“My Doll is Jewish”
A girl’s odyssey and her family’s escape from the Nazis.
I don’t remember saying good-bye to my grand parents. I don’t remember that they were hugging me or that there were tears. And, I don’t think that I was crying because I did not know then, that I would never see them again. I could not have imagined that my grandmother would never sing to me again, that she would never feed me again and that my grandfather would never again carry me around in his arms and that I would never again feel their love and tenderness. My mother and I were leaving Vienna; going to the WestBahnhof Station to go to Rotterdam in the Netherlands and then to America. I do, however, remember the trip on the train and what happened afterwards…..
1. Goodbye to Vienna
It was December 1939 and as I sat next to my mother on the train going from Vienna to Rotterdam, I was aware that she was unusually pale and quiet. She was generally not a demonstrative or out-going person, but now she was more remote than ever. I wondered, “Why is she so sad?” “What is going on?” “what is wrong?” I had just turned three years old and was trying to figure things out but, at the same time trying to convince myself that this trip was going to be an adventure, that I was going to discover some new things. I was determined to be cheerful. I had never been on a train before and even more exciting, was that I was going to a wonderful country called, “America.”
The weather was cold, grey, and bleak and sitting on the train I was absorbed in the scene around me, looking at everyone and was mesmerized by everything; the people, their faces, the activity. I was deep into the experience. My mother later told me that some passengers sitting near us were looking at me also. I was nicely dressed wearing my winter outfit: a blue woolen coat with a matching “muetze” (a hat with a pointed top and tied under the chin), matching leggings and dark blue lace-up leather shoes. Perhaps it was the large doll that I was holding so tightly that was attracting attention. She was almost as large as I was, lavishly dressed, with a porcelain face and eyes that opened and closed. My mother told me later that a woman who was sitting near us, had been observing me and asked me, “Wohin nimst Du deine herliche Pupe?” (where are you taking your beautiful doll?). I responded seriously, “Ich nehme Sie weg von hier nach Amerika, Sie kann nicht mehr hier bleiben wiel Sie Jüdisch ist! ” (I am taking her away from here to America. She cannot stay here any more because she is Jewish!). My mother said that the lady looked away quickly and didn’t talk to us anymore. She might have realized our situation and felt guilty. And she must have understood that we were fleeing. And she might have seen how sad my mother was. And my childish interpretation of the political situation seemed profound because it epitomized so aptly the victimization of innocent people.
It took a long time — over 12 hours to reach Rotterdam. The train was crowded, all the seats were taken. And, after a few stops outside of Vienna, getting impatient, my mother told me that I asked “Sind Wir schon in Amerika?” (Are we already in America?)
As the train rattled on noisily, further and further away from my home, the place where I was born, from my playthings, from my grandmother and grandfather, and also from my Papi and brother, Franzi who was eight years old at that time. It occurred to me that it had been quite a while since I had seen my father or played with my brother. Franzi used to run around with me, circling the table to music from opera and marches. Music was part of our DNA. My father loved to play the piano and sing Schubert lieder. My brother was a wonderful artist, drawing pictures of animals and especially of butterflies, which he drew very realistically. He was obsessed with butterflies. He and my father would go out butterfly hunting. They brought home specimens of Alpine butterflies, which they pinned up on a stretcher and mounted in a framed box. There were many such boxes adorning the walls in our apartment. The reality was that my father and brother had left Vienna about a year before.
I slept uneasily on my mother’s arm. We had some food with us, but I was not hungry and also uncomfortable. The trip seemed endless. Looking back, I remember that I felt an underlying uneasiness. I could not figure out why we had to leave our home. That we were Jewish was a very abstract concept, that I didn’t quite understand. It seemed to me as if we were running away. What were we escaping from? Why was everything so gloomy? I was full of questions but did not know how to ask them. I partly accepted that something bad had happened in Vienna, that we were being targeted, and that we had to hurry to get away. I guess it was hard to explain to a three year old that we were being thrown out of our home and our country. There were really no words to help understand such things as how one group could hate other human beings so much. How could it be explained that there was a man would want to kill us and millions of innocent people. It would be too mean to tell that to a child. So my mother just said that we had to leave. But, I had overheard others say that we were being forced out because we were Jewish.
2. Terror in Rotterdam
We finally arrived in the city of Rotterdam. My mother’s cousin, Anni Lux, lived there and met us at the train station. As we stepped out of the train, I immediately sensed something about the atmosphere; it was brighter and more colorful than in Vienna. People were livelier, smiling and animated. We went to a restaurant. My eyes opened wide, dazzled by sparkling lights, bright colors and aromatic pine branches; decorations for the Christmas holidays. There was music and laughter. The sounds of gaiety were different from what I was used to in Vienna. I was amazed and bewildered, I thought, “Perhaps this is the adventure I had hoped for and this trip will not be so bad after all.” Indeed, it turned out to be an adventure but not the kind that I could have ever imagined.
My mother and Anni Lux found a table and were immediately engrossed in conversation. They did not notice that I had slipped off my chair and wandered away from them, wanting to look around and explore the scene. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a creature, completely covered in black with a tail and a shaggy mane, part animal, part devil sprang in front of me. Terrified, I ran from him screaming… he — IT — chased me. I darted around and tried to hide behind the many big square pillars, running as fast as I could, screaming as loud as I possibly was able. No matter where I ran, he was there. It seemed like hours that I was running trying to save my life. He looked wild, frightening and dangerous, carrying a big bag and tree branches. My nightmare continued as my panic- stricken screams were ignored. No one seemed to acknowledge the danger I was in. My mother was oblivious. I had to find her. I was in a frenzy, screaming running — running as fast as I could manage. Suddenly he caught me, grasped my arm with his claw, and with my heart jumping out of my chest, forced a small package into my hand.
Although I was hysterical crying when I finally found my mother, it was time to board the ship, no time for consolation. She took my hand, pulling me, hurrying not to be late. I was still inconsolable when we boarded the ship: The Rotterdam. I finally calmed down and much later dared to look down at what was in my hand. I found a little box with a pink ribbon tied around it. As I unwrapped it, I was surprised and relieved to find a gift, just perfect for a small girl — a brooch, a hair barrette, a bracelet and a ring all made in pink plastic. It was a tonic and I wore these things all the way to NY. But at that moment, the real surprise was that something nice had happened to me and moreover, I was still alive!
Later on, I discovered that in parts of eastern Europe; Bavaria and Austria, Santa Claus is accompanied by a frightening scary looking helper called “Krampus.” Years ago when my mother was still alive, she received a letter from Anni Lux recounting some memories of that time and she talked about something she would never forget – my hysterical, unstoppable crying at the restaurant. She recounted how I was absolutely inconsolable and continued crying until we got on the ship. Recently in the New York Times there was an article about a revival of the “Krampus” tradition in the Netherlands. I had never heard the name “Krampus” and no-one seemed to know anything about it. . But I when I researched it — this is what I found and it explained why I had that terrifying experience just when my life had been uprooted and I was a vulnerable barely three years old. This was my rude introduction and my first experience out of my coddled existence in Vienna, into the world outside.
“The name “Krampus” comes from the old Germanic word for “claw.” (This is the same word that gives us “crampon,” the mountain climbing shoe hook attachment.) The Krampus is a demon that travels alongside Santa Claus or St Nicholas, whipping bad children with birch branches and rusty chains. In many parts of Bavaria, young men traditionally dress as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December and go running through the streets, frightening children. The Krampus is hairy, horned, and sometimes lascivious. It is considered a type of incubus, a demon which is more commonly associated with nighttime sexual attacks.”
Not only did this incident frighten me to death but was emblematic of something larger not only in my life; but the nightmare that was coming. It was actually the beginning of the most horrific time in the history of the world. The most monumental evil of our time. The systematic slaughter of human beings — “the Holocaust.”
In Austria, Kaiser Franz Joseph instituted a benevolent time for the Jewish people. Almost from the start of his reign in 1849, he implemented bold changes that had a transformative effect on the Jews of his realm, adopting a constitution which stated that “civic and political rights” were “not dependent on religion.” *(1).
The subsequent decades came to be known as the “Golden Age” of Viennese Jewry, when Jews went on to scale the heights of literature, art and culture, making an indelible cultural and artistic imprint on Austria and Europe as a whole. They could enter into professions of their choosing and were accepted members of Viennese society. They were assimilated and reveled in being “Viennese.” The cultural scene was vibrant, filled with talented and prominent writers, artists, musicians and scientists. Vienna was a glorious place to be, or at least it seemed that way outwardly. There was classical music everywhere, performed in the Stadtsoper, the Volksoper, the Redoutensahl (one of the bedrooms in the Kaisers Palace). There was theater, opera, waltzes, walking in the Prater (park). Vienna was a city of charm, polite manners and gemütlichkeit. There was Sacher Torte, Wiener Schnitzel and Marilnknoedl (dumplings stuffed with apricots with a bread crumb coating). The Cafehaus was an iconic and inimical symbol of cultural life in Vienna. It was the intellectual epicenter of Viennese society and was the best place to keep up with anything new.*(2). It was the favorite place of my grandfather, Benjamin Ziegler, who would sit for hours and schmooze, much to the chagrin of my grandmother who had to go looking for him when patients came to his office seeking his care as a physician.
It was not really so surprising when in 1931, the guillotine fell, on this rarified, brief moment in history, and Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany that major changes would occur. At first, the changes were gradual, however, insidious, just hints of what was to come. As an example — my father described a hiking trip that he and my mother took before they were married, into a remote mountain region in Austria. It was a long journey and they became hungry and thirsty. Finally, they found a small inn; relieved, they walked to the door only to discover a small sign — “Dogs and Jews not allowed.” They stood there perplexed, shocked, not understanding and walked away.
By the mid 1934 Hitler began to really flex his muscles, threatening to annex Austria to Germany. He had taken over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, although he had been warned by his own generals that it would be impossible. He was provided the opportunity by an agreement with Neville Chamberlain of Britain whereby Hitler promised not to invade other countries if he would be allowed to take over the Sudentenland. That was one of the most tragic mistakes of the war. It was the downfall of all of Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the invasion of Poland. To trust Hitler was like making a deal with a devil.
4. Taborstrasse 64…
One day my father came home from seeing his patients and found my mother sitting by the radio listening to the news, in tears. The vote to keep Austria independent from Germany had failed. The Austrian premier Kurt Schussnigg, the last hope of holding ground against Hitlers’ demands that Austria be annexed to Germany, had resigned. It was the beginning of the end of the life not only for the Jewish people in Vienna but the whole world would feel the reverberations. My father’s greatest fears were realized and all hope was now gone. There had been ominous warnings. He had been reading the newspaper every day and listening to the radio with fervent hope that somehow, someone would step in and condemn the insanity, this inhumane assault — but no such voice arose! There was no outrage, no condemnation; only silence from leaders of the rest of the world. Thousands demonstrated in the street carrying signs opposing the takeover. But the Nazis overrode and disregarded the peoples cries and in March 1938, the Nazis marched into Vienna, carrying flags high stepping and singing. To most everyone’s amazement suddenly, out of nowhere, Austrians lined the streets and welcomed the invaders by throwing flowers at them. Others, such as my parents looking out of the window watched in disbelief, terrified, realizing that their lives were now in mortal danger. Actually, the horrors were just beginning!
From that moment on, everything changed. The outright persecution of Jews began. About 40,000 people were arrested. In Vienna, Jews were forbidden to enter certain restaurants, their children were not allowed to go to their normal schools. My brother, Franzi, was put into a Jewish school, which he hated. Windows of Jewish businesses were smashed; glass was everywhere in the streets and thus, called, “Kristalnacht” (night of glass). Jewish people were forced to wear identifying yellow arm bands. Women and girls had to add the name “Sara” as a middle name. I became Johanna Sara Mechner, my mother was Hedwig Sara Mechner. Men and boys had to add the middle name of “Isaac.” Elderly men and women were forced to bend down, kneel on the sidewalk and scrub it with toothbrushes, watched over by laughing, gloating Nazi guards.
The mania struck our house as my father received a letter from the newly established Nazi government ordering him to close his medical practice and to sell his medical equipment and furnishings. It had not been long ago that he had opened his office. In Austria at that time, there was socialized medicine, and in order to start his medical practice he had to be assigned a district (called something like “Rayon” district). Coincidentally, my grandfather, Benjamin, was about to retire from his medical practice just as my father was ready to open his practice. Therefore, my father, was able to inherit or take over my grandfather’s territory and patients. As his waiting room was filling up and was building his practice he was also involved in research for a cold remedy. His discovery of a cold remedy. It was called “Viperine” an ointment for colds and hay fever made out of snake venom, that one rubbed into one’s arm. His discovery was presented at the Viennese Medical Society and created a sensation. It made headlines in the newspapers with large photographs of my father in his laboratory. He was receiving acclaim for his discovery, and its effectiveness was corroborated by the family and hundreds of others who used it at the first sign of the sniffles. He was on the verge of being not only very successful but perhaps even “famous.” His very significant abilities and talents were being realized and after years of studying, planning for the future his dreams seemed attainable. It was preposterous that it could end just as his life was taking shape. How it could have ended was epitomized with the following incident which he described in his biography in this way:
“They also came to our house to take me, two young fellows in black uniforms, SS men, about 18 years old, and asked me to go with them. I resisted. I told them that as a former “Frontkempfer” which means one who had fought in the First World War for Austria on the side of Germany, I was exempted from that kind of work. Also that it was proclaimed over the radio that doctors should not be called for such work. They said that they had not heard of it and I asked them to call up their commando to find out about it and offered them the telephone. They looked in the telephone directory, but could not find the number, and finally they gave up and left. That was a hard moment for me and my people”.
For the time being, because of his quick-wittedness and the incompetence of the SS men, my father was able to prevent his arrest. He took a deep breath, grateful for his reprieve. If they had succeeded we would never have seen him again. But, he was not out of danger…. a few months later a letter arrived. It stated that he must dissolve his medical practice, sell his office equipment and notify his patients that he will no longer be working. It also stated, that if he did not do this immediately, he would be arrested. His heart sank. He could no longer ignore the seriousness of his situation. He was forced to make the wrenching decision to flee. He could no longer put it off — he had to leave his family, his parents, the place he had loved so dearly and where he had built his life and important work. Now, there was no more denying it; his arrest was imminent!
