Hunger, Greed & Freedom: An Immigrant’s Story

This entry is part 8 of 17 in the series Issue XII: Spring 2013 Prose

 By Daisy Menkes Klein

Occasionally, not very often, the North German city of Hamburg will be in the news. Whenever I see its name in print or hear it mentioned on radio or television, I am reminded of my brief stay in that city so many years ago. We had booked our passage to American freedom on a German Transatlantic ocean liner called the “Hansa” which was to sail to New York from the port of Hamburg. We were to travel first class, which was not an irresponsible extravagance but a practical use of money we would not be allowed to take with us anyway. Despite sailing under a German flag with a swastika, the ship was considered neutral territory and all passengers were to be treated according to the booked class only, as per international, not German law.

Our journey had started in Prague since we had been living in Czechoslovakia which had given us a temporary refuge from Nazi occupied Vienna for the past 9 months, only to flee again. This time our final destination would be the United States of America. We had taken a train to Hamburg, our port of embarkation. It was a lengthy journey lasting for at least 10 hours. We arrived in Hamburg early in the morning, tired and very hungry. There had been no food on the train and we had eaten our prepared sandwiches early in the journey. “We” consisted of my parents, my younger brother, aged 9 and myself, aged 13. We were to board our ship in the late afternoon so we had plenty of time, some of which we intended to spend lingering over an unusually large breakfast. I don’t think we had our luggage with us. It must have gone directly to the ship and would await us in our upper deck cabin. We took a taxi to a restaurant recommended by the driver and the four of us sat down at an empty table, expecting one of the waiters to take our order and meanwhile observing the mouthwatering platters of ham, eggs, and cheeses carried to the various tables to be consumed by the restaurant’s customers. So we sat and tried to relax, wondering what the future would bring. Our lives were about to change drastically. We were heading for the unknown, a new country, a new language, new work and new schools. But we were also heading towards freedom and would no longer have to be afraid for our safety.

Meanwhile no waiter arrived. They served the table next to us and the table behind us but never stopped at our table as if we did not exist. It finally dawned on us after we had also tried the restaurant next door, that we would not be served at all. This was Nazi Germany and we were nobody. We were the inferior Jews, unworthy of being served by Aryan waiters. How did they know of our Jewish origin? Not because we looked so different than the tall blond Germans all around us. Some of the master race’s members were of smaller statue too and had slightly darker hair or skin. No, it was not necessarily the way we looked but the lack of a small swastika pin attached to our garments, worn by everybody else in the restaurant as well as in the streets. No swastika, no food – was the law of the land. We were not served at the grocery store either. On most of the last day in our native continent we were very, very hungry.

Of course once we boarded the ship, we were in safe in international territory. In the evening we were served a very welcome lavish dinner – no swastika required. Just before the dinner, the 14 year old cabin boy had flirtatiously smiled at me, I pretended not to notice but his attention was welcome as it lifted my spirits and eased the hunger pangs. It was a stormy passage. Walking the deck sometimes resembled climbing a steep hill. Nevertheless, although scared to death at times, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. There was the before mentioned diversion offered by the cabin boy who obviously was totally oblivious of the “inferior race” of this 13 year old passenger. And, in sharp contrast to the deprivation suffered in Hamburg, we now were offered loads of delicious food. Storm or no storm, I never missed any of the five daily meals. Three major meals in the huge dining room, midmorning snacks consisting of delicious open sandwiches, afternoon cups of hot cocoa and trays of a variety of cakes and cookies. The meals served in the dining room were the grandest: Unlimited choices and unlimited portions served by uniformed waiters who treated me like I was a privileged Aryan adult. I could order anything I wanted, all kinds of delicacies, whether pickled anchovies or three portions of desert. I took full advantage of this privilege, not ever allowing myself to lose my appetite to sea sickness which due to the major storm, struck most of the other passengers including everybody else of my family.

When we approached New York harbor, and the journey neared its end, all the refugees on board, myself included, were eager to encounter that world famous icon of freedom, the Statue of Liberty, welcoming new immigrants to the land of unlimited possibilities. She finally appeared, in all her glory, flaming torch and all. I duly recorded this historic event with my box camera and still have a print in an ancient photo album with other memorabilia like my dog and scenes of my former home in Vienna. Like all the immigrants, I cried of joy and fear. I am still capable of crying when I think about it and the accompanying emotions whose impact to my credit outweighed my fond memories of my greedy eating experience.

Once settled in the new country, my father asserted that he loved everything in America and never permitted any expression of negative feeling about our adopted country. I almost agreed with him in those early days when I had not yet developed into the rebel and cynic of later years. Yes there was anti-Semitism but compared to where we came from it was of miniscule scale. Yes, we were poor now and the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Life in a dilapidated tenement apartment beat concentration camp detention. Poor was better than forced labor. Life without luxury was better than dead.There was just one exception to our slogan: Everything American is wonderful. We inevitably confronted the two national beverages of Pepsi and Coca Cola which all of us agreed tasted like liquefied, carbonated over -sweetened shaving cream. Even my father’s unquestioning patriotism had its limits.

After a few months in this country, WW2 would start. It was a relief of sorts because we knew that war was the only way to stop Hitler. But war is always a terrible solution and what if the Nazis won? Meanwhile our former luxury vessel, which in spite of its swastika flag had carried us to freedom, would be converted to a ship of war. My cabin boy would join the German Navy. The Hansa would be sunk. Most likely, the object of the mild flirtation of my 13 year old self, would become one of the very young sailors who perished with this or some other ship.

Our family would always cherish the dramatic welcome extended by the statue of liberty. However, also forever ingrained in my memory will be the city of Hamburg, Nazi Germany, where we were deprived of food in the midst of plenty. Although this experience was quite unpleasant, it pales in comparison with all the subsequent horror and suffering the Nazis would inflict upon the Jews and the world.

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