Berta’s Longer Story
What next? What is next for me and my family?
How much more can we endure?
Those are the thoughts my mother may have had as we flew from Uruguay to the United States after World War II had ended. Vienna, Austria was her home when, six weeks after she had given birth to her second child, Hitler marched into Vienna and took over the whole country of Austria. The nursemaid she had hired to live in their home and take care of her babies had a boyfriend who was an officer in the Nazi army, and they had to watch every word they said in their home. In addition, she insisted on taking the babies for walks in the park, where no Jews were allowed to be; each day, Berta lived with the fear that her babies would be discovered and taken away.
One day, the soldiers came to the apartment and arrested her husband, accusing him of having weapons hidden in their home. In a hall closet, there were extra knives stored for use in their grocery store, and so the SS soldiers confiscated them and took my father away. Berta was sure she would never see him again. The soldiers took him into the street and humiliated him by making him scrub the sidewalks with his toothbrush. Then they took him to the synagogue, where they commanded him to paint swastikas on the front doors. A crowd had gathered, cheering the Nazis on and taunting my father. He was not a religious man, but painting swastikas on the synagogue was something he did not want to do. In front of the crowd, he loudly asked the soldiers, “You really want your precious symbol painted on the doors of a dirty Jewish synagogue?” Suddenly, the crowd became quiet, and shouted, “No! Don’t let him do that!” He felt very lucky to have gotten away with it.
On Kristallnacht, their store was broken into and ransacked. My father realized that this madness would not end, so he took all the money he could gather, bribed the necessary officials, and in the next few months was able to get passports and visas to leave Vienna. Had he waited much longer, their ability to leave the country would have greatly diminished.
First, I had to escape the Nazis and leave Vienna, the city I loved, and where I thought I would spend my life raising my children, living near my family and operating my own business with my husband. Suddenly, we had to leave our homeland and everything and everyone I knew and held dear.
After a long train ride to Naples, where we waited a month for our ship, we took our two babies on the ocean liner to sail to Uruguay, a strange, faraway place about which I knew nothing and where I had nobody. Uruguay was our destination only because it was a country that would let us in, and, after Kristallnacht, we had no choice about it. Leave or suffer, or maybe even die. My parents couldn’t go with us. I agonized about what would happen to them. I insisted on taking my sister, her husband, and their daughter. I knew that, if we left them behind, I would never see them again, and the children needed to be saved. As it turned out, they were the only children our family produced.
Mother’s parents, who were in their sixties, were able to get visas later, but in their fear upon leaving their homeland, they forgot their papers when they took a taxi to the train station. They went back for them, and were picked up by Nazi soldiers, taken to Auschwitz, and murdered there. A neighbor saw them being picked up by the Nazis and wrote my mother this tragic news. How horrendous this must have been for her. Her baby sister had made her way to England a few months earlier, but her brothers, the three Brandeis boys, were taken to the concentration camps. As it turned out, one of my uncles was able to smuggle a letter out to Supreme Court Justice Brandeis in the United States, and he wrote to the Nazis, saying that they had his family in the camps and demanding their release. Miraculously, this worked, and they were let go! A Jewish man in Richmond Virginia had agreed to sponsor one family, and they were able to go to Virginia to start a new life.
My father’s younger brother had already fled to Argentina. The SS was looking for him because he dated non-Jewish women and was charged with “contaminating the Aryan race.” Two of my father’s sisters went to Shanghai to the ghetto there, where conditions were quite horrendous, and one of the sisters went to England, and another to Brazil. Such a Diaspora for one family!
The trip across the ocean took a whole month. My son Peter was very cranky on the ship, and I did not know how to quiet him. I walked with him and sang to him, but he could not sleep. My niece Edith spent the whole voyage very seasick and miserable. Lise, my baby, was still in diapers, and we wanted her to be “clean” by the time we landed in Uruguay, so we followed her around with a chamber pot all day to train her. By the time the ship landed, she was toilet trained, and I was relieved. We knew nothing about the country that would be our refuge and our future home, and how we would take care of two babies there was a mystery.