Immediately, he went into action. He went to the Immigration consulate to apply for a visa to go to the USA. The official asked him where he was born. He replied, “Czernowitz, Romania” the official and looked at him sternly, shook his head and remarked; “Don’t you know that there is a quota system for the US? *(2). If you were born in Romania you will not be allowed in, you will have to wait. There is a very long waiting list!” It was the first time he had heard of it. It was a shock! He knew had to get out quickly and did not have time to waste. Where could he go? My mother was born in Austria and could obtain visas for herself and her children. But for my father, having been born in Romania, was a huge obstacle.
He thought—perhaps he should accept help for getting the two visas a friend offered him for Australia, some days before. But after doing some research he found out that in Australia in order to establish a medical practice would take at least three years and even then it was not sure. He was desperate, but he was not the only one, there were hundreds, scrambling like mice escaping from a poisoned nest; running around trying to find a place to hide, a country that would accept them.
One day, Just by chance, he ran into a friend on the street who had received, a difficult to obtain, visa for Cuba. Since he was unable to use it, offered it to my father. It was known that Cuba was one of the few countries that was permitting immigration from European countries. Seizing the opportunity he gratefully accepted the visa without hesitation. Now, at least he had an escape route in hand, alleviating his fear of imminently being arrested. The two visas for Australia, (they were actually offers of support) he gave to his brother-in-law, Erich, (my mothers brother) and his wife, Lisl, which they used. After days of frantic arrangements such as: picking up the formula for producing Viperin, the snake venom powder from the pharmacy, and having suits made for the hot climate — he and my brother Franzi , (who could not go to his normal school anymore), quickly departed. They headed to Paris where many family members; cousins, aunts and uncles, and most importantly, my mother’s sister, Lisa, resided. “The plan” (as we later understood it) was, that although my father and brother, would leave Vienna together, Franzi would remain in Paris with aunt Lisa to eventually be picked up by my mother on her way to America.
Franzi, however, was unaware of this plan—he believed that he would be going with my father to Cuba. Nothing could have pleased and excited him more than having his mesmerizing father all to himself. He was thrilled, when on the train to Paris my father read one book after another to him and patiently answered his many questions.
5. Franzi in France…
One morning, after a few days in Paris, Franzi woke up to find my father in the hall with his coat on and his suitcase in hand, standing near the door. “Could it be? He realized with horror, that his father was leaving without him? “It can’t be true” he reasoned. “My father would not do that to me. He would not leave me alone here.” He protested wildly, he begged and pleaded, hanging onto his father’s pants leg, “Please Papi, please take me with you, you promised you would take me to Cuba with you. Don’t leave without me, don’t leave me here.” It was to no avail. It was heart wrenching but my father was forced to leave on his own. He had only ONE visa!
No one knew or could have conceived of the dangers that lay ahead. At that time, France was an unoccupied country and it seemed unfathomable that Hitler would invade France. It was believed that there was a protective zone around France —the Maginot line— which no army could penetrate. But, on May I940, the unthinkable happened. Hitler staged a massive air attack on the the western part of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, England and France. It was a “blitzkrieg” of bombers, decimating large parts of the countryside and cities. The borders were closed and Franzi and Lisa were trapped in the midst of the war scene. Tragically, the mortally dangerous situation that followed left an indelible mark on only on our family but especially on Franzi. *(5)
For my father, the timing to leave Vienna turned out to be providential, as a matter of fact — literally, life saving. A few days after he left, two young Nazi thugs came to the door. They demanded that, Dr. Mechner appear. He was to be arrested and was to leave with them. They searched the apartment for him unsuccessfully. My mother was able to explain convincingly : “You will not find him… he is not here, he has left Vienna and, as a matter of fact, he is not in Austria anymore!”
This was an example of my father’s magical aura. My brother and I believed that he was invincible that he could accomplish miracles and be able to achieve anything that he set his mind to do. He had once more made the right decision at the right time. If he had been arrested at this time we would never have seen him again!
6. A step toward safety…
My mother now was in a frightening position: She had a two year old child; her parents, Regina and Benjamin were in danger of being arrested and /or deported; she was without income or any kind of support. And beyond that — she was evicted from our apartment and had to move to my grand parents apartment down the street at 87 Taborstrasse. Although they, filled with despair, tried to do the best they could, our situation was dismal; it was only a matter of time before the Nazis would come for us.
There is still no news from you. This is making me very worried. Also from Franzi and Lisa — nothing! I still don’t know if I will get the tickets (Schiffskarten). I have to present them to the insurance (Untersicherung). Otherwise I will not get the visa. That is why I am so desperate.
If I don’t submit an extension of my pass I will automatically be rejected by 10/30. It will have to be extended. My parents must move to another place, maybe with Tante Klemi or together with some other relatives.
Mr. K is going on vacation and then being taken completely away. I don’t think that anything will develop (be resolved) everything has become so difficult.
Mama writes that Karl is set up. Tante Rosa will be able to travel next week. If only something would work for me! Mama cooks very well but does not make Jause anymore. Unfortunately I cannot tell you anything good. Except that we are all healthy (gesund). Hannerl is well behaved and looks good. (gut ausschaut).
Dr. Lazarus telegrammed Suzanne for me but until now—-no answer. Soon I will start to make lists for packing, this entails Hansi and also taxes.
If only I knew if I will ever see you again. Perhaps someday, somehow you could come to NY, then everything would be easier. God only knows what will still befall us. If only there would be a letter!
The quota for the parents is undecided (fallig?). Perhaps you can get an affidavit also for Lisa. Please write another Clipper letter.
Many kisses, Hedi
My mother, who had grown up as the dutiful daughter in a proud and dignified family, did not want to leave her parents. She worried that they could be arrested at any moment and deported, and then what — no one knew. Even the most ordinary events such as taking a walk in the Prater to get some fresh air became sinister and dangerous. There is a photo showing my mother wearing a yellow armband with a Jewish star on it and a Nazi guard chasing us out. We were not allowed to walk to even walk in the park! On the other hand there was a somewhat ironic situation as well. There were actually some Nazis that were sympathetic to her, they had turned a blind eye by allowing her some benefits such as staying in Vienna as long as she did (1939). The reason was, that they had been patients of my father’s; he had been their helpful and beloved doctor!
Nevertheless — the harsh reality was — that time was running out and there was no alternative but to leave or be arrested. But before we were allowed to leave we had to have documentation to get our visas. The new Nazi government created obstacles wherever they could. Children had to be tested to demonstrate that they “qualified” to obtain a visa, that they were not mentally retarded. The irony was that Jewish children were well enough to stay in Austria to be killed but had to qualify for certain standards when they wanted to leave.
It came time for me to be tested by a doctor in a government office. I was asked to recite my name and to count up to ten. I absolutely refused to open my mouth. I did not like the Nazi official interviewing me, he looked mean. My mother was desperate. She coaxed me and begged me to say my name and to count, but I absolutely refused. I held my lips together tightly. Finally, the official gave in and wrote “normal” on the form. My mother was incredibly relieved and told me later that he must have been swayed by my appearance, because of my Aryan appearance; blond hair and blue eyes. In any case, we were able to get our visas. We were among the fortunate ones — my mother and I had taken a step towards our salvation.
7. Crossing the Atlantic…
After boarding the Rotterdam, my mother immediately went into her cabin and into bed, where she stayed for the rest of the trip. I was now alone, unattended. I explored the ship looking at the floor boards of the deck, the inside panels of the boat and, the ocean — I had never seen so much water before. I could not take my eyes off of it. I was mesmerized by the endless waves, some with white bubbles at the top and others smooth, rolling, and sparkling. The deep turquoise became almost black with the bottomless depth. Shiny facets appeared and disappeared continuously. Just right in front of me was a very large metal-linked chain and beyond it was the sea. I was feeling sorry for myself and I wondered what would happen if I somehow fell into the water. I could just slide off the ship. No one would know that I had disappeared. No one would even be aware that I was missing. There was no one around me who knew me, nobody cared about me. There would be no scene or commotion. I could easily just fall off the ship and it would not matter. I was consumed with these thoughts which I was convincing myself were very tempting. Just then, one of the staff a young lady in uniform, asked if I wanted to sit next to my mother in the cabin, it was dinner time. Did they realize what I was planning? Or was it just that they felt sorry for the lone little girl staring out at the ocean? Anyway, some solicitous crew members set up a little table beside my mother’s bed so that I could eat near her. I tried to talk to her but she was not able to speak. Later she described it as that she was so sick that her hands had turned “blue.”
Not only was she sick with nausea but also with despair, she literally meant blue with depression, because there was something I did not know at the time but learned later, something that epitomized the confusion and desperation of a hunted people making plans in a panic for flight. My mother was supposed to rendezvous with Franzi in France on her way to America. It seemed like a straight forward idea. However, because the Germans had in the meantime invaded France and closed the borders between neighboring countries. Franzi was trapped! Lisa was unable to procure the visa in time for him to travel and/or to coordinate with my mothers’ schedule. In other words, my mother was forced to leave Europe without her 8 year old son (who was now doomed to be in the middle of a raging war). Franzi was at the mercy of his aunt Lisa and the relatives who would be responsible for him. At one stage it was suggested that they put him in an orphanage, because it was too difficult for Lisa to be burdened with a child when she had to protect herself first and foremost. Lisa, refused. She was a heroine!.
Also worrisome was the fact that her parents were in peril of being deported, her husband was far away in Havana, Cuba, and she had to care for her three year old child, and make a life for both of us in a new country with five dollars in her pocket book. A more tragic situation is hard to imagine! Metaphorically and symbolically this ocean crossing represented a severance of everything she had known and loved. She was 37 years old! Both she and I were traumatized by the brutality of recent events. On that boat with that journey her life had been changed forever and there was so much that was unknowable!.
8. New York…
The journey took 12 days So in December 1939, my mother and I disembarked in New York and were met be our “sponsor,” a cousin of my mother’s, a medical doctor, Hansi Hilkovitch. As promised, Hansi had sent an affidavit, vouching for us, that we would be taken care of. As she took my hand, I was immediately reassured by her confidence and the way she unhesitatingly took charge of us. She was a large woman, with a friendly face. However, what I will never forget is the hat she was wearing. It appeared to have real bird sitting on top of it. The bird had reddish brown and white feathers, a head, a beak, and beady black eyes, I was transfixed and wondered, “How is it that the bird did not move or fly away?” I could not stop looking at it. “Could it be a real bird sitting there?” I stared at it to check to see if it moved. It was absolutely still not even a small movement, so after a while, I figured out that the bird was dead. While I was involved with this problem my mother and Hansi were very busy reconnecting with each other. They had much to catch up with.
Hansi took us to an apartment she had rented for us on Central Park West on 89th Street in Manhattan, as instructed by my father from Cuba. He also sent her $30 probably all the money he had. I was enrolled in a nursery school or day care center and was terrified. I had never been separated from my mother before. Not only that but did not understand English and did not like the food that was given to me at lunch time. I remember sitting next to a child and wondering how she could eat the tasteless something in a gooey white sauce. To make matters worse, after lunch, there was an imposed nap time where I had to lie down on a scratchy canvas cot. I could not sleep I was so unhappy and just cried silently. I was deeply miserable. My previous coddled, refined existence had turned into an unending nightmare!
To earn some subsistence, my mother got a job crocheting gloves and as a result I needed a baby sitter — someone to pick me up from nursery school. In order to help her out, a friend of my mother’s, someone from Vienna, perhaps a distant cousin, a Mr. Lazarus, volunteered for the job. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a huge problem for me. I was repelled by his hunchback and his general deformities. His head was slightly pitched to one side and it was kind of leaning on his chest with almost no neck as far as I could tell. I knew he was a really nice man and he had a nice smile and he was really sweet and nice to me but I just was in such a vulnerable state that it was hard for me to accept him. When I objected at staying with him, my mother, rather inconsiderately confronted me in his presence by asking, “Varum wilst du nicht mit Ihm bleiben?“ (why do you not want to stay with him?)”. I was in a quandary as to how to answer, trying to be diplomatic and not hurt his feelings, I answered “Ich liebe Ihm noch nicht” (I don’t like (love) him yet)!
I had gotten very sick with the measles which was a big problem for my mother. She had to go to work. When the doctor came he told her that I was underweight for my age and had to gain weight to become healthy again.
My mother and I clung to each other, with the only connection we had with our family; letters that arrived from Lisa and Francis from France, my grandparents from Vienna and from my father from Havana, Cuba. When we received a letter, we would sit down together and read it aloud. We savored every word. Reading the cherished messages was an important event. My father had sent some pictures of himself looking dashing in his white suit and straw hat, with a mustache, tanned and was even holding a cigar!
9. My father in Havana
Here is a poem my father sent to me shortly after our arrival in New York….
Erinnerst du Dich an den Papa noch?
Er hielt Dich oft am Arm doch,
Er spielte mit Dir, Du warst so brav,
Er sang Dir sanfte Lieder zum schlaf.
Nunn ist es lang her, dass er fuhr fort
Mit dem Franzi und Euch allein liess dort.
Gern war er gebleiben, er liebt Euch sehr,
Er muste fort ubers’s weite Meer.
Nun bist auch Du ;uber’s Meer gekommen
Ich freute mich sehr, als ich dies vernommen’
Und damit Du nicht glaubst , ich hab Dich vergessen
Schick ich Dir nun was Gutes zum Essen”!
Do you still remember your Papa?
He held you often on his arm,
He played with you, you were so good,
He sang soft songs to you for your sleep.
Now it is a long time that he had left
With Franzi and left you behind
He would have preferred to stay with you
He loved you very much. He had to leave
Over the wide ocean.
Now you have also come over the sea,
I was very glad when I heard about it,
And so that you don’t think I have forgotten you
I am sending you something good to eat.
Franzi, in one of his letters, bet me that he could read better than I could. I found it odd and boastful but probably he just was trying to coax me to read well or perhaps more likely he was trying to impress me. He excelled as a student. Even in France, having to learn to speak French, he was always either number one or two in his class ranking.
But I know I that I was reading on my own at that time, both in English and German and I remember my books that I both loved and feared.
They were: Grimms and Andersons fairy tales; another was “Rubesahl” a book about a man who lived in the mountains and could magically transform himself into a giant or into any form that he wanted. In one illustration he was a giant, with a long red beard, standing in a forest where the trees reached to his mid calf. He had come across an innocent traveler and pulled out his leg, swinging it around in a circle over his head. I would study the illustration intensely, trying to come to grips with it. Another book was Max und Moritz, about two malicious boys, who preyed on defenseless elderly people by performing destructive pranks. And another was Struwelpeter who was unkempt, with long shaggy hair and long claw-like nails, it was a tome about teaching grooming through exacerbated slovenliness. One of the stories was called, “Hans Kook in die Luft” (Hans Who Looks Up In The Air), teaching to look where you are going. Other books I remember were, “A Childs Garden of Verses,” by Robert Louis Stevenson and a poem, “The Land of Counterpane,” also by Robert Louis Stevenson.
