I concluded that the one thing I could do to lessen the possibility of ending up without any home at all was to avoid creating any difficulties whatsoever. It was already my unconscious modus operandi. I was by nature a quiet child; now I worked hard to be helpful, obedient and agreeable and to avoid arguments at all costs. If ever there was a child who was seen and not heard, it was I.

I remember a great deal more about my third foster home than I do about the other two. I remained there longer, I was older, and except for occasional blips the language problem had disappeared.

Auntie was a great fan of radio soap operas. So when Ruth and I came home from school for lunch, we would all sit at the oilcloth covered kitchen table and listen to Our Gal Sunday and Ma Perkins, while we each ate a white bread sandwich and drank a glass of milk. Then we would say good bye and walk back to school.

The family had a dog, a toy pomeranian called Patti, so named because they had gotten him on St. Patrick's Day. I had never lived in a home with a dog before. Unlike many American children, I had never yearned for a dog, or any other pet for that matter. The concept was foreign to me. European Jews like my family just did not have pets.

Patti became very important to me. When I was told that walking the dog would be one of my chores, I agreed, as I did to everything that was asked of me. Soon I delighted in the responsibility and often kept her out longer than necessary. Walking the dog, I felt I was somebody; no one who saw us could know that I was different from other children. It pleased me to be stopped by people who commented about the adorable little dog and regularly pointed out that his coloring matched my own red hair.

I liked going to the bakery for fresh rolls and bagels on Sunday mornings for the same reason I liked walking Patti. The store was always crowded, and when I reached the counter and gave my order, I was no different from any of the Sunday morning shoppers. I had convinced myself that I would be safe if I only I was like everyone else.

The first time Auntie and Uncle introduced us to new people, they often explained that they decided to take a foster child when their youngest son joined the army, leaving his room empty and available. They had asked for a boy, they said, but were told about these two refugee sisters who desperately needed a home. If they did not take both these girls in, the sisters would have to be separated, so how could they refuse? I put on my best smile. But it was not in appreciation of this elderly couple taking on twice the responsibility they had initially agreed to. What I heard in this story was that we had not been really wanted.

Often they and their daughters produced the newspaper photo of me and a little blond 7-year-old OSE girl, taken when our OSE group arrived in New York. They pointed out to their friends that it was nothing short of a miracle that we had escaped from the Nazis. They seemed really happy when they said this and assumed Ruth and I were too. The friends looked back and forth at me at the photo and at me again, totally ignoring Ruth who remembers feeling hurt and neglected as people fussed over me.

Little did my foster family realize that each time this scene was replayed, my feelings of guilt at surviving became stronger. I could not help thinking of the two children my sister and I had replaced when they had fallen ill and lost their places on the children's transport. The feeling that I had to be good and do well to be worthy of them was always with me.

In this foster home, I began to eat foods I had never tasted before. There was peanut butter, which I tried to avoid because it stuck to the roof of my mouth, and cold cereal, particularly corn flakes, which I disliked because they had no taste and turned soggy after the first spoonful. There was also Auntie's Friday specialty of chicken fricassee. This dish consisted of chicken giblets cooked in tomato sauce served with rice and preceded the Friday night main course of chicken.

Chicken was traditionally part of the Jewish Friday night dinner, and although we had it every week, Auntie did not keep a kosher home. She gave it up years before while living in the state of Georgia after discovering that a supposedly strictly kosher butcher cheated by selling non-kosher meats to his observant Jewish customers. What was the point, she said, if you couldn't trust the label. I no longer cared whether food was kosher or not. I had become altogether indifferent to Judaism.

Auntie and Uncle were not religious and did not celebrate Jewish holidays. Several months after we came to live with them, a social worker asked me if I wanted to go to Hebrew school. Without a moment's hesitation, I said, "No." I had learned the Hebrew alphabet in Germany before Kristallnacht when I was six, and I knew a little about the major Jewish holidays. I had only the most basic knowledge of Jewish history and religion, but no interest in learning more.

Auntie's 10-year-old grandson went to Hebrew school. He had to be there right after regular classes and came home after dark. Giving up my free time was the last thing I wanted to do. The entire conversation with the social worker couldn't have taken more than 30 seconds. To her the issue appeared to be just another item to check off on her report, but the decision greatly influenced my later attitudes.

English was now the only language I spoke. After a year in New York, I was quite fluent. But I had not yet grasped many idiomatic expressions and once got into such awful trouble that I remember every detail to this day. It was after dinner, and I was in the kitchen with Auntie's daughter who asked, "Would you like to wash the dishes now?" I hadn't learned that this was a polite way of giving instructions, telling me what to do. I genuinely believed I was being given a choice, so I said, "No." My normally even-tempered foster sister became angry, shouting, "How dare you? Don't ever, ever talk back to me like that!"

I couldn't bring myself to explain that I had misunderstood, so I bit my lip, willed back the tears and did the dishes. It was the only fight I remember having with any of the adults in the household during my four years there.

When I was thirteen, a clothing allowance from the Foster Home Bureau replaced the trips to the warehouse. The daughters took me to a department store to choose a dress. I still remember the purchase. I set my heart on a dress with flowers on a white background, while they thought a subdued blue print dress was more suitable. In the end they bought and paid for both. I wore the two dresses happily; after a while I recognized that the blue was the more flattering and more elegant.

In those pre-TV days, Ruth and I received money to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons and we were treated to ice cream from the trucks that cruised the streets during the summer. I longed to buy some small things for myself, but could not bring myself to ask any member of my foster family for additional spending money.

