The BOOKPRESS February 2000

A Journey


Tom Eisner

The Visa
It was 1936, and we were in Paris. Getting there had been a bit more exciting than we bargained for, but we had made it, and the plan now was to leave Europe for good. We wanted to emigrate to South America.

We had left Hitlerís Germany in 1933. It was an early time to leave. My parents had a premonition of what was in store for Jews who stayed, and they had simply packed up and taken us kids to Barcelona. My sister and I were seven and three years old. My parents did not speak a word of Spanish, nor did my father have prospects for a job. He had a doctorate in chemistry, and had been working as a researcher at the Kaiser Willhelm Institut in Berlin. The chance of finding comparable work in Barcelona was nil. But he did eventually find employment with a pharmaceutical company, the Laboratorios Andromaco, so we settled happily on the slope of the Tibidabo, in a rented house with a full view of the Barcelona harbor. My mother, an artist, found the Spanish atmosphere and Mediterranean climate exhilarating, and we were quick to adjust to our new life. Then, in the summer of 1936, to our great dismay, came the Spanish Civil War.

Things were chaotic in Barcelona from the start, and it became clear that we would have to leave. I remember one frightening incident vividly. There were so many factions at odds at the beginning of the revolution that it was often difficult to tell who was fighting whom. That was the case on one particular morning when shooting erupted in our neighborhood. My sister and I huddled with our parents and Chas, our Irish setter, in the stairway of the house where we were safe from stray fire. The doorbell rang, and to our consternation, our parents both responded. Two young men, armed to the teeth, had heard that there was shooting coming from our house, and they wished to investigate. With rifle in hand, and pistols at the ready, they escorted my parents from room to room, and eventually came upon us kids in the stairway. I was screaming at the top of my lungs.

"Muerde?" asked one of them, pointing at our cowering dog, who was shaking like a leaf. "Does he bite?" Given what they could do to Chas if he so much as twitched, the question seemed ridiculous.

"No muerde," said my mother, to their relief. They could tell from our accents that we were foreigners, and they then proceeded to do something totally unexpected. "We will go to your roof and put up a white flag," said one of them. "Can you bring a bed sheet?" My mother obliged. They quickly scrambled up the stairs and hung the sheet from the roof terrace. They had braved fire to do so. "We are identifying foreigners as neutral," they explained when they came back. "The white sheet will protect you." And off they went.

The shooting continued and was intense at times. I remember fearing that it might never end. And then the doorbell rang again. It was our warrior friends. The two had returned to tell us that white flags were now considered to be a sign of surrenderóan indication that there had been fighters in the house. It was no longer safe to display a white flag. "We will take yours down for you," one of them said, and true to his word, went to the roof and took down the sheet. "Era peligrosa para ustedes..." one of them said by way of explanation. "It was dangerous for you." Politely they bid us farewell and left to face the uncertainties of their own existence.

Not long after, some of the belligerents had the brilliant idea of taking an empty streetcar, loading it with dynamite, and rolling it down an avenue. The streetcar derailed, hit the curb, and blew up. The detonation was horrific. I was playing in our sandbox at the time, and remember running for cover.

Within a few weeks we made arrangements to leave Barcelona. We had obtained entry visas for France, but how to get there was another matter. Regular passenger service to the nearest French port, Marseilles, was disrupted, and finding transportation had become very much a matter of luck. Eventually we got third-class accommodations on a freighter which had been rerouted to Barcelona for the purpose of picking up refugees. The ship was filled to capacity, and we considered ourselves lucky to be on board. Third-class accommodation meant spending the overnight passage on deck. Fortunately, another family had brought along their fox terriers, which provided us kids with warmth through the night.

I do not remember much of the next few days, except that in Marseilles, in a small pub by the harbor, I had my first bouillabaisse. It felt good, at last, to be away from the shooting, and to this very day I cannot taste saffron without being overtaken by a feeling of tranquility.