But the one I adored most of all was a large colorful Walt Disney version of “Pinocchio.” I was obsessed with the story and the pictures of Foulfellow and Gideon. I loved repeating the name “Foulfellow” so descriptive of the character. I tried to imagine being in the stomach of a whale and couldn’t get over the fact that the inside of the whale was empty and one could build a fire in there. It really captured my imagination and I read it over and over, and would not let the book out of my sight. One day, a friend of my mother’s was taking pictures of us on Central Park West near the park benches. When it was my turn to have my picture taken he asked my mother to hold the book. He took it to give it to my mother. I panicked, and cried until it was returned to me. There are photos of me clutching the book. In retrospect, it is understandable, so much had been taken away from me I was not going to allow this also.
10. A year passed…
Although my father had expected Cuba to be a temporary holding station before coming to America, somehow he found out that there were thousands of people also on the Romanian quota, who were ahead of him. Almost four years had passed without any notification for possible US entry, as a result of the McCarren Walters Act *3. limiting immigration especially from Eastern European countries like Romainia. there were huge waiting lists. He was giving up hope and became despondent thinking that it might be perhaps ten or more years before his name would come up on the list. He, therefore urged my mother to join him in Havana. My mother was reluctant, she had a job earning some money and hoped that my father would be able to join us in the US. But he insisted, he was lonely, he missed his wife, his children. He finally succeeded in convincing my mother to dig up the shallow new roots she had just put down and come to Havana. So, again, my mother and I were on the move. We packed up and took a train to Miami Florida and a boat to Havana, Cuba.
11. My Papi again….
Meeting my father again after almost three years of separation was one of those seminal moments that not only concerned me, but was, apparently a trans-Atlantic event. In letters from my grandparents, Gina and Benjamin asked, ”How did Hannerl respond to seeing her father again?” “Did she recognize him?‘ The scene as I remember it was the following: getting off the ship, my mother and I walked down a long gangplank. I remember looking down at the worn out wooden planks, at the end of which and in front of us was an enormous metal link chain and beyond that—a man was standing. As we approached the chain, (about as high as my eye level), at least from my vantage point… it was enormous, metaphorically and in reality, separating my mother and me from a man who appeared to know us. As we came closer, he was looking at me — I held onto my mother’s dress. He said, ”Ich bin dein Papa.” I huddled closer to my mother. My recent disorienting, unsettling experiences and losses left me shaken and wary, but somehow, perhaps because of the biological connection or I remembered the photographs or perhaps even some distant memories — I don’t know how long it was; but there was familiarity and recognition. I looked up at my mother she nodded, reassuring me that it was indeed my father. He reached across the chain, took me in his arms, hugged me and held me tightly. I will never forget how it felt. His strong embrace and sure touch convinced me that I was safe and more than that, that I was loved. He and I must have been filled with longing and at that moment he had at least one of his children and his wife with him. I was four years old and I had my Papi again.
He took us to an apartment that he had rented in a two or three story building on the Malecon, next to the ocean in one of the most beautiful areas in all of Havana. The white limestone building albeit with the outside walls’ surface peeling off in large patches, had a large terrace with an unobstructed view of the ocean, the beach and the famous lighthouse, popularly known as “El Morro” or “El Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro” which stood out boldly guarding Old Havana at the very tip of the Cuban peninsula.
The terrace which stretched across the length of the building, was our main living area. It was used for everything: eating, reading, taking photographs and communing with neighbors. The apartment itself was just one large room with a kitchen and bath. Other families shared the terrace with us. In another apartment next to ours, there was a little boy who was very shy. His mother took many pictures of us. She would adorn me with bows, dressing me up for the photos. One of the photographs, shows me with an enormous bow in my hair, which I remember was an unusually beautiful shade of green. I heard her commenting “Como una muñeca.” ( like a doll).
This terrace was our new home. Memories of my stuffed animals and dolls became more distant but I still missed them. I was dissatisfied with my new playthings: dolls, dollhouse furniture, little toy kitchen, tiny cooking utensils, a small stove and stuffed animals. My parents tried really hard to have a semblance of normal life, but it seemed contrived. The toys were set up on a little table with intention that they would occupy me for a long time. I played dutifully but was not absorbed and longed for something else, although, I was not sure what it was or could be. Perhaps the books and other things I was used to in Vienna, or perhaps it was the security of our previous life or perhaps it was the love and attention I had from my doting, wonderful grandparents not so long ago.
Aside from that, my world had shifted considerably with the advent and discovery of my father. I looked forward to spending time with him. Especially, sitting on his lap and reading the book that he made for me and Francis, called “Franzi und Hannerl: Zwei Brave Kinder” (Franzi and Hannerl: Two well-behaved children). The inside front and back cover which he said he made especially for me, consisted of rows and rows of tiny drawings of toys, little animals, pots, flowers and tiny little objects and things. We would name each one in order, in German then repeat it again and then read the book. I felt a kinship with my father. I responded to his sunny personality and lighthearted sense of humor. I was able to smile again.
The FRANZI UND HANNERL: ZWEI BRAVE KINDER book became an icon for the family. It was a marvel of imagination, lovely drawings and remarkable in its conception. Everyone who sees it , admires the skill, beauty and optimism even in those dark times, that it exudes.
12. Staying in contact…
The war, at this time in 1941, was raging around the world. It was important to keep in contact with relatives in Europe. In order to reassure them that we were safe my father took on the task of informing our relatives of our activities. One day, he had the idea to have a family portrait made on the terrace of the three of us. Getting a ‘timed exposure’ was not easy and during this process, as was typical of him, he was completely absorbed and determined. But the results were never quite up to his satisfaction. We spent an endlessly long, time sitting in the same pose, smiling. Finally, our cheeks began to ache and patience was running out. My father was running back and forth without end, when my mother burst into a fit of laughter or giggles that could not be stopped. At that moment the camera shutter went off and there was a photo of my mother laughing, my father looking at her angrily and me, perplexed, but still smiling at the camera.
13. My name is “Juanita.”
I was now Juanita Mechner and Spanish quickly became my third language rolling off my tongue quite automatically. We moved to a suburb of Havana, called Ampliacion de Almendares, into a two bedroom rather rudimentary wood framed house. The minimal structure which did not require heating, had patio doors to go in an out. It was almost like a garden house with an enormous patio in the center. The living arrangements were as follows: there were three bedrooms, a large kitchen, a dining room, which was like a family room where we gathered not only for meals but also where my father had a little desk with his typewriter. Attached to ours was another similar house where another Viennese family lived. Their daughter’s name was Elfi. Elfi, as I remember always had a pained expression on her face. Her parents complained openly about some of her features; her ears stuck out too much and perhaps I am wrong but I remember them talking about having them pinned closer to her head. I imagined that would put some sticky tape there to hold them. She was also pigeon towed, had knock knees and had trouble with crossed eyes. It was embarrassing and unfortunate and I hoped that she didn’t hear or take it to heart that she had these disabilities.
Our landlady Esperanza lived in the house in front of us, near the street, with her daughter Hortensia and other members of the family. Hortensia was a little younger than I was but she became my playmate. We played together in our mutual patio although she cried most of the time. Sometimes I would be invited to their house for dinner. I accepted eagerly with the anticipation of the typical Cuban meal of Carne Asada (fried steak), sliced, accompanied by rice and beans. The seductive aroma and taste represented a departure from my mothers European style cuisine. Although I had been underweight (the only time in my life) in NY that changed when we settled down with my mother’s European style cooking. Once I was forced to eat something called “eierknockerl.” It consisted of flour dumplings in an egg mixture, I railed against eating it and balked at even just tasting it. However, my parents stood over me insisting and forced me to eat it. I could not escape and gave in— tasted it— and found it to be delicious. At that moment I became addicted to the taste of fluffy high calorie doughy food. Soon I became round and chubby like the eiernockerl!
Down the street a few houses away lived another friend, Teresita Pina, she had about four or five middle names which I do not remember. Although I liked playing with her, she seemed to have a constant cold. Perhaps she had allergies but it was disturbing and interrupted our playtime when her mother slapped her every time she sneezed or coughed.
One day, in the middle of the afternoon, while playing in the garden/patio, I saw the maid on the other side of the garden running around chasing a chicken that was squawking, its feathers flying. The feathers were a bright orange, brown and white and the wings were spread apart with fear. She snatched up the bird and came over to me asking, “ quieres tu ver una cosa?” (“do you want to see something?”). She was holding the screeching chicken in front of me. I was in a quandary, guessing that I should accede to her question and thinking that it would prevent further damage to the chicken. I hesitatingly nodded my head. But she held onto to it and in an instant she threw the chicken behind her back. “Snap Crack!” The sound was ominous. Suddenly, the limp dead chicken its eyes half closed with a tiny tongue hanging out of its beak was dangling in front of me. I was horrified and indignant. She had just killed the poor chicken with her bare hands — “how could she do such a thing?” Hours later, sitting at the dinner table, I made the connection and decided that I was not hungry.
14. The tropical environment….
The large patio right outside the door was filled with tropical plants of many varieties. There were poinsettias as tall as small trees, There were Mariposas, a lovely white flower with a wonderful aroma often called the butterfly plant. There were tall palm trees all along the paths and one that especially stood out was laden with bananas that hung low so that we could touch them. I don’t remember that we actually picked the bananas to eat.
For me, Havana was a paradise. The sunshine warmed and comforted me and brought a pinkish glow to my skin. I could play outside until late in the evening and our outings to “la playa” (the beach) were routine, just a short bus ride away.
The fruits in Cuba were ambrosial. The aroma of the oranges floated in the air. When we went into the city, out on the street, the ubiquitous street vendors sold the sweetest oranges you can imagine. There was an attachment on the side of the cart. The orange would be skewered onto a post, and a small sharp instrument like a knife would circle around while the vendor turned the the handle. This quick process produced a perfectly peeled orange just leaving the white part and resulting in a spiral trail of bright orange and white skin that fell to the ground. The orange would then be cut in half. When I went to the city or walking with my father he would buy an oranges for us and we would walk on the street sucking the oranges like a juicy candy. The pineapples were every day fare, but the mangoes were our favorite. At the dinner table, my father’s ritual surrounding the mangoes was a performance. He ceremoniously would drive a fork into one end finding the pit: securing the mango like a lollipop, he scored it and peeled it exposing the delicate orange colored flesh. As he offered it he would always remark, “Mangoes should really be eaten in the bathtub.” Inevitably, the juice would run down our arms as we held the fork and bit into the prize. Sitting in the bathtub eating a mango was a ridiculous image but typical of my father’s droll humor. Of course, we had many bent forks! There were also avocados to which he famously said ‘You just need a little lemon juice and that is all!” There were papayas, guavas, guabanas. There were very tall palm trees like the Royal palm, which grew over 20 feet high.
The patio was my playground. I wheeled my doll carriage along the stone paths which gave me the opportunity of fulfilling my mission in life of taking good care of my dolls. But highest priority was my cat named, Tchi-tchi. I carried her around, wheeled her in my doll carriage and took care of her as if she was one of my babies. She was large and black and tolerated whatever I would do to her. She was never far away from me.
One day Tchi-tchi disappeared. I could not find her anywhere. After a week or so, I gave up hope of ever finding her again and was just adjusting to her permanent absence when my mother asked me to get a sheet out of the linen closet. It was an unusual request, but I did not suspect anything. As I reached into the shelf to get the sheet my hand touched something warm and furry. My heart started pounding. In a flash I realized what it was — it was Tchi-tchi! and then — I discovered it was not only Tchi-tchi, my lost cat, but, that she had given birth to several kittens. I was consumed with happiness. From that moment on, the kittens were my most sublime playthings. I had been deprived of toys and embraced these live, adorable creatures wholeheartedly. I played with them all day long and, whether Tchi-tchi liked it or not, they also were put into my doll carriage. I could finally play and felt that there was a stability to our existence albeit sublimating the nagging sense that all was not well. Where was my brother? Where were my grandparents? And my parents seemed to be either worried or sad most of the time.
I could feel it especially with my mother, she was chronically morose. I thought perhaps I could help by taking her mind off her troubles and distracting her with some games. Sometimes, after much begging and prodding she reluctantly agreed. One game we would play was with clay where one person would secretly make an imprint of a pattern or texture on the clay and the other would have to guess where it came from. The other game was “Ich sehe etwas das du nicht siest, und es ist _______ (I see something you don’t see, and it is _____ a color).” It worked for focussing on the immediate visual surrounding but my mother’s attention would wander and she would become remote and drift away. I always wanted to play longer but sooner than I wanted she grew tired and distracted. I tried to cheer her up and get her attention by making jokes and saying silly things but it was hard breaking into her reverie. In retrospect I’m sure she was thinking about how dramatically her world had changed, It had after all it had just been a short time ago that she had left Vienna and her parents. I think it must have seemed so incongruous; the culture, the language, the climate. She was used to the temperate climate of Europe. The steamy humidity made her feel ill and uncomfortable. I heard her talking about the recent past of her wonderful life and how now it was all lost. According to her, in Vienna, she had her devoted parents who lived close by and who were admired by everyone. The mythology of Benjamin and Gina lived on; their kindness, the songs my grandmother sang, their humor, all very special. My mother would talk about them as if they were models of the finest character that they were legendary within their circle. She talked about how in Vienna, her life was consumed with happiness derived from her children, her husband and her prominent family (they were either bankers, lawyers or doctors) with hundreds of cousins ( my grandfather was one of 17 siblings).
Now she was a “displaced person” in an unfamiliar country. Her world had collapsed and she was never the same again. Although she acknowledged, that the Cuban society was civilized; that people were always well dressed, especially notable were the sparkling white suits that the men wore, and they were never without their straw hats. Also, what my mother liked and remarked on was that people were polite. For instance, men would unfailingly get up and offer their seats when a lady entered the bus.