Auntie's oldest daughter who worked in an exclusive Fifth Avenue store got me a summer job as an office clerk during my final year with the family. It was my first job, and my salary was $22 a week, a lot of money at that time, especially for a young teenager who had never worked before. I had been desperate to have a little money of my own, but I didn't end up with very much. As soon as I went to work, the Foster Home Bureau, which had been making payments to Auntie and Uncle for my upkeep, demanded that I contribute $15 a week to the Bureau. That took care of two thirds of my salary. Carfare was $2 a week. Although Auntie packed lunch for me, there was the cost of a drink. Then a small amount went for taxes, so I wasn't left with very much.

For two months I punched a time clock and spent seven hours a day alphabetizing index cards bearing customers' names and addresses. The work was desperately dull, but I kept my sanity, knowing it was temporary; and I could save a few dollars.

When Ruth found a part-time job as a salesgirl in a Five & Ten Cents store, she too had to pay a major portion of her salary to the Foster Home Bureau. This always irked her. The social worker told her it was a good way for her to learn about thrift, a lesson my sister hardly felt she needed. She had wanted to put some money aside for college.

My mother's sister, Hannah, arrived in New York in 1942 with her husband, daughter and mother-in-law. Their route from France to America was via Dakar, Morocco and Curacao, Dutch West Indies. They settled in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Every few weeks Ruth and I took the hour and a half subway and bus trip to spend Sundays with our relatives.

I do not remember that we talked about France, or our parents or our sister Lea. All contact had ceased in 1942, and I became convinced that I would not see my parents or sister again. Had I confided in Ruth, she probably would have told me not to be silly. After all, when we left France, our mother had promised her that when the war was over we would all be together again. Only while reminiscing decades later when I began to write Shattered Crystals, did I find out that my older sister clung unswervingly to the promise that our family would be reunited some day.

Before that happened, Ruth and I were separated. Early in 1946, soon after my 15th birthday, we learned that Auntie's son whose room Ruth and I occupied was to be discharged from the army and would need his room back. There was space for a cot in the daughters' bedroom for just one of us girls, so the other would have to move. We would be separated once more. Ruth, who had started high school, was the one who went. Her fourth foster home was in Pelham, a town in suburban Westchester that took me two hours to reach for the occasional visits to my sister after she left Washington Heights.

The trauma of separation was lessened because of unexpected and to me quite extraordinary news. A few months earlier a letter had arrived from our parents. They had survived the Nazi occupation of France and were together in Limoges. I did not learn until much later about their years of hiding, the time spent in French camps and the constant danger in which they lived that is described in our book, Shattered Crystals.

The letter, transmitted by the Red Cross, was in German, which I had largely forgotten during the years of separation. At the end there were a few sentences in French from our sister, Lea who was now almost nine years old. Although I got the sense of their message, I had to struggle to understand what they wrote, and even more to reply. Suddenly I encountered a new language barrier, the reverse of the one I faced when I came to New York four years earlier. It didn't matter that much because I really didn't know what to say to them. I felt they were strangers. We sent photographs.

I shared this family information with no one. In junior high school I got along well with everyone but had no friends to whom I felt close enough to talk about my news from France. What my classmates knew and talked about was that I had passed the citywide examination for admission to Hunter College High School for academically gifted girls. I was one of fewer than 100 ninth grade students throughout New York City to be accepted. In addition to math, we were tested on vocabulary, English comprehension, grammar and writing. Just four years earlier, I had been a non-English speaking refugee. Auntie, Uncle and all their family were very proud.

For me, entering Hunter at the beginning of 1946 was a ticket out of the restricted world of Washington Heights. That life would have come to an end in any event. My parents applied for and were granted visas to come to America. Hannah's husband became their sponsor. Ironically, they were eligible to enter the country on the German quota, which was wide open. It took until the summer to complete the necessary paper work and secure passage on the trans-Atlantic liner, Desiree.

It was hard for me to take in that our family was to be reunited. When I began living in foster homes, I used to dream and long for a real family, my real family, Gradually, I got used to being different, but I still had a picture of my mother and father in my mind. The day the Desiree docked was hot and sunny and I wore the blue dress. Ruth and I met Tante Hannah and her husband at the Hudson River pier. My aunt spotted them first. For a brief moment I didn't recognize them. They were so much smaller than I remembered, but the greater shock was my mother. Her beautiful wavy hair, that had been a deep auburn, was still wavy but had turned snow white.

It took a few more months before we were really reunited. Until an apartment became available in Brooklyn, my parents and Lea lived in Kew Gardens with Hannah, where I visited often. The day after we all moved to our own apartment, I went into my school's office and told the secretary I had moved. Barely looking up from her work, she gave me a card on which to write my new address,. After five years in America, this was the first time I wrote my address without the words "care of" after my name. School friends who knew nothing of my history accepted my move from Washington Heights to Brooklyn without question.

My parents, sisters and I are a rare quintet, an entire nuclear family who survived the Holocaust intact. It took a while until we adjusted to each other. I relearned German but spoke it forever after not only ungrammatically, but with an American accent. My parents and Lea learned English even faster. So communication became easier and more relaxed as well, as we adjusted to each other as a family.

My sisters and I married, raised families and enjoyed success in our chosen professions. Five grandchildren brought my father great pleasure until his death in 1996 as he was nearing his 98th birthday. Mother is in her mid-nineties now and still lives independently. But the lost years during which we were apart, years that included vital time during which we were growing up, could never be retrieved. It is a loss that has been felt not only by us children, but also by our mother and father.

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