Thirteen/WNET New York WLIW 21
New York War Stories : Your Memories. Your Words.


Submitted by: Edith Beer

My brother and I were born in the frenetic pre-World War II era in Zurich, Switzerland, the German speaking part of the country. Even though Switzerland hoped to be neutral quite a few of its Swiss-German citizens admired Hitler. Some Jews in Zurich, horrified by the anti-Semitism, resettled themselves in the French speaking part of Switzerland, known to be more open minded.

My parents came originally from the Bukovina, a country which before World War I belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the end of the First World War with the implementation of the Treaty of St. Germain, the Bukovina was given to Rumania.

As a young man my father had not wanted to fight in the First World War and had escaped from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire to Zurich where he became a citizen. He later married my mother who came from the same part of the Bukovina as he. The young people in the family had for the most part left the Bukovina to seek their fortunes in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. Thus when the Nazis came to power cousins, nieces and nephews got in touch with my parents to help them escape.

The Swiss who treated their own Jews honorably were troubled that so many neighboring Jews were trying to cross the border to safety and thus passed a series of laws which limited their entrance to Switzerland.

My mother had a very simple technique for getting people across the border. She told her relatives to take tour buses to Zurich, get off and come to our house. Since they were illegally at our house my parents did not want people to know we had "guests". I was a big chatter box. My mother found out that a child did not have to go to school in Switzerland until age seven. Rather than teach me to be secretive she kept me home. My brother, who was older went to school.

As refugees arrived, often unexpectedly, more places would be set at our dining table. To make more room I sat frequently with my mother at the head of the table and shared her salad plate to allow space for our two dinner plates.

My bedroom had twin beds. I would regularly go to bed alone and wake up to muffled crying in the next bed.

It was our father's job to find visas for these refugees. No one ever stayed long. My father as head of the household could have been arrested for harboring refugees. While our father never involved us children I knew whenever his forehead was damp with perspiration that things were not good. To this day I don't know how our father got people across the border. Some went to Spain, others to what is today Israel, some to Australia, Costa Rica, and New York. He used every means to get them out. He had one niece who had as a teenage idealist gone off in 1918 to Palestine to help build a homeland for the Jews. She came back to Vienna with a child and a husband. The husband left her to seek his fortune in Australia. After a few years he ceased to write. When Hitler came my father made it his business to locate him. Not an easy task since the man had, unbeknownst to the family, changed his name. How my father found him is a mystery, but his niece and her child had a visa to Australia.

The only real relief we had from the refugees was in the Alps where we went to ski. My mother often left me in the mountains in the care of a nanny who I adored. The Alps were a wonderful escape: no talk of gas masks, we skied better than the German tourists who might or might not have been Nazis and the radio transmission which relayed Hitler's speeches, was poor.

Some of the refugees left a lasting impact on us. One of these was the Austrian poet, author and playwright, Richard Beer-Hofmann (not a relative), who had had his books burned in the public squares of Germany in 1933. His papers are today collected at Harvard University. He had come with his sick wife to Switzerland before going on to New York. Our parents, who actively donated money to Swiss literary magazines founded for the displaced German/Austrian writers, invited him up to our house to tea. Mama had explained to us that Mr. Beer-Hofmann had written a beautiful poem, entitled Schlaflied Fuer Miriam (Lullaby for Miriam). The poem, named for his daughter and written at the turn of the century shortly after her birth, chants about the dark origin of life and its unknown end. Mama recited in German, "We are but banks of a river and deep in us flows blood of the past streaming on to the future, blood of our fathers full of unrest and pride. All our ancestors are in us. Who can feel himself alone?" (Translation from the book, Richard Beer-Hofmann by Solomon Liptzin; Bloch Publishing Co., New York, 1936, p.14)

In the summer I was inevitably dislodged from my bedroom on the second floor to the third floor, where the maids were housed. The couple who received my room were Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Menachem Mendel Ussishkin, who came together with Dr. and Mrs. Chaim Weizman to Zurich for the Zionist Congress in Basel. The Chaim Weizmans stayed with another private family in Zurich. They were among the founding fathers of Israel.

Not knowing if the Germans would invade them the Swiss government urged its citizens to hoard such staples as canned sardines and oil, and to practice blackout. Our window curtains were replaced with black velvet ones. Our house center hall had three exceedingly long stained window panes which could not be blacked out forcing us to walk at night through the hall in the dark.