15. The news from Europe…
The news from Europe was not good, with many sad letters from my grandparents about how people were being deported and sent to concentration camps. No matter how hard we tried to create some normalcy, it was not possible. The world was coming to an end. People in Europe were being murdered. There was talk of the final solution. The Final Solution was a code name for the murder of all the Jewish people in Europe by mass execution. The Germans being good at efficiency, built killing houses, concentration camps, so that as many people as possible, could be murdered at once. Six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust—two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before World War II.
Havana was a haven, not only for my parents and me, but for thousands of other emigres fleeing Europe to escape extermination. It was a blessing that my father could work at his profession and earn a little money. Albeit that he did not have a license, he practiced illegally, the authorities looked the other way and tacitly allowed the emigres to engage in certain activities. Aside from medicine, another such activity was the diamond cutting business. Cuba during World War ll became a world center for the diamond cutting and polishing business brought there by Jews from Belgium and the Netherlands. There were also other prominent industries, Cuba at that time was famous also as an exporter of rum, cigars and diamonds. * (4)
16. My fathers typewriter…
There was something about my fathers’ typewriter. It was a compact, portable Olivetti. The sleek metal case was a slate grey with a nubby textured surface. It had a special appeal because it was finely engineered for functionality, efficiency and economy of space. It had been with him throughout his travels and he treasured it. It was his weapon, his tool, to write, to coax and to not only stay in contact, but to save lives. Every night after dinner, he would sit at his typewriter writing letters to my grandparents, cousins and relatives all over the world. I still can hear the sound; the steady, soft hammering of the metal keys against the paper and ink roller.
Often he would ask me to dictate something. I would try to be amusing. Once while we were writing there was a terrible thunder storm, with crashes of lightening nearby. I dictated that I was “beleidict” (offended) that the lightening had struck my friends house nearby. I knew it was the wrong word but “beleidict” was my newly discovered word that had deep and profound meaning and wanted to use it even it it was inappropriate and perhaps even a bit humorous.
In spite of my light heartedness, my thoughts were often dark and frightening. I heard things about my grandparents Benjamin and Gina that they had become resigned to their awful fate. Somehow I knew they were doomed. And my dreams were very scary.
One obsessive dream was the Nazis forced both my grandmother and grandfather to take their clothes off and run naked up a steep hill in a clearing in the woods. When they were almost at the top the guards standing with rifles below started firing. I saw the bullets entering their naked bodies, making holes in the soft, pinkish-white pillows of their flesh. Dark red liquid poured out running down the incredibly delicate skin. The skin was profoundly vulnerable, for me a metaphor for their innocence and undeserving of this fate. It was the type that was not meant for violence it was a gentle, helpless type of skin. It was meant for sitting down having “Yause, ” (tea or coffee with cake) in the late afternoon. The nightmare repeated almost every night. Sometimes it would wake me up and would find my sleeping parents for solace.
17. The war in France…
In the meantime, in France, the Germans had invaded and were making inroads into the country. Bombs were going off. After the German invasion of France, Lisa and Franzi were running one step ahead of the Nazis to Paris-Plage, Le Tourquet, etc. In France, and wide nets were cast to hunt down Jews. One experience that Franzi tells about in his bio is the following:
At one point, as he and Lisa were fleeing and could not walk any further with heavy luggage on their backs. There was a procession of fleeing people carrying their belongings. The road was crowded and Lisa was desperate. A truck was also in this procession and was carrying a tractor, with two seats on it. Liza saw an opportunity and asked if he would please let them sit on the tractor. The farmer, refused to allow that explaining that it was too dangerous. However, Lisa begged and pleaded and finally convinced him. They had to climb onto the truck and then onto the tractor seats. It was incredibly uncomfortable, but at least they did not have the painful walk anymore. Suddenly, the farmer veered off into the woods bumping along a cragged, rocky path. In the morning they heard that the road had been completely bombed and that people who were traveling on that road were all killed. The next few days were filled with horror as bombs were falling near them. They could view the explosions from their place in the woods. Here is part of Francis’ description:
At dawn, I was awakened by some new sounds—the trumpeting drone of the maneuvers of fighter planes, punctuated by anti-aircraft fire. Though only half awake, I realized that an air battle was in progress. It wasn’t exactly over us but sounded closer than the previous evening’s battle. I got up and joined Lisa and the Belgians, who were peering in the direction of the battle sounds through a clearing in the trees. We could see distant puffs of smoke floating in the sky, and planes, barely visible as small specks, executing large arcs and pirouettes as they maneuvered in evasive patterns.
Suddenly, I saw a series of small, compact, fresh puffs exploding around a fast-moving speck of a plane. A few seconds later came the pop, pop, pop sounds of the explosions. At first, I thought that the puffs might be exploding planes. When I expressed my alarm to the farmer, he explained to me that the puffs were only flak, the exploding shells of the anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
Why was the battle coming closer instead of receding? Why weren’t the French and British pushing the Germans back? Lisa had no answers.
The puffs of flak were now bigger and closer, and the sounds of their explosions followed the appearance of the puffs by less than a second. The bombs, too, sounded as if they were falling closer to us. I looked toward the highway on which we had spent the previous day and saw that it was now empty. The refugees were gone.
Suddenly, the air battle was directly above us. Planes were diving, climbing, and making arcs. The trumpeting sounds they made as they drove their engines to the limit were deafening.
Though extremely frightened, I watched the action. I was momentarily encouraged when the farmer told me that the French and British planes were dive bombing the German tanks and trucks. I rooted desperately for the French and British planes, hoping they would shoot down the German ones, but preferably out of my sight. I realized that the planes were directing their machine gun fire only at each other, but wished they wouldn’t do that right above us. What if the bullets were to fall down and hit us? And what if a plane was actually hit and come crashing down on us?
Soon enough, a high-flying plane I happened to be watching began to trail black smoke and then flames as it plunged earthward with a loud trumpeting noise.
“Can this really be happening?” I wondered. “There must be a live pilot in that plane. In a few seconds, he’ll be dead and he probably knows it. How close to me will the plane hit the ground?” I didn’t wait to find out, and hid my face in Lisa’s lap with my fingers in my ears. But I couldn’t block out the loud drone of the plunging plane or the boom of the ground-shaking explosion when it crashed. At that point, my fear turned to terror. I began to cry and kept my face hidden in Lisa’s lap.
My recollections of the next two days are patchy. Sometimes I kept my fingers in my ears, not just to shut out the sounds but also to help pretend that the whole thing wasn’t happening. I remember a blur of explosions, plane crashes, and the continuous deafening racket of droning plane engines and machine gun fire. I remember crying, napping, getting soaked by rain, and feeling filthy. And I was starving. And yet, when one of the Belgian women offered me a potato-like vegetable that had been scavenged from some local fields, I was unable to eat it, in spite of not having eaten since that last piece of chocolate two or three days before. My problem was terror, not hunger. I kept offering “deals” to fate, promising to do all kinds of wonderful things if my life were spared.
At some point during those days I devised a way to manage my terror. I decided to consider myself already dead, so that I would have nothing more to fear. I thought about it for a while, sad and outraged at being pushed to such an extreme step. I cried a little when I thought about how my parents and grandparents would mourn me. Of course, I didn’t tell Lisa about this plan. Why upset her even more? I was also somewhat reluctant to reveal my secret skill in managing my emotional states, a skill I’d had many opportunities to practice since Father had left me in Paris almost two years before.
It took me a little while to convince myself fully that I was really dead, but once I did, I felt a sense of relief from fear—a calm detachment or trance-like state. The explosions seemed more remote; I felt more like an onlooker. Terror still broke through occasionally, especially when battle sounds woke me up from naps and I realized that the recent events were no mere nightmare. But then I would regain my equanimity by reminding myself that dead people had nothing to fear.
18. Where are Lisa and Franzi?
My parents had lost contact with Franzi. They did not know his whereabouts or that of my aunt Lisa; there were no letters; there was no communication. They believed they might be lost forever, perhaps dead. This was a very hard time. My father wrote in his biography that my mother cried at night, pleading with him to get her son back to her.
Time was running out with the advancing German army spreading into many parts of France. In addition, he had hoped to get my grandparents out of Vienna. He had urged them to try to get visas in order to emigrate. But it turned out to be too complicated for them. They were too set in their ways and insisted that everyone else, their children and families; Erich, Lisa and Hedy; should be safe first. I heard that there was an attempt to sign some papers in order to get the visas but my grandfather slapped one of the Nazi’s and the chance was lost.
19. A serendipitous event…
All of a sudden , nothing less than a miracle happened. My father had gradually built a reputation as a doctor not only amongst the emigres from Europe but also in the Cuban community. While working in a laboratory called , “Vieta Placencia,” to reproduce the ointment, “ Viperin” for which he had become famous in Vienna, he became known to some Cuban physicians. One of his friends, a doctor, recommended my father as someone who might be able to help this person with intractable pain which no one had been able to figure out. The patient had a horrific stabbing ache and throbbing on the side of his face in the trigeminus nerve that ran from the temple down to his neck. The pain was unbearable and he thought of committing suicide if he could not be helped. My father was his last hope. Upon very careful examination my father, made a diagnosis, he found that there was an abscess at the root of one of the patients’ incisors and recommended that the dentist pull a particular tooth. He left but returned a few days later announcing that the dentist refused to pull the tooth because he did not believe that it was the cause of his agony. My father, however, convinced that he was correct, went with the patient to the dentist , and insisted that he pull the tooth. The dentist, finally acquiesced. Sure enough it was the correct diagnosis. A few days later the patient informed my father that his pain had disappeared. This pronouncement changed the trajectory of our fractured family. It cannot be overstated how fortunate this incident was because it literally saved not only my brother’s life but that of my aunt and uncle as well.
But, moreover and most importantly, the miracle was that the patient, Mr. Agramonte, worked in the Consulate for Immigration. It could not have been better divined, because the question Mr. Agramonte asked was “ How can I repay you for what you have done for me.” After having found out about Mr. Agramonte’s job, my father stated emphatically, ”there is just one thing in the world that I want and that is to find my son and send him a visa for Cuba. “ It was a tall order since no one knew where he was or if he was still alive.
My father described the event in detail: in the footnotes #7.
20. The next miracle…
During their travels in France fleeing arrest, Lisa, an attractive, vivacious, intelligent woman, had acquired a boyfriend, Paul Rosegg, who came from the same city in Romania as my father. Lisa, Franzi, and Paul became a threesome that provided a semblance of a family for Franzi. In fear of being caught in the Nazi web, they separated at some point, found each other again and moved from one city in France to another, in constant danger and were not able to be in contact with the family. Since no one had heard from them in a long while, they were believed to have perished like so many others at that time.
Then, quite by accident, one summer, my father met an old friend of Paul Rosegg’s in Havana, in the street. They introduced themselves. This man, named Besner, told my father that his friend, Paul Rosegg, was living in Nice with a boy whose name was also Mechner. It was as if electricity had shot though him. “Can it be that it is Franzi?” He thought, “It must be Franzi, Mechner was not a common name. Franzi is alive! And that meant that Lisa was still alive also!”
Since Besner did not have an address for them, my father would have to track them down somehow. He now knew they were somewhere in Nice. But how would he be able to find them?
His next steps were to contact relatives who might know their whereabouts; a letter, a conversation, something to go on as to where they might be. Telegrams, letters, flying were flying around, traveling a circuitous route which involved my grandparents (who were still in Vienna), Tante Louise on the Plateau d’Avron and Lucy Feingold in Vichy. Amazingly, these efforts, provided results. Franzi and Lisa were found!
“Lisa told me that even though we could once again exchange letters with my parents, an early reunion was still highly unlikely. But in my heart I felt that it couldn’t be far off. I thought I knew something that no one else knew or would believe, namely that Father was a genius whose willpower enabled him to accomplish anything he wished. That conviction was reinforced by our receipt, soon afterwards, of a package of white bread, hard-boiled eggs, and lard that my parents arranged to have sent to us by a Portuguese company. The value to us of that package was unimaginable. We rationed its contents over several weeks, and shared some of it with starving friends.
The next steps involved Mr Agramonte and my father. They went to a notary public, from there to the Immigration Department and then to the State Department which sent a cable to the Cuban consulate in Nice. But, there was a complication, a mistake that cost months of delay. the Cuban consulate was in Cannes, not in Nice!
On June 21, 1941, there was good news. A visa arrived for Franzi. However, again there was a set-back: he could not travel alone. There would have to be someone to accompany him. Another visa was sent to Lisa, and arrangements for their travel were made. Finally they were able on to get passage on a boat leaving from Lisbon on August 14th but the date was uncertain.
The timing was of utmost importance — it was getting crucial because as it turned out that date was days before the German invasion of the unoccupied zone in France. The next miracle was that the visas came at this propitious time. More delays would have meant that they would not be able to leave and be trapped inside the war zone.
April 21 — Letter was sent letting Lisa know a telegram about the visa is on its way
May 20 — Letter had not arrived yet
June 10 — Discovery that Cuban consulate was not in Nice but in Cannes
June 21 — Visa arrived for Franzi in Cannes
June 27 — Found out that an organization called HICEM could procure visas free of charge but Franzi could not travel alone
July -August — Looked for someone to accompany Franzi, it was decided that Lisa should accompany him. Success with getting visa for Lisa
August 14 Obtained passage on a boat leaving from Lisbon but date was uncertain
October 1 –Were able to get passage on a boat called “Villa de Madrid”
October 12, 1941 –Arrived in Havana, Cuba
These dates epitomized the urgency of their escape because exactly one
month and 17 days later, the Germans invaded the unoccupied zone of France. Any more delay and it would have been the end of them. As my father said in his biography, “there must have been a guardian angel watching over them.”
22. Another miracle ….
Franzi explained it this way in his memoir:
The next train, which we were told was going to be the last one to Madrid for many days, was already standing in the station. A huge crowd of desperate people was struggling to get on it. Since it was already fully packed inside, people were hanging from the doors and windows. Some were climbing up on the roof. And there were hundreds of people between the train and us, and we had our luggage to carry. There was obviously no way for us to get on that train.
We stood there with our luggage in the middle of the panicky crowd, unable to budge, getting jostled, crying and not knowing what to do. Lisa held on to me tightly so that I wouldn’t get separated from her or trampled. To make matters worse, I urgently had to go to the bathroom.
Suddenly a young man grabbed some of our luggage, told us to follow him, and violently pushed through the crowd ahead of us toward the train. When we reached the train, he shouted to some people in Spanish. They took our luggage and pulled us up into the railroad car. We had made it! It was a miracle. Our benefactor disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, without even giving Lisa a chance to thank him. He had probably saved our lives. On the train, I finally found a bathroom, although I was upset by how extremely filthy it was and by its lack of toilet paper. The aisles of the train were packed with people standing. Eventually, some men gave us their seats and I immediately fell asleep.