I was the baby of the group, Lise, one year old and just learning to walk, and my brother Peter was two, just learning to talk. My cousin Edith had just had her eleventh birthday and was still in trauma from the terrors she had endured as a Jewish child in Nazi Vienna. Her mother, my aunt Rosa, was very shy and afraid of unfamiliar things, and her father, Sigi, was an artistic man who was not a practical person. He could write poetry and sing and was a wonderful calligrapher, but his survival skills left much to be desired. My mother was in deep grief over leaving her parents behind in such a dangerous situation, so my father was the one who shouldered the burden of taking care of all of us and finding some way to for us to survive. Our first apartment was on the beautiful oceanfront, but all our belongings began to mold from the humidity, so we looked for a place to live and work in the city of Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay.
We knew not a word of Spanish, and yet, within a few months, we opened a grocery store on the main street of the city. The seven of us lived in the basement of the store until we could afford an apartment. It was a dreary beginning, and we shared the space with mice and rats and all kinds of insects. Sheets hung on clotheslines divided the space into rooms, but this arrangement provided no privacy. After a while, we were able to move to an apartment building a few blocks from the grocery. It was not so convenient, but there was a nice patio where the babies could play in safety. After a few years, when the grocery was finally an established business, my husband became ill with tuberculosis. He had to go to a sanitarium in another county a few hours away. As he was healing from the tuberculosis, he contracted malaria and was gone from us for a whole year. Many people died of tuberculosis there, but the fever from the Malaria killed the tuberculosis. While he was away, the burden of the business rested on my shoulders, and, in such a male -centered country, this was not easy for me.. Fortunately, my sister Rosa stayed home and took care of the children.
When my husband finally returned, he still needed a lot of care, and it was hard to work in the store and still attend to him. Fortunately, we found an apartment around the corner from the store. I could run home to check on him often and bring him meals. All seven of us had to live together to save money and so that my sister could care for my children, but it was difficult. My husband and my sister did not get along well, and I was always in the middle.
My father and my Aunt Rosa did not like each other, and there were arguments between them and times when they did not speak to each other. Then there was the terrible time when my mother had a goiter operation. The doctor who performed the surgery came to the hospital drunk and cut through the main artery in her neck, almost killing her. It was a terrifying night for the whole household. I remember a whole night of crying and fear.
My mother lived on the hope that we could leave South America. After the war, the United States began opening its doors to immigrants again, but the conditions of entry were very strict. My mother’s brothers had made their way there, had a good business, and wanted us to join them. They were willing be our sponsors and assume responsibility for all of us.
We have somehow survived for seven and a half years in this foreign place, but it has never become our home. Our home was Vienna, city of culture and music and family. At first we dreamed we would return to our beloved city after the war, but, as the years passed, we realized that was not an option. The Vienna of our dreams was gone. As soon as the war was over, we worked on getting our papers to go to America to be with my brothers and my sister.
It took a long time and many visits to the consulates, but we finally secured all the necessary documents, sold our business, packed our belongings, and made travel arrangements. It took three days of flying on Pan American Clipper to get to Miami. We spent the first night in Rio de Janeiro and the second night in Belen. From Miami, it took twenty-one hours on the train to Richmond, Virginia. It was July, but we were still in our winter clothes from the cold season in Uruguay. We were sweltering.
Now we are on our way to the United States to a place called Richmond, Virginia. What awaits us there? Again, we will have to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture with odd customs. We will once more live in a strange apartment and do different work. At least I will have my brothers and sisters with me. What is left of my family will all be in one place. My husband has none of his own relatives there. Many of our family members were murdered, but we hope we can find some who are still alive somewhere. I am lucky to have two children, because most of my brothers and sisters and my in-laws have no children at all. It was not a time when people would want to start a family. Such a big family we were! My husband and I each had seven brothers and sisters and now we are reduced to so few.
My children are now eight and nine years old. How will it be for them to adjust when I am so unable to guide them? Whatever awaits them, they will have to deal with it on their own. My husband and I have to work to survive. I suppose we will all adapt. We have done this before, and now we will just have to do it again.
I was always envious of my friends who had several cousins their own age. At least I had a brother and one cousin. I always wished for more and vowed to have a very big family when I got married. I am so lucky to have six children and many grandchildren. I am the only one in my generation to be so fortunate.
The transitions my family had to make were typical of a whole generation of Jews. The lucky ones survived and made new lives in new places. Millions perished, and many more millions were never born, due to the Holocaust. My mother lived with a great sadness, and I honor her ability to survive and be the kind, loving person she always was.