On the day of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938, my mother took a train to Vienna against my father's wishes. She planned to get her brother and his wife out. Her brother, because he had been an officer in the Austrian Army, could not understand why the Nazis would not respect him. Once in Vienna my mother got him and his wife out on a tourist bus to Zurich. In the meantime back in Zurich I heard my father screaming on the phone to my mother in Vienna to get out of Vienna because her Swiss passport might not protect her. It was evening and I was standing in the dark hall looking at the stained window panes. I realized I might lose my mother. I began to scream. My governess came and led me to my bedroom. Hoping to calm me she read to me Hansel and Gretel.

My mother in Vienna went to the railroad station to take the train back to Zurich. At the last moment two children, cousins of ours, implored to be taken out of Vienna. My mother had the picture of my brother and me in her passport as was customary in those days.

The next morning when I woke up I heard my mother's voice. She was proudly telling my father how she had covered both children, a boy and a girl, who were at least five years older than my brother or I, with blankets on the train ride and told them to pretend to sleep. When the border patrol came she asked him not to wake the children.

I looked at the two new children, our latest refugees. They were, like all the other children who came, immaculately dressed as if to say we are worth something, take good care of us.

Now that I was seven my mother could no longer keep me out of school. Like any child I was excited the first day my mother took me to school. Herr Muller, a tall, austere looking man, presided over our class. Before I had even made any serious mistakes, he flung my copybook down the center aisle separating two rows of desks. His aim was quite good. I had to get up to retrieve my copy book while he loudly berated me for being stupid. Other times, he yanked my hair until it hurt. Feeling humiliated I stayed by myself at recess. I never told my parents.

I had a lot of stomach aches. The refugees at our house, wanting to be helpful, read to me. Perhaps, my mother realizing that my life in school like the political atmosphere was not neutral, made arrangements for me to stay up in the Alps for the winter. In the spring I came back to Zurich and my nemesis, Mr. Muller. As if wanting to make up for my brief absence, his harassing increased. Again, I said nothing to my parents.

Our parents started to talk about Amerika. They served for breakfast, Corn Flakes declaring it as American. My brother was reading Karl May who wrote about American Indians and took to chasing me with a Tomahawk. I didn't like the Tomahawk nor how my Corn Flakes became mush when I poured our unpasteurized boiled milk on top of them.

On a crisp September day in 1939 as I was leaving for school my mother told me that I should tell my teacher that I was going on a long trip and taking my school books with me. I would return them when we came back. My only clue to where we might be traveling were the corn flakes. At the end of the school day, as the other children ran out of the classroom, I gave Herr Muller my mother's message. With a smirk he declared as if he had just solved a puzzle, "You're Jewish and you're afraid." No good-bye and no good luck wishes.

Because Switzerland was practicing blackout we were driven to the railroad station without the use of headlights to catch the midnight train to London. In France the train would be put on a ferry and we would wake up in London. We crossed the borders easily with our Swiss passports. Our father had obtained for us, like he had for so many of the refugees, visitors' visas to see the World's Fair in New York. Our parents even as Swiss citizens, because they were born in East Europe, were not eligible for an immigration visa.

The atmosphere was tense in London. Expecting to be bombed children with big placards stating their names were being sent to the country. My brother and I clung close to our parents. We were put to bed at night partly clothed because our parents had been told we might have to run to shelters if war was declared. Our parents trying to entertain us took us to the London Zoo. Our mother walked us to the Panda's cage and said, "Tell him you'll bring his regards to his cousin in the Bronx Zoo." All the animals sounded unusually loud. I looked around. We were the only people in the Zoo.

On the day France and Germany declared war we left Southampton, England for new York on the S.S. Ile de France. The Germans were looking to torpedo us. Radar was not yet in use. Our captain after showing us our lifeboat stations told us our best defense was for the boat to stay in the fog and rough seas. Strict blackout was practiced. My mother and I threw up most of the voyage. Finally we had smooth sailing and all four of us went up on the deck. The sun was shining. We leaned over the railing. People around us were yelling, "There's Long Island, Brooklyn." In the distance was a statue of a lady holding up her arm surely welcoming us. The custom officers, happy that the Germans had not torpedoed us, greeted us with big smiles. My brother declared, "There are no Indians here. It looks like Europe." I looked at all the happy people and decided right then and there that I liked this country.

copyrighted Edith Lynn Beer