23. Franzi, Lisa and Paul…
It seemed like a dream. My brother and my aunt Lisa would soon be arriving in Cuba, I was bursting with anticipation. When the day came in November 1941, we found out that they had to be quarantined in an internment camp, called , “Triscornia.” The harsh sounding name had a powerful impact on me…for me, it meant, imprisonment. But we found out that we could visit them. For me, it would be the first time that I would see my brother I could not have been happier to think that I would have a playmate. And, of course, I had never really known Lisa.
I remember how eagerly we prepared the food to bring to them. My mother tried to anticipate what they would most want to eat. We knew they had been starving, so I helped to pack up fruits, sandwiches and orange juice.
At the internment camp, Triscornia, we walked along a road until we came to a huge metal chain link fence. On the other side in an open area, we saw people milling around in the distance; some single individuals, others in groups scattered across an enclosed yard as large as a football field. We looked and searched the area, trying to find Lisa and Franzi. “ How would we find them?” “What did they look like?” I wondered; I had never seen Lisa before. How would we recognize them? Finally, after a few moments, far away, I spotted a woman and a boy. I knew immediately who it was. In my happiness, I started jumping up and down. I remember thinking that by holding onto the fence, I would be able to jump the highest that I have ever jumped in my life and they would see me! And I started to shout, “Ich sehe Sie beide!” “Ich sehe sie! (“I see them both, I see them” ) “Sie sind virchlich da” (they are really here). Sure enough, I saw Franzi turn his head towards me, looking at me from about a quarter of a mile away. He saw me jumping and recognized me. He and Lisa started walking quickly toward us. It was the first time I had seen my brother, I was disappointed…. he was pale and thin. He looked like he had been through an ordeal. His head was shaved and was wearing weird shoes, like ballet slippers, light brown suede leather with soft soles. But it did not matter, all I cared about was that I had my brother, and was eagerly anticipating how we would play and have fun together.
I don’t remember exactly the moment of greeting each other, but it must have been intensely emotional. I do remember, however, that we had to give them the food surreptitiously … carefully looking to each side, we handed them the food through the metal link fence. We were not really allowed to do this but we did it anyway. They ate voraciously, eating everything, relishing every bite. They had been starving for three years.
I don’t know how long they were interned; it seemed to me like months. Again yet again, my father did some magic, pulled some strings, with some of his friends, and got Lisa and Franzi released a little earlier than they were supposed to.
They finally arrived at our house. Lisa slept in my room, and Francis and I shared another bedroom. I was grateful not to have to give up my desk which was covered with my paper dolls, my drawing pencils and crayons and all my projects. I especially coveted and did not want to give up my space where I played and worked everyday. I was very involved with my paper doll who I dressed in various outfits, wrote stories about and then made handmade books. My mother had studied bookbinding in
Vienna and showed me how to sew pages together to create a book.
I loved Lisa immediately. To this day the thought of her brings tears to my eyes. I loved having her around; she was captivating, intelligent and full of humor, and she had time for me. One of our favorite things to do was that she would lie down on the bed, close her eyes, and I would adorn her with scarves, comb her hair, put lipstick on her and decorate her with all sorts of things. She let me do it all, and even liked it, she told me later. I was never sure if she was sleeping or not but I guess she found it relaxing and restful to have me fussing over her.
At night after our dinner we would sit together and listen as she told stories about her recent experiences of frightening situations; the terrifying experiences that she and Franzi had to endure, such as having to be very careful not to speak German near anyone within earshot for fear of being found out that she (they) were Jewish and be arrested; buying a bar of chocolate to stave their hunger in the midst of laughing German soldiers who asked Lisa why she was so sad ( warum sind sie so traurig?). Another amazing story was about their friend, Willi, a German soldier with whom they often had dinner and spent time with but were never sure, they worried and wondered if he knew that they were Jewish. It turned out that he did know and he was actually covering for them, perhaps he was in love with Lisa.
One day as Lisa and I were spending time together, she volunteered that one day she would tell me a secret. She would teach me a swear word! But she said not today. But I begged her to tell me right then. She finally gave in and told me the word was — “SCHMEX.” She made me promise never, never to tell anyone about it, but I was really curious and asked someone who spoke German about that curse word —- they said, honestly, they had never heard of it. That was typical Lisa!
24. Franzi and me…
At first I was enthralled with the idea of having a brother. I don’t know what I imagined, but I thought I would get a live-in ready made playmate! But he was a boy, older than me and very competitive, with a huge sense of determination to be the best. I did not realize that I would have to stand up for myself all the time. In addition, I was disappointed that I was relegated to the sidelines. My father and Franzi would go out on excursions, on trips, painting landscapes. They prepared themselves with easels, brushes, paints and watercolors or tempera paints. When they returned many hours later, they enthusiastically hung their projects up on the wall so that we could compare them, looking at each one carefully and then deciding which one was the best. I would have loved to go along with them. But, on the other hand, I was just 5 years old and also on another level, my father had to bond with Francis after the injustice and trauma that he had gone through. It was an important time, and there was much catching to do for all those years that they were apart.
One day a piano arrived. It was an upright and stood almost in the middle of the bedroom. Both Franzi and I were eager to sit down and play it. We wrestled and pushed each other from the piano bench. By that time he had gained weight, gotten stronger and just pushed me off. We competed in everything even which one would be able to reach the hanging bunches of bananas for a photograph. Obviously, he was taller and could reach the bananas more easily.
Soon, Lisa’s boyfriend or fiancé, Paul Rosegg arrived. My father had managed to obtain a visa for him also. Francis prepared me for his arrival by telling me stories about him. He told me that he was “witzig” (a person who joked). Indeed, when he arrived and I ran outside to meet him he greeted me by throwing me up into the air. I thought that was absolutely wonderful. It was not only that, but he could flick his wrist so that his fingers made a loud snapping sound; he could make a popping sound by putting his finger inside his cheek and pull it out quickly; and above all, he could “juggle” keeping three balls or oranges in the air. Therefore, he lived up to my expectations and I liked him. Shortly after that, he and Lisa were married, and moved out of our house.
25. Christmas in Havana…
Usually, even in Vienna at Christmas time, our family celebrated with a tree decorated for the season, with presents and Santa Claus arriving at our house. As I understand it, this phenomenon was left over from Europe where Christmas was more of a seasonal holiday, celebrating the winter season along with a religious one. In addition, because the assimilation for the Jews was complete and taken for granted the Jewish people adapted to the ways of the general Austrian culture. Culturally they were Jewish, my parents were non-believers, did not uphold the Sabbath or practice Jewish traditions and did not speak Yiddish or read Hebrew. But, they identified as Jews and found the encouragement of individual thought and understanding empathetic to their own views. Also, as “cultural Jews” they were connected to their heritage through language, literature, art and music. There were Rabbi’s and others in the family who attended religious services regularly. As a matter of fact, my grandfather Benjamin’s mother died while giving birth to her 17th child, while the other members of the family were worshipping in the synagogue.
On Christmas eve, my father, inevitably would be called to go and take care of a sick patient. About 20 or so minutes after he left, the doorbell would ring. We opened the door to welcome Santa in full regalia with a long white beard and red and white outfit. How I wished that my father could be there to see him. He focussed on me right away and seemed to know who I was. He asked me “ warst du Brav und ein gutes Kind” (were you a good and obedient child?) I wasn’t too sure and I looked at my mother guiltily. Fortunately, she nodded affirmatively that I had been a good girl and eagerly reached for my present. A little while later, my father arrived back at the house, and I told him how it was too bad that he had missed seeing Santa Claus. I played along with the charade because my father enjoyed it so much!
26. Calle Avenida Septima in Vedado…
We moved to another apartment in OCT 1942 to Avenida Septima in Vedado. Here is how Vedado is described in a brochure for visitors:
Vedado is a large, mostly residential neighborhood a few miles west of Old Havana. Thick swaths of forest were converted into a closed military defense zone by Spanish colonizers, hence the name; “Vedado” means “forbidden” in Spanish. Residential development began in the mid-1850s, and the neighborhood was given its characteristic grid system. The streets are numbered and lettered instead of having names, making it one of the easiest places in Cuba for outsiders to navigate.
The apartment on Avenida Septima in Vedado wa a small apartment building. There were other apartments located around to the back in a geometric configuration; one across the walkway entrance and the other towards the back in a two story building. Francis and I shared one bedroom, my parents had the other. One large room in the center functioned as a sort of salon with a dining table, piano and a living room area combination. The side doors opened to a private garden where Francis and I liked to spray each other with the water hose to cool off. Often we entertained ourselves with the water hose sprinkling each other even when it was raining. It was a wonder and a treat in the evening after sundown to be able to go outside and play. The kitchen was large and had an “icebox.” Ice would be delivered in a big block.
I remember that there would be freshly baked rolls delivered to our door on Saturday mornings. We had these with butter and Apricot jam.
There was the incessant danger of not only mosquitos, but scorpions and tarantulas. The cucarachas (cockroaches)were huge flying things and the perennial ants were incessant… showing up within seconds of a crumb falling on the floor. They appeared out of nowhere ready to transport their treasure to their homes. The ants marched in formation forming a black line from the wall to the crumb. There was always a FLIT (insecticide) sprayer at hand which we would use unsparingly to spray the pesticide at the slightest hint of ants, cockroaches, or mosquitos. Outside there were other dangers. My father constantly exhorted us never, never to walk in the grass because of there might be scorpions lurking there.
The mosquito netting surrounded our beds was nailed to the wall forming a tent with an opening in the front. At night, we would crawl into the tent, say our prayers and be encased in a white cloud. In the morning we could see the hungry, frustrated mosquitos sitting on top of the netting unable to have reached the succulent sleeping victims. Of course, some were able to enter, looking large and satisfied. One night, my netting fell from the nails in the wall , resting on me annoyingly and woke me up. Drowsily, I tried to get it back up on the nail. I tried over and over again standing on my tip toes in the bed to reattach it to the wall. “Why will it not stay there,” I thought, angrily. Usually, I was pretty independent not wanting to cause any disturbance, but this time I had no choice and decided as a last resort to wake up my parents. Disoriented in the dark, did not find their bedroom, completely confused I decided to just try again to sleep with the mosquito net on top of me mostly directly on my face. It was very upsetting and the memory has stayed with me all this time.
My main occupation, aside from going to school, was roller skating. I became a fanatical roller skater using the sidewalk in front of the house as my arena. In this neighborhood, I had a group of friends who also liked to roller skate as we chatted away in Spanish and I became one of them; often I was referred to jokingly as “una chicita Cubana” ( a little Cuban girl)!
28. Miss Phillips School…
Francis and I went to the “Miss Philips School” a private school where we were not allowed to speak Spanish only English. It was an unassailable edict and often resulted in embarrassing situations. For example: I was in my kindergarten class when the following happened: a boy, who ad a desk next to mine, had to go to the bathroom, he did not speak English very well or perhaps not at all. He could not make himself understood and the teacher cruelly did not let him go out of the room until he spoke the right words in English. To the dismay of all he was not able to, so as a result, he made himself not only wet but also he had diarrhea. It was horrible, no one could help him. The teacher, with even further cruelty put a dunce cap on him. And, to make matters even worse the high pointed dunce hat fell off his head — he, nor anyone else could pick it up for him we all felt helpless and so sorry for him. It was humiliating, to say the least!
In school, we spent most of the time “coloring.” It was one of the main activities, sprawled out on the floor drawing using wax crayons. Next to me a girl had (what I considered) an enormous assortment of Crayola crayons that came in a yellow and green box. I had no crayons of my own had to beg her to let me use some of hers, but it was always just for a few minutes. She was reluctant and I had to constantly plead with her to let me borrow one crayon and then a few minutes later another one. It became my most fervent wish to acquire my own set. I decided to ask my father to buy me this treasure, explaining it exactly, describing the green and yellow box with the 24 colors, determined to make sure that he would get me the right ones. I believed it was a rarity and might be hard to find.
One night, coming home after seeing his patients he came to my bed to wake me up. . I crawled out from under my mosquito netting opened up the front panels and there it was, a box of the coveted Crayolas with 24 assorted colors in front of me. I was overjoyed, hugging, kissing and thanking him profusely. Drawing and coloring became my passion. I decided to create a book; drawing and telling the story of Sleeping Beauty. I worked on it everyday after I came home from school. I put all my artistic energy into Sleeping Beauty’s dress, painstakingly, detailing a myriad of very narrow stripes, each a different color so that I could use the maximum number of colors in it. Repeating the drawing the same on each page. I worked hard as if I were making a film with each frame. It was, of course taking forever and I was wondering how I would ever finish it. One day I went to the drawer where I kept it and it was gone. It was nowhere to be found. My mother did not know anything about it and had not seen it. I was shattered. I tried to start another book but it was not satisfactory. The original was so perfect (I thought) that it could not be duplicated. My disappointment was deep and unmitigated. It took me long time to get over my loss.
I was excited about the forthcoming play that we were going to perform. It was called ”Old King Cole. ” I still know the words to some of the songs such as: “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and “Old King Cole was a Merry Old Soul.”
It was my father’s idea that we would have a piano recital. Francis was playing the piano well. Lisa, Paul, friends and neighbors were invited, chairs were set up for the audience. Francis played several pieces, some Chopin and Mozart. And since my father was teaching me to play and knew some beginners pieces, I wanted to perform as well. I was not really prepared but insisted on playing. I had to search for my music; Thompson’s Book 1, which was on top of the piano. Anyway, I found my piece, “Big Moon, Bright Moon” and played it. People clapped and I felt rewarded for my efforts, but was never sure if my father approved. Franzi was supposed to be the star!