After some time we left for Paris, where Laboratorios Andromaco had a subsidiary. The firm had branches in Latin America as well, and it was our hope to join one of these. The options were Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay. Our first choice was Argentina, where my mother had a brother. But we did not succeed in getting a visa to Argentina, and the idea of emigrating to Brazil was discouraging to my parents, since it meant learning yet another language. That left Uruguay, but Andromaco was just getting established there. So, we thought the only solution would be to go to Brazil first, and from there eventually to Argentina. That decision made, our primary goal was to get our Brazilian visas.

My parents had enrolled us in a wonderful French school, where my sister and I were quick to learn the language. Madame Ludain, the headmistress, a stunningly beautiful middle-aged Parisian, had been sympathetic to our plight as refugees, and had taken us in even though the school was full. My classmates, however, were not so kind. At their hands I was to experience rejection, not for being a Jew, but for being German. I was taunted as "le boche," and it hurt. I learned my first lesson in prejudice.

My father had been going to the Brazilian Embassy every day, in hopes of getting a visa. The wait was long, for we were not the only ones trying to get out of Europe in those turbulent times. But as the days wore on, we were beginning to despair. "Donít give up," my mother urged, and one day added, "take the boy along to the Embassy. He will help you while away the time..."

So off to the Embassy we went. I remember the weather being bleak that day, and the Embassy frighteningly austere. I have a vague recollection of others in the room, fellow refugees with drawn faces. It started raining suddenly, and there was lightning and thunder. I liked storms, and I had fond memories from Barcelona, where rain meant that the sand in my sandbox would be wet and good for sculpting. Suddenly, there was a blinding flash, followed by a momentous thunderclap. We reasoned later that the bolt must have struck the Embassy or a building nearby. I had only once heard a sound of that magnitude, and that was in the sandbox some weeks earlier. I began to cry, quietly at first, and then audibly. Others seemed worried as well, which only intensified my fear. I was no longer sobbing but crying inconsolably. My father gave me a hug, but I was not to be stilled. A door abruptly opened and out came a middle-aged man, well groomed, with a mustache. He headed straight for my father. "Why is the boy crying?" he asked.

"He was frightened by the thunder," said my father.

"Oh you poor boy," said the gentleman, adding something to the effect that I should not be scared, that lightning is good, that it brings rain, and that rain makes the flowers grow. And then, turning to my father, he asked, "What are you here for?"

"A visa," said my father.

"Come to my office," said the gentleman, and we followed him down the hall. Within minutes we had our visa. Some sheets of paper changed hands, and there was some rubber-stamping, but that was all there was to it. We wondered later whether our benefactor had been the ambassador himself.

It had stopped raining by the time we left the Embassy. Happiness was written all over my fatherís face. I did not then fully understand, but I do now. We had won the lotteryóthe cruel lottery of survival...

The Enemy
It was February 1937, and I was seven years old. We had left Hitlerís Germany in 1933, spent the next three years in Barcelona, fled to France at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and then, after finally getting the right visas, left Europe for good. Our destination was Uruguay, and we had made it at last. The forced emigration had been rough on my parents, but not on me. Travel meant being out of school much of the time, and school was something I could do without. There were, after all, benefits. Thanks to the frequent moves, I picked up German, Spanish, and French, and learned to curse Hitler in three languages.

But all that linguistic fluency was not enough for my parents. I was to learn English as well. "The boy is obviously destined to be a scientist," they decided, implying that I would eventually need to study in America. "We will place you in an English school," they said. "There is no better way to learn the language."

As luck would have it, there was such a school within walking distance of our new home. Miss Frances Hanna was the schoolmistress, founder, and owner of the establishment, and a formidable presence she was. Irish by birth, and in her mid-50s, she was of Anglican persuasion, and fiercely pro-British. She was also a disciplinarian, fair in her dispensation of justice, but tough. She had two assistants but basically ran the school by herself. There were fewer than 100 enrolled students spread over all classes. The "International School" was a fully accredited elementary school.

We were all afraid of Miss Hanna, but respected her as well. Though she was scant in her praise, she recognized achievement and hard work. Lying and cheating were the ultimate crimes. Mistakes were tolerated, if coupled with admission of guilt. But, depending on the circumstances, even lapsing into Spanish while school was in session was a transgression punishable by having to stand on your bench with hands behind your back and eyes closed. I still believe that the fear of heights that was to become the bane of my adult life, and which to this very day keeps me from flying, was triggered by the dizzying experience of needing to keep my balance without visual feedback on those hideous benches.