29. Tonsilectomy and severed finger…
I often had a sore throat and was having problems breathing at night. My tonsils were enlarged and inflamed. It was decided that I had to have a tonsillectomy. Although a date was set for the operation, I noticed that much time was going by and there was no mention of it. No one seemed to be talking about it and I was hoping that they had forgotten about it. But then — my parents began to be very solicitous and indulgent, which made me suspicious and afraid. I thought, “my operation is imminent and it might be very serious and even dangerous, perhaps I even might not live through it.” And finally what I had feared happened; the day arrived. We had to get up early, get ready and get to the hospital. I was terrified. In the operating room, in desperation, I figured out a way of getting out of having the surgery. The table on which I was to lay down had a section at the end where I was to put my head that was sloping downward. I announced that it was impossible to lay down there because I had no pillow! The argument did not work, and soon I was under the spell of the ether having strange dreams. All kinds of heads mostly from my storybooks, moving around in a circle. There were American Indians with feather headdresses, pirates, men with beards, Chinese faces all continuously circling around. I was relieved to wake up to find that I had survived, I was alive and that I was in a lovely, clean room and in a freshly made comfortable bed. My mother was there wearing a beautiful green paisley dressing gown, which she had gotten for the hospital, and then to make it even better the nurse came in and asked if I wanted something to eat. I could not believe my good fortune! My throat hurt just a little but I decided I could swallow a salami sandwich and a Coca-Cola. It arrived and I ate it with gusto to everyone’s amazement.
Coca Cola, was the ever-present drink — the life force of all things. Because we could not drink the water, aside from orange juice, Coca Cola was the drink of choice. In those days, it was the original Coca Cola with cocaine, and it was normal to drink it every day.
Here is the original formula invented by a pharmacist.
- 30 lb (14 kg) sugar.
- 2 US gal (7.6 l; 1.7 imp gal) water.
- 1 US qt (950 ml) lime juice.
- 4 oz (110 g) citrate of caffeine.
- 2 oz (57 g) citric acid.
- 1 US fl oz (30 ml) extract of vanilla.
- 3⁄4 US fl oz (22.18 ml) fluid extract of kola nut.
- 3⁄4 US fl oz (22.18 ml) fluid extract of coca.
In addition, Coca Cola was sometimes used for its beneficial medicinal purposes. It helped for headaches, also for an upset stomach and to pep one up if you were tired. Even my father, believed in it and often suggested it be used for settling down of mild stomach ailments. We were drinking this elixir daily, giving us energy and creating euphoria. One day, Francis and I decided to share a bottle We were both very thirsty. He held the bottle pointing to the place where he would drink up to keeping his finger at the spot, he would proceed to drink. I could not tell where the liquid was to see how much he was gulping. In desperation because he would not stop drinking and I could not get him to stop, I tapped on the bottom of the bottle. He ran to my father and told him that I almost knocked his tooth out. My father came to me and asked sternly, “Which hand did it?” I quickly put my hands behind my back and then reluctantly held out one hand. He slapped it (not very hard) and that was the end of it.
One day, my mother left Francis and me at Mr. Reder’s house. Presumably Mr. Reder was supposed to watch us or spend time with us. He, however, was busy with other things and Francis and I were left to our own devices. That meant, playing with the only things around which were collapsible deck chairs on the patio. While I was sitting in one of these chairs, Francis offered to make me more comfortable so that I could lie down. He took the rung out of the groove in the back but the weight was too much for him, he couldn’t hold me up and the chair collapsed with me in it. The tragedy was that my little finger was wedged between the two wooden arms of the chair. I tried to pull it out but as much as I tried, it was tightly squeezed between the wood. My finger was stuck in the chair. Francis finally unfolded the chair releasing my finger but the tip of the finger had been severed and was hanging by just a thin piece of nail and skin. By that time, Mr. Reder had come to see what the matter was. He was shocked and upset. No one knew what to do. Finally, he put the finger under running water and wrapped the whole thing up in a handkerchief. Francis tried to comfort me by telling me stories about how he slipped on ice in France and got a gash in his hand. He even showed me the scar to prove it. However, it did not help. I remember not crying up to that point, but when my mother finally showed up, I allowed myself to cry and cried bitterly all the way home as she carried me on the trolley car.
That night when my father came home and heard the story and examined my severed fingertip, he was furious with Francis. It was the first time I ever heard him scream at him. I was glad that he did. He deserved it and I felt vindicated.
A new type of bandage for wounds had been discovered. It was a Vaseline bandage that obviated the need for stitches. As usual, at the forefront and willing to experiment, my father decided to use it to put my pinky finger back together. It was tricky getting the tip back in the right position, but he was very careful and I trusted him, but the pain was excruciating. Using the nail as a guide (which was still attached) he very carefully wrapped the bandage around it. There had to be many, many layers of the tape, and with each round I felt a stabbing knife. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It took many weeks to heal and the bandage had to be changed every day. I dreaded the procedure. Finally the fingertip grew back onto the rest of the finger again but it was deformed. To this day I wonder if I shouldn’t have had stitches so that my finger would have healed better.
30. Walt Disney…
I remember a wonderful event as if it were yesterday. My father had a friend named Mr. Garriga, I don’t know exactly how they met but I think it was through his research at the laboratory. Mr. Garriga was a very friendly, obese, charming, wheeler-dealer. He seemed to me to be wealthy and important and liked my father very much. He gave him a gift of tickets for the family to attend a movie theater. The movie that was playing was Walt Disney films and cartoons of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I was transfixed. Along with the magnificent animation of the movie and the compelling stories, there was the beautiful movie theater. The theater itself was unforgettable with its glitzy, sparkly lobby with an unmistakable pervasive celluloid aroma. It is indelibly imprinted on my brain. If I ever smell it again, I would immediately be reminded of my first movie in Havana — the glamour, the sparkle, the animated beautiful people, the vibrant colors, and of course, Walt Disney. All so impressive because I could not understand that such a wonderful, pleasurable thing could exist simultaneously in what seemed to me like a world full of tragedy and bad news. I thought, how could this exist at the same time with the war and killing and the separation of families? I was puzzled by the unrelated parallel worlds.
There was a large community of Jewish refugees in Havana. They came from Europe and other parts of the world. Although General Fulgenzo Battista, the president, was a dictator, Cuba was one of the few countries that accepted the refugees that were fleeing Nazi persecution and World War ll. Some refugees started businesses, such as diamond cutting and others like my father could practice medicine albeit, illegally without a license. There were also artists and sculptors that found refuge in Havana. One of these was Bernhard Reder. He came from Czernowitz in Romania, the same town as my father. My father asked him to give Francis art lessons. He declined but recommended a painter friend of his, Solomon Lerner. That was to become a life long relationship. (Mr Lerner became my painting teacher much later in Brooklyn).
Mr. Lerner would come to our apartment. Francis and he would set up the easel and spend what seemed to me a long time painting and talking. I usually got bored and would try to disrupt the session by doing silly things, such as crawling on all fours around on the floor and in between the legs of the easel. Amazingly, no one particularly paid attention to me and just let me do it.
Years later in NY, Mr. Lerner became my painting teacher also. I thought he was fascinating person. I admired his sensitivity, modesty and equanimity. I wrote a short essay about him which I have attached at the end of this writing.
Lisa and Paul earned their living by running a rooming house or “guest house” where Lisa cooked meals, took care of the guests, and baked the most wonderful cakes. She had been to cooking school in Paris and the results were very professional. The guests were also European Jews, who had escaped the war. One of them was a Mr. Adler, an elderly gentleman who had the same birthday as I did, on September 7th. Another was a Mrs. Gerendai, who was beguiling. She was fashionably dressed, and well spoken, but I was a bit afraid of her and could not come too close to her because if I did, she would grab my cheek and pinch it really hard exclaiming how adorable I was. In fact, it was really really painful. I think she was really a bit sadistic.
31. Next stop, Brooklyn, NY….
Although, my father had a busy medical practice among the refugee population spending every day, all day, traveling on foot or by trolley car, carrying his doctor’s bag to see his patients, his career was languishing. He felt the pressure to fulfill his dream — to work as a doctor and have an office the way he started out in Vienna. In Havana he would never be allowed to practice medicine legally — it would be impossible to obtain a license or even just to make a good living for his family. He was getting anxious, impatient to move on. Also, it was difficult for my mother, who suffered in the tropical climate. The humidity and the heat and often made her feel ill. We were really — “displaced persons.” A term I heard often at that time referring to our situation.
So, it was by luck that one day just by chance, while reading the New York Times, my father noticed a small article stating that there was a shortage of doctors in the U.S. It struck a chord! He thought—-”this is my chance. This is the opportunity for me.” Immediately, he knew what to do. He decided that my mother should go to America and plead his case to the US government to allow him to emigrate. Indeed, my mother was able to travel freely because she was born in Austria, although she still needed to have a reentry permit. Letters and applications were written for this purpose. However on January 3, 1943, she received a letter from the US Dept. of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service that her application had been lost and could not be located. It was a setback for my fathers’ time frame. However, another application was filled out and sent and after a few months she was granted a reentry permit to the US.
It was 1943, I was 7 years old and again my mother and I were on the move. We had spent three and a half years in Cuba and were now returning to NY. In the process of getting admission to the US we had to have a sponsor. The persons that were found to vouch for us were Michael and Amelia Rosen. They lived in Brooklyn on Prospect Park West and provided my mother and I the opportunity to live with them.
We landed in Miami, Florida and were met by a Mrs. Wagner, who seemed to me a most unpleasant person. She complained incessantly about a medicine that my father had sent to her that was not good. On the other hand, I felt quite numb. “Where was I? Where are we going?” I thought to myself. Again, my family was not around. I missed my father, brother and my aunt Lisa and uncle Paul. I felt the weight of my mother’s unrelenting sadness. But, it was not only that — I was being pulled around from one place to another. It all seemed meaningless and I was nowhere, still not at a stable destination and feeling I insecure. I was not sure about anything and was confused about the name “New York.” I wondered, “Was it another the name for America, or was it a very big place within America?” I just heard the name New York over and over again, referring to where we were going and trying to figure it out.
We arrived in Brooklyn by train and then went to Carroll Street. It was a lovely historic section of Brooklyn with row after row of now famous townhouses called “brownstones,” (because of the brownish-red sandstone they were built with, that no longer exists in nature) defining a style and atmosphere of charm and elegance to the neighborhood. All had wide grand staircases in the front and were three or four stories high. Carroll Street was tree lined, clean and quiet with Prospect Park nearby. Amelia and Michael Rosen were an elderly (or so they seemed) couple who didn’t have any children. I guess we were grateful to them for taking us in. Michael Rosen was a mild-mannered, unassuming, gentle person. He seemed as if he was hen-pecked by his wife, but I liked him. He had a quirky kind of speech, not exactly a lisp but an old fashioned kind of accent, pronouncing the “r’s very distinctly and also with a tinge of British. He would read to me for long periods of time without getting tired. We would lie on his large bed, reading from books I had chosen. I especially remember the stories about medieval knights. My favorite was the story of Roland, a heroic, glorious knight who fought off and army of 100,000 men but died while blowing his horn of victory. There were other stories of King Arthur’s Court that I could not get enough of. I was grateful for the opportunity to be transported into an imaginary world. He was the perfect patient, kind person I needed. It was probably mutual and I, at least temporarily for him. filled a vacancy — the child he never had.
Amelia, although outwardly she seemed like a nice person, I found her annoying. For example…she was supposed to give me lunch when I came home from school. My mother would prepare it and put it in the shared refrigerator, before going to work. Once she made chicken soup with alphabet noodles in it. I must have been surprised at the shape of the noodles and remarked “da sind buchstaben in der suppe! (There are letters in the soup!)” She found this incredibly amusing and repeated “buchstaben in der suppe” “buchstaben in der suppe,” over and over again in a taunting sort of way. Another time she gave me soup that was watery and had bones floating in it. I asked my mother why she gave me such soup and she told me that there had been big pieces of chicken in it and that the soup had been flavorful. We realized that Amelia had eaten the chicken soup and added water to the left over bones!
32. About the war…
To back track a bit, the war which started between Nazi Germany on one side and Poland, Great Britain, and France on the other, soon developed into World War ll. President Roosevelt and his administration favored the defeat of Germany and its principal ally, fascist Italy under Mussolini. The United States however wanted to remain “isolationist” and did not enter into the war until after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. Congress declared war on Japan the next day. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
From then on, the war was going to be a long hard struggle for the United States which now had to be fought on two fronts — Japan on one side and on the other joining part of the Allied forces in Europe. It required not only an army of more than 16,000,000 men and women, but industrial and agricultural production strained the capacity of the nation. About 20,000,000 women took industrial jobs to relieve the labor shortage. Women joined the work force — became welders in munitions factories, joined the Armed Forces and worked along side of men. The Red Cross, an organization which gave medical help to the American prisoners of war, needed volunteers. My mother volunteered and became part of the national effort. She and thousands of other women helped by rolling gauze to make bandages. Apart from helping “the cause,” it was also a strategy to prove to immigration officials in Washington that my parents had the American spirit at heart and would be good citizens.
33. Affidavids, permits and visas…
My mother would have to go to Washington, DC to fulfill her job in getting my father into the US. She made an application for an interview to plead for my father’s entry into the US and to obtain a visa for him and Francis. In addition, in order to build support for a convincing case she carefully prepared herself with letters of reference from friends and relatives as well as documents and affidavits from hospitals and places where my father had worked in Vienna. The newspaper articles about him and his contributions , especially with the discovery of Viperine, would work in his favor and were part of the documentation. She herself wrote a persuasive letter stating that her husband had always been an upstanding citizen, that he did not have any debts, that he was trustworthy and would be an asset to the United States. Finally, the day came for her appointment, she traveled to Washington to the Immigration Dept. where she was supposed to speak authoritatively and make a good impression—but…. all she could do was was cry! Nevertheless, somehow, it worked — she was effective in convincing them. My father and brother got their visas for the US a few weeks later. She had been successful!
While my mother was in Washington, I stayed with cousins, John and Stella Forster. John was a nephew of my grandmother’s, on my mother’s side; a Feingold. He had been an engineer in Vienna. In America, he and Stella founded a sewing basket business. I perceived John as somewhat stern but Stella, a spirited, redhead with a high girly voice, was warm and friendly. I liked their apartment in Queens. It was comfortable, nicely furnished and to my mind, quite luxurious. They had a home movie projector. Their baby, Lynne was just a few months old and I found her incredibly interesting to play with.
We had other relatives that we were in touch with, Hansi Hilkovich, her daughter Ita and son David. Ita was in her late teens, vivacious and pretty. She immediately took charge of me, brought me into her room, plying me with cookies and milk and polishing my nails with bright red nail polish. I felt very special. I must have stayed overnight because the breakfast the next morning made an incredible impression on me. Breakfast was much anticipated and fussed about. We would have fried eggs, bacon, ham, muffins and cheese, bread, orange juice and some other things. Ita said “Come and peek into the kitchen, see what is in store for you.” There I saw a frying pan bubbling with eggs in deep fat. There were crackling slabs of bacon in another frying pan and what went through my mind was…”Is this allowed?” I guess my European economical, (It is a sin to be wasteful) sensibility, had just encountered, or rather ran smack into the American world of abundance.
34. A turning point….
In late 1942 and 1943 the war was reaching a turning point. The Germans had arrogantly invaded Russia, not realizing the power and numbers of the Russian soldiers. In Stalingrad the epicenter of the conflict, the Russians gained an upper hand. Soviet forces launched a strong counter offensive against the Germans arrayed at Stalingrad in mid-November 1942. They quickly encircled an entire German army, more than 220,000 soldiers. In February 1943, after months of fierce fighting and heavy casualties, the surviving German forces–only about 91,000 soldiers–surrendered. After Stalingrad, Soviet forces remained on the offensive for the remainder of the war, despite some temporary setbacks. From their bridgehead across the Oder River, they launched a massive final offensive toward Berlin in mid-April 1945. The German capital was encircled on April 25. That same day, Soviet forces linked up with their American counterparts attacking from the West at Torgau, on the Elbe River in central Germany. Although it lasted two more years…the war was the beginning to turn in favor of the Allied forces.
35. Brooklyn, Prospect Park West.…
My mother found an apartment at 308 Garfield Place, in a brownstone building with a stately staircase in the front. Our apartment was on the main floor running from the front of the building to the back. There was one bedroom in the middle, then a dining room another bedroom, and an area in the front that was a sitting room and the kitchen was in the back. I believe there was a garden, as I remember light and greenery out of the kitchen window. This was the first step that was to become the beginning of our entry into America, to build something to have something relatively stable and permanent …the beginning of our lives in America.
My mother had gotten a job painting men’s ties. It was fashionable or a trend for men to wear flamboyant ties at that time. These hand-painted ties boasted exotic themes such as: palm trees, birds, flamingos, tropical plants and flowers. We received the the prefabricated ties in an array of colors, marked with lightly stenciled outlines. There markings indicated where the paint should be applied and arrived in large cardboard boxes. The enamel-like paints came in small paper cone-like tubes. The pointed end would be cut off so a thin stream of paint could emerge. I loved to help paint these ties and must have done a good job because my mother let me help her paint some.
There was a beautiful library in Grand Army Plaza. A masterpiece of Art Deco or modernist style building with gold leaf figures at the entryway. The children’s entrance, on the side became one of my ritual destinations.
I will always remember a most wonderful experience at that time when my mother and I were in Brooklyn alone. A wonderful couple, the Cohen’s , who we met at the Ethical society took us to a Broadway thater. The show was the marvelous, “Oklahoma.” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The music, the dancing, the singing, the story, the setting — there are no words to describe my reaction to it. It was simply thrilling. I was transported and in awe. In addition, we were taken to a beautiful restaurant called, Toffinetti’s, on the corner of Broadway and 43rd street. I was smitten with the whole experience. I remember trying to be on my very best behavior, sitting up as straight as could in the restaurant and being utterly polite in order to live up this wonderful occasion. Interestingly, the restaurant, was started by an Austrian immigrant in 1940, Dario Toffinetti.
36. Finally, together again…
In 1944, my father and brother arrived in the US from Cuba. It was a significant event in that for the first time our nuclear family was together and in a place where there was the possibility of a future. The four of us were finally in America. Our shattered lives were slowly being glued together again albeit the drastic experiences could never be erased. Now we would search to find solid footing and stability. Many years later when my father wrote his autobiography the chapter about our reunion was included in a book called “AMERICAN JEWISH ALBUM: From 1654 to the Present” by Allon Schoener. In it there is an article and photograph of the Mechner family standing in front of the building, 308 Garfield Place in Brooklyn, epitomizing the reunification of families coming out of the war torn world. And much later in 1975 there was an exhibition at the New York Public Library, about immigration during World War ll and again the photograph of the four of us standing in front of 308 Garfield place was on display.
37. Our President dies….
In 1945 President Roosevelt, after a long battle with polio, died. My mother cried when she heard the news. For our family he represented our salvation. He was a symbolic figure, a metaphor for all that was good about America. I myself could not imagine a world without him. I worried that everything would change. In trying to find an explanation and understanding of what happened and also trying to reassure myself that our lives would not be disrupted, I looked at the patterns the cement blocks in the walkway leading out of the house and saw that they had not shifted. They we still in place. For me, it was a sign. Perhaps there would not be a war, perhaps there would be no killing of people, perhaps we would not have to leave America.
I wanted to stay in America. I knew my that it was my father’s dream to come to America. And we had finally arrived at our destination after years of being disenfranchised, seeking refuge.
Another ploy I had to make sure that we stay in America was that I refused to speak any other languages except English. After all I had to learn three languages by the age of 3 1/2. I spoke German, my native language, and then English when I came to America the first time and Spanish had recently rolled off my tongue so naturally in Havana. Not even with my fathers frequent prodding did I acquiesce to practicing Spanish. I was determined to be an “American” through and through. It was not difficult. I was able to speak English without a trace of a foreign accent and I made friends right away. I blended into the culture quickly. My name again was changed. Now I became, “Joan ” to complete my Americanization.
After five years had elapsed, we were allowed to get our American citizenship. I could have become a citizen automatically through my parents. But it was chose to obtain my own official naturalization papers. I had to take a day off from school. We went to to the Immigration department office, in City Hall in downtown Manhattan. I had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Standing next to my parents, we were sworn in by raising our right hands and promising to be good citizens. I felt proud and was aware of this auspicious step into our new lives. I was asked if I wanted to choose a middle name to be on my citizenship papers. I chose the the most typical American name I could think of, “Ellen.” I was now transformed into “ Joan Ellen Mechner.”
When my teacher, Miss Sullivan discovered where I had been that day, her attitude towards me changed. She became very solicitous. I had not told anyone about my recent experiences. Mostly I guess I did not want anyone to be sorry for me for what I had been through. And furthermore, I figured that my friends, other eight year olds would not understand and I felt I could not explain coherently what had happened to me, as a matter of fact I did not really understand it myself.
It was therefore ironic and shocking when an incident occurred where I was singled out and attacked by my schoolmates. I went to a Public School # 99. It was in a very homogeneous white, Catholic neighborhood as was the whole section of Brooklyn around Prospect Park West.
One day when I was coming out of school ready to walk home I was suddenly surrounded by a group of kids. They would not let me move. I was forced to stand against an iron fence. They pushed my pencil out of my hand and it fell on the other side of the fence in the grass. I wanted to pick it up but they would not allow it. I was scared. I did not know why they were doing this to me. I could not figure it out. I just stood immobilized. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity, they let me go. It was like in Franz Kafka’s story “the Penal Colony” when the accused did not know what his crime was until the needles in his back wrote it repeatedly. After a while the message became clear albeit in the most painful and horrifying way. Mine was not physically painful but I suddenly realized my crime was that I was Jewish! I ran home, terrified at the thought of going to school the next day. I worried all night and thought that perhaps I should not go to school, but also realized that I would have to face them eventually. I decided that I would hold my head up high, summon all my courage, go to school and pray that they would not attack me again. It worked, no one seemed any different and they seemed to have forgotten the incident. Now after all we had been through I experienced anti-Semitism first hand and personally. “How did they know? I did not look stereotypically Jewish. My name was not particularly Jewish sounding. We were not at all religious at home.” The incident gnawed at me and was really puzzling. In a way it was a microcosm of what happened to the Jews all over Europe. They had committed no crime but were singled out and persecuted anyway.
But oddly enough the opposite also happened … a friend of Francis’ from the same school gave me a gift of a gold chain and cross. I was touched at the sweet gesture. I hesitated a moment and then accepted it. My mother of course, insisted that I return it. I guess even with all I had been through, I was either naïve or sheltered or perhaps it was never explained. I did not know about religious symbols such as Christian crosses or for that matter Jewish stars. Even in Vienna, the family were nonbelievers, non-religious, atheistic and such artifices were irrelevant. They were Austrians primarily and culturally Jewish secondarily.
Fortuitously and conveniently for us the Ethical Culture Society was around the corner on Prospect Park West. It provided a perfect entrée into American society. Its precepts and beliefs coincided with the atheistic perspective and humanistic values that my parents and other family members subscribed to in Vienna. The Ethical Culture Society was founded by Felix Adler and started in New York. At its core was a belief in the individual, rather than a supreme being, and in his or her power to control one’s own destiny. Francis and I went to the Sunday school learning about comparative religions and ethical values and my parents attended lectures about philosophy, politics, literature and general intellectual subjects. It also provided them with a group of like minded people and opportunities for lifetime friendships
38. Getting a Medical license…
My father had to start to study for his medical license. He had to learn English at the same time as preparing himself for the State Boards of Internal Medicine. He sat up late every night. I think he actually never went to sleep. He taught himself English through studying the New York Times. He studied for many months. Of course, he passed the first time. Many of his colleagues other doctors who also came from Europe, failed the test, but passed later on. Passing the first time was a really big deal because he had to write in English (which he was just learning) in addition to medical terminology and explaining American medical procedures. But, he did it! Failure was not in his vocabulary!
My father had a large map up of Europe pinned onto the wall in the bathroom. On it with colored pins and thick thread he marked the “fronts” of the Allies and of the axis powers. Every day he kept track of the armies’ movements. Francis and I would gather in the bathroom to observe my father moving the red string around according to who was winning or losing territory. It was very exciting to see how it was toward the end of the war in 1945 when the Allies were having some victories and the string would be moving further across Europe, encroaching on the Axis held territory and then into Germany approaching Berlin. It was interesting to have such a visual portrayal of the war.
Francis and I expressed our hatred for Hitler by inventing the most evil and cruel fantasies to impose on him that we could think of. We wanted revenge for what he did. We dreamt up the most supreme tortures we could imagine. One of these was the following: we would tie him to the ground with stakes and weave a web of silken strong ropes all over him — like the Lilliputians did with Gulliver. He would not be able to move, the only movement he would be able to make was to blin his eyes. He would be completely and absolutely immobilized. We would then release an army of flesh eating ants. The ants with their strong pincers would at first tickle him by crawling all over to find the right spot to engage their pincers with. Within minutes they ants would discover the tender spots of their prey and begin to gnaw at his flesh. His screams of agony would be ignored as slowly he was being devoured. Slowly, very slowly he would be eaten alive. We tried to impose the maximum suffering, punishment, revenge and torture that we could imagine.
39. The nightmare ended…
Soon we would really get our revenge. The horrific, war was ending after six long years. The Allies with the Soviets had pushed the German Army into Berlin. In Berlin itself, heavy fighting took place in the northern and southern suburbs of the city. As Soviet forces neared Hitler’s command bunker in central Berlin, Adolf Hitler was trapped inside, seeing no way out and realizing that he was defeated; he committed suicide. Within days, Berlin fell to the Soviets. The German armed forces surrendered on May 8, 1945. The end of the war was declared!
When the news came over the radio people ran out into the street, shouting with joy. People took pots and pans from their kitchens and were banging on them creating a din heard all over New York City and beyond. I remember the noise, it was deep, loud and everywhere. It was like a long deep throated roar of exhilaration and relief — the war was finally over and we won. It was one unanimous exalted cheer. We were victorious over the evil devils. I was in awe! I was nine years old. I did not understand how others, who had lived in America all during the war were so happy, ecstatic that it was over. “How could they know how horrible it really was?“ “What did they know of losing all your possessions everything you cared about?” “What did anyone know of having to start life over again and adapt to different languages and cultures and to have your grandparents murdered, poisoned with poisoned gas in a gas chamber?”. “They did not have to experience it the way me and my family did.” “Only we really knew what the war meant. We knew what real fear and loss was — they had not lost family, their homes, their native birthplace. They did not have to move around to different countries, like I did.” I thought, ”How would they know how utterly remarkable it is that the war is over!” I thought “Only I know — how great this really is!” I could not believe that it was really really over. I had not known anything but war my entire life up until that moment. It was, for me very personal.
And there were heroes whose names were heard over and over again were: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman who oversaw the end.
40. Lisa and Paul arrive in NY…
Soon Lisa and Paul also arrived in New York. In my fathers book “ Franzi und Hannerl” the last pages detailed my father’s description of many members of the family arriving one by one in America. Starting with my grandparents and then the many cousins and other family members. Unfortunately, Lisa and Paul were the end of the line of our immediate family to arrive here. Most of the other members of our large family were killed.
Lisa and Paul started a new life in Manhattan in a small apartment on 77th Street. Paul, although he had learned diamond cutting in Cuba — and had been an accountant in Vienna, went to work for an umbrella company. We were well equipped with luxurious umbrellas from then on. Lisa worked in a factory knitting dresses made out of silk ribbon (still have some of these). They lived in a 4th floor walk up and with Lisa’s skills with cooking, baking and her innate ability to make a home, it was a pleasant place to visit.
41. The arrival of Ginny…
Lisa was 40 years old when she became pregnant. After a difficult delivery (48 hours in labor) which should have been a Cesarian section, Ginny was born. I was beside myself with joy. I was obsessed with a series of books called “The Bobbsey Twins.” One of the twins was named “Flossie.” I tried hard to convince Lisa to name the baby Flossie, but it was not to be. Ginny was named after my grandmother Regina. Anyway, I was thrilled, it was my first cousin in the US. The others were in Australia, John and Aviva Ziegler my mother’s brother, Erich had obtained a visa for Australia. His wife, my aunt Lisl is still living at this time in Australia as I write this. She is over 100 years old and I have loved her dearly whenever we were able to see each other.
The joy of Ginny’s birth did not last long. It soon was noticed that Ginny’s lips had a blue tinge which, it was discovered, signified that her heart was not working properly. In addition, because of the difficulties of her delivery (30 hours in labor), her brain had not gotten enough oxygen.
My father had to deliver the unhappy news to Lisa and Paul. Of course, they were devastated. However there was hope…a doctor Blaylock in Washington D.C. was performing open heart surgery on children that were, so called “blue babies.” The heart defect was called “Tetralogy of Fallot” where there is an abnormal opening from one ventricle to another and the blood flow, as a result is less oxygenated, therefore shortness of breath and the blue tinge. My mother blamed the stress of having to walk up 4 flights of stairs to her apartment in addition, she had to lift some heavy equipment at her job. But of course, it was because of Lisa’s age. Although, chances for having a child with birth defects increases exponentially after age 40, it could also be argued that because of the war, her best childbearing years were squandered.
One summer in 1947 Lisa and Paul rented a room in a rooming house in the Catskills for the summer. Paul would continue to work at his job in the city and I was to stay with her. There, I was to see some of the agony that Lisa was going through. At night, we shared a bed and was sometimes awakened because of her walking around the room. I heard her make soft guttural sounds as she murmured to herself. Probably stifling as best she could the cries that choked her. Not only did Ginny have a heart defect but there was something else that could not be alleviated, not with drugs, not with time. It was a developmental problem. Ginny would have a both learning disability and a physical disability. It was also around this time that we found out about my grandparents demise. They had been murdered in Treblinka, concentration camp. It was the combination of this and Ginny’s ailment must have been devastating for Lisa. It was really too much to bear!
I was becoming aware of many things especially the tragedy of my grandparents’ murder at the hands of the Nazi’s. They had been deported to Poland from Vienna, although they had been warned of the deportation, my grandfather was a proud, stubborn man, eighty years old. He refused to accept the reality of the situation. He even slapped one of the Nazi officers because he would not be forced to say certain things, as they were applying for visas. My grandfather preferred to maintain his dignity and integrity.
Through letters we found out that they arrived in a small town in Poland where they were housed in a small room in a rooming house. The landlords were kindly people who were very much taken with my grandparents cultured gentility. My grandfather even during these dire times helped them with their medical problems. He became their doctor. In return, these people gave them food and protection and when the notice came that all Jews had to be rounded up in the town square, they offered to keep my grandmother hidden. My grand mother was 60 years old then and possibly could be saved. My grandfather at 80 was already showing some signs of illness. My grandmother however refused their offer and insisted on going with him. That was the end of them. We heard from those landlords that during that roundup, people were forced to run behind trucks and those who could not run fell to the side of the road and were shot. A few years ago when reparations were being distributed we had to fill out detailed documents also about my grandparents. We were helped by Catherine Lillie, a cousin born in Austria who worked for New York State Holocaust office. She had access to archival materials and informed us that they had arrived at a concentration camp. We never heard from them after that and in either case they could not have survived very long; a cruel end for people who were kind and helpful to all who they knew and whenever it was possible.
42. What might have been….
I will never really know and can only imagine what would have been if there had not been the war. What I imagine that I missed was my large family. My grandfather was one of 17 children. All of which, according to my mother, were cultured, well established and successful. “The family” would have grown exponentially into a huge clan of like- minded people who would have wrapped me in a beautiful blanket of warmth and support. I imagine that growing up in the place where you were born fortifies one with a sense of security and stability. The aura of my grandparents and the mythology surrounding them lives on. For me, there is a mystique about them. I would have loved to have known them — I have heard much about how they were luminaries in their circle. Their apartment on Taborstrasse 87 was the gathering place for cousins far and wide. My grandfather’s idiosyncratic foibles had a charm that even now never fails to amuse and fascinate. His pronouncements and formula for good living and health are legendary and followed by some even to this day. He believed and preached that one should take a cold shower every morning following a warm one to improve blood circulation. He was famous for never wearing an overcoat even in the coldest winter, in order to strengthen his constitution and stamina. He hated waste and after dinner would perform a ritual of picking up every crumb from the table cloth and then exaggeratedly apply them to his tongue. There was something else. He was generous to a fault. He gave away food and other things from his own house to his patients much to my grandmothers’ chagrin. I also know from my mother that he was very loving and attentive to me carrying me around on his arm constantly wherever he went and said I was “betampt.”
I would have loved to witness the developing cultural scene, and the exciting burst of design innovation of the Wiener Werkstaate, Bauhaus, and the excitement and eccentric creativity of the aura of the Weimar Republic and the Dessau with the Bauhaus innovations. Not only in art but in architecture, music, literature all so tragically aborted. Even today Germany and Austria have not recovered the cultural and scientific preeminence it had before 1933. The Nazi rise was not an inevitable consequence of a failed state, but a sudden and dramatic reversal in human progress.
When I go to Europe now there is a feeling of familiarity on an almost DNA level. But, on a more cerebral level I have a feeling of mistrust, because there is an undercurrent or even fashionable to be anti semitic. To scratch the surface is to encounter anti-semitism and guilt covered by a thin patina of politeness. At any time the table could turn as they did with my parents, who unwittingly believed them to be friends and trusted neighbors.
Incidentally, I don’t know what happened to my Jewish doll. I lost my treasured companion along the way. But on the other hand I have gained so much in many ways like my wonderful family, my lovely daughters and great husband and beautiful home.
I would like to thank my friend, Isa North, a published writer, art historian, lecturer and fellow art enthusiast for encouraging me, prodding me and helping me to believe that I could do it and that it was necessary and even warranted to describe in writing my early experiences vis a vis WWll.
It is with the hope that my grandchildren will be interested in reading this story about the experiences of their ancestry and through it, understand the reality in which the war disrupted the lives of not only our family but millions of others. And to realize in the aftermath, the fragility of our survival through a fortunate series of miracles and fortunate decisions that enabled us not only to have survived but to thrive!
And I apologize for the duplication of description of events and perhaps some differences in interpretation. I have told my story as I remember it, experienced it and understood it. Information was gleaned from many sources, such as; my fathers autobiography, from Francis’ memoir and from my mother’s words. I have incorporated other’s experiences such as my brother’s because it was such an important and integral part of my own story and affected me deeply. Also my father’s description of the miracles in his own words in order to give a flavor and to demonstrate his voice and personality.
- Franz Joseph granted Viennese Jewry the right to form an official and organized community, which grew steadily when imperial restrictions on freedom of movement were later On January 12, 1860, the emperor issued an edict which permitted Jews to own land and engage in any profession they chose, and by 1867, he had lifted all remaining curbs on full Jewish participation in public life.
2. Stefan Zweig describes the Cafehaus in this way:
“It must be said that the Viennese coffeehouse is a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world. As a matter of fact it is a sort of democratic club to which admission costs only the price of a cup of coffee. Upon payment of this mite, every guest can sit for hours on end, discuss, write, play cards, receive mail, and above all go through an unlimited amount of newspapers and magazines……perhaps nothing has contributed to the intellectual mobility and international orientation of the Austrian as much as that he or she could keep abreast of all world events in the coffeehouse and at the same time discuss them with a circle of his friends.
3. President Harry Truman, a Democrat, vetoed the McCarran Walter’s Act because he regarded the bill as “un-American” and discriminatory. His veto message said:
Today, we are “protecting” ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic. … We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again….These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.
This was what Senator McCarran said after President Truman vetoed the McCarran Walter Act:
I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors…. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States…. I do not intend to become prophetic, but if the enemies of this legislation succeed in riddling it to pieces, or in amending it beyond recognition, they will have contributed more to promote this nation’s downfall than any other group since we achieved our independence as a nation.
President Truman’s veto was overridden!
4.. It is estimated that around 75,000 German-Jews immigrated to Latin America between 1933 and 1945. The largest group went to Argentina. But Cuba was also a destination for refugees. At that time in the 1940‘s Cuban society was progressive, From 1936-7, with the anti-Hitler coalition, shifted to constitutional and socially relatively progressive positions. That meant, involvement with the Communists, a new constitution, schools and medical care was brought into the country, wage conflicts were brought under control, there was an advanced workforce and middle-class in the cities. In addition there was even American modernity, probably the most modern of the modern, that existed in large cities outside of the USA. Cuba was an “adjacent territory,” so to speak, an additional part of the USA. As such refugees believed that they would get preferential treatment for a visa for the United States if they moved to Cuba. And maybe people tried to use that. But later it became harder in two ways. Firstly, they tried to keep the masses, especially Jewish refugees from Germany, at bay. That was the problem with the ship “St. Louis,” which was sent back. Secondly, it was a very corrupt society, especially in the late-Batista phase at the end of the 1940s and then in the 1950s, and people – had to pay a lot of money. Jewish refugees often chose Cuba because it was a waiting room for the USA and other places such as Mexico or Colombia. But there was a large number of Jewish émigrés for whom it wasn’t just “Hotel Cuba” – – but who actually then settled there. Cuba had always emphasized Spanish as a pillar of its culture. That’s partly still true today, especially among middle-class professionals like lawyers. Then there was the Americanized part of society, relatively wealthy, with a high per-capita income, very technologically advanced with telephones, houses, cars, TVs, a high concentration of doctors – all American standards.
5. In the rest of the world a “blitzkrieg” (lighting attack or war) was raging. Germany determined to dominate Europe started with the invasion of Poland where the Polish culture was obliterated in less than a month, destroying libraries, museums, churches, clergymen, teachers, and put the people to work in slave labor camps. This led Great Britain to declare war, dividing Europe into two factions of the Allied powers which included: Great Britain, France, Soviet Union and the Axis powers: Germany, Japan, Italy. Later in 1941 the United states joined the war on the side of the Allies and WWll was in full force and even extended to places like : Philippine Islands, Burma, and Finland.
Although the US was dealing with the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the US led the war effort by mobilizing the people into action. Industry started producing weapons which helped the economy.
6.. My father’s description of the diagnosis that saved our family…“the miracle.”
“one evening the telephone rang and a man whose name I have forgotten and whom I had not known before said that he would like to bring a patient over who is in severe pain. It was a good friend of his, a Cuban, an officer in the immigration dept. I was frightened and said that I do not have a license to practice medicine in Cuba , and that I did not want him to bring that man to me. Then he started to talk to me and said that he was in severe pain that I should help him that he was suffering for 8 years from trigeminus neuralgia and that no doctor could help him and that he was an officer in the immigration department and that therefore I should not be afraid to see him also that he did not want me to treat him just to talk to me. I finally gave in and the two men arrived within about half and hour. His name was Agramonte , a tall good looking man. I had to give him a pain relieving tablet before he could talk to me.
I told him that he probably knew that trigeminus neuralgia was an incurable disease, and that only an injection of alcohol into a ganglion or the base of the brain could help. He knew about it, and he was once already determined to have it done, but that he would have had to sign a document that he knew of the danger that the injection could cause blindness of one or perhaps both eyes, and that he therefore did not want the injection, that he had seen many important physicians, professors of the University, and that none of them knew anything else to recommend than the injection. He told me that he has had the condition for 8 years, with almost daily attacks, which lasted for hours, and those only strong drugs could calm his pains, morphine or big doses of codeine or similar drugs. The pains started on the right side below the eye, irradiated from there to the right side of the nose and upper lip, caused redness and sweating of the right side of the face and tearing of the right eye. He also said that he will probably commit suicide, if this goes on much longer. I asked him now about his teeth, whereupon he pulled out of his mouth a denture, comprising all upper teeth of the right side. On further questioning he explained that he had to have the teeth extracted, as some doctors said that the pain may be caused by a bad tooth and that in the course of 8 years he had to have all the upper teeth on the right side extracted. My next idea was that a part of the root of a tooth may have remained in the jaw, and I asked him about X-rays. He then pulled out of his pocket a number of X-ray films, which I examined carefully. They did not seem to show any part of a root, nor any other abnormality. I then told him that X-rays don’t always tell the truth, that they even sometimes lie. He was astonished to hear that. Next I asked him whether he has had any relief after one of the many tooth extractions. He told me “Yes, after the first extraction” and that that was a very bad tooth, and that there was secretion of pus out of the wound for about 6 months, till the opening finally closed up, and that some time afterwards the same pain had started again, and that there was no relief after the extraction of the other teeth.
I did not have to ask any other question, as I knew now the correct diagnosis. I now put my left hand to the back of his head and with the index finger of my right hand I pressed hard against the area next to the nostril on the right side, causing him a severe pain. On further more gentle examination I could then feel a slight swelling in that area, very sensitive to slight pressure. I asked him whether he had a good dentist and he said that he had a very good one, who was a professor and teaching dentistry at the University. I told him that he should go to him and tell him that he was told that he had a deposit from an old abscess in the bone in the area, where the tip of the root of the right second incisor tooth once was, which was pressing against the nerve, and that he needed a little operation to clean out that area. I showed him by pulling up my lip, where the incision should be done, that that was the the nearest spot to reach that area. He understood and both men left. He did not tell me that he will come back. After about 10 days he called up and came back, this time without the other man. He told me that the dentist had done that operation and that he had found some dry material there, something like sand, and that he was free of any pain for about one week, but that the pain had now started again. I asked him how had made the operation and he said that he had drilled a hole in the bone in the same direction, in which the tooth had been pulled out, and not high up, where I had shown him. I told him that he should go back to the dentist and explain to him what I had shown him, where the operation should be done. He asked me to accompany him and explain it to the dentist. I refused to do that, told him that that would be very embarrassing for me, but he insisted and almost forced me to get into his car, and we drove to the dentist. It was very unpleasant for me, but I plaid [sic] my part, I think, very well, telling him that he was the expert and that I could not tell him anything, since I did not know much about dentistry, that I was only a general practitioner, but that there is a possibility that there was more of that calcium deposit in the bone, and that it should be easy to reach it high up and that a strip of gauze should be put into the cavity. He spoke a lot, told me that he had done that kind of operation hundreds of times, and wanted to do it right away on that patient. But the patient wanted it postponed for the next day, since he had already eaten lunch and wanted it done when the stomach was empty. I was happy when I was again out in the street.
I did not hear anything from that man for about three weeks, when he suddenly appeared at our home and told me that I had cured him completely, that after the second operation, in which more of that sand-like material was found and cleaned out and a tampon was put in. He had waited three weeks, to be sure that the pains would not come back. Now, he said, he was sure that the sufferings were definitely over. He now asked, whether there is anything that he could do for me. I said that I thought that he could, and I told him that I had a son and sister-in-law, who are in France, and that he could perhaps, as an officer of the immigration department, be able to help me to bring them over to Cuba. “Yes,” he said, “of course he could”. And I had to go with him in his car right away, and he took me to a notary public, where a document was prepared, giving the names, age, and address of Lisa and Francis, and stating that the legal presuppositions for their immigration to Cuba had been fulfilled, consisting of deposits of 500 dollars per person, also bank deposits of 2000 dollars per person, and deposits for the return trip for each person, and that they should therefore be given visas for entering Cuba. This was not exactly the wording of the document, which I don’t remember, but the meaning. With the document we drove first to the immigration department, where it was signed, perhaps by Dr. Ituarte, the immigration director, and from there we drove to the Department of State, from where a telegram was sent to the Cuban consul in Nice. Unnecessary to say, how happy I was and how happy Hedy was.