Miss Hanna was fiercely patriotic. This became particularly apparent after the outbreak of the war. It was required that we arrive sharply on time in the morning, so as not to miss assembly. With Miss Hanna at the piano, and us students neatly sorted out by size and arranged in rows behind her, we intoned, not the Uruguayan national anthem, but "God Save the King." This was followed by a rendition of "Rule Britannia" and a recitation of the Lordís Prayer. We all enjoyed assembly, because of the singing, and I do not recall anyone ever objecting on political or religious grounds. Uruguay was, after all, unabashedly anglophilic, and Britain was bravely and single-handedly withstanding what could only be viewed as the most monstrous of assaults.

In fact, all of us at the International School were caught up in the pro-British fervor. Things did not look good for Britain early on in the war, but we eagerly shared news tidbits in the hope that the tide might be turning. Some of us boys regretted that we were not old enough to volunteer for service with the British forces. We all dreamed of eventually joining the RAF.

Then, in December 1939, came the incident of the Graf Spee. The German pocket battleship had been forced to seek refuge in Montevideo, after a sea battle with three smaller British vessels, the Ajax, Achilles, and Exeter. In accord with international law, the Graf Spee had 72 hours to refuel and lick its wounds in a neutral port. Rather than face battle with what he judged to be unbeatable British forces, Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee chose the option of scuttling his ship. On the evening of December 17, 1939, while still in shallow waters and in view of Montevideo harbor, he lit the charges. The explosion was monumental, and is remembered vividly by all who were in Montevideo at the time. The crewmembers of the Graf Spee had sought to make their escape on a German freighter, the Tacoma, but that attempt failed and most of them were eventually interned in Uruguay. Captain Langsdorff made it to Buenos Aires, where he committed suicide. The battle of the Graf Spee was the first naval victory for Britain in World War II, and the event was celebrated the world over by Britainís friends.

For us youngsters at the International School, having been so close to real action was exhilarating. We spoke of little else for days on end, and marveled at the bravery of the British navy. My father had been on a passenger liner on his way back from Brazil when the Graf Spee blew up, and he had sailed past the burning hulk only hours after the event. I remember listening spellbound to his eyewitness account.

Months went by, and the war intensified. London was being blitzed, and there was general concern over the future course of the conflagration. I knew where I stood. I kept a picture of Churchill on the wall above my bed, together with photos of virtually every type of airplane in the RAF. The images of these planes were ingrained in my memory, and I could, on momentís notice, accurately sketch a Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster, Bristol Blenheim, or Wellington. I liked to draw, and I drew countless versions of dogfights. And every morning there was the invigorating experience of adding my voice to that joyous rendition of "Rule Britannia."

My parents and I avidly listened to news of the war on the radio. I remember in particular the day in May 1941, when the battleship Hood was sunk. The Hood was the flagship of the British navy, and it had gone down with virtually its entire company of fifteen hundred men. The loss was a devastating one for Great Britain. The villain in the incident was the German battleship Bismarck, an ultramodern vessel, newly constructed, and the pride of Hitlerís navy. After sinking the Hood, the Bismarck had made its getaway with only minor damage. Interception of the Bismarck before it could make it to port became the British navyís highest priority. I remember rising early in the morning to get the latest on the "chase." The Bismarck had been an elusive target. It had initially escaped detection, but after several days had finally run out of luck. It was spotted by aerial reconnaissance, and a torpedo from a Swordfish biplane knocked out one of its rudders. Unable to steer, it was tracked down by British vessels, and sunk by close range fire. The British ships initially moved in to pick up survivors, but reports of German submarines in the area compelled them to withdraw. Nearly two thousand members of the Bismarckís crew perished.

The news reached us first thing in the morning. I was beside myself with elation. I got dressed quickly and ran to school, hoping to be the first to tell Miss Hanna. I arrived breathless and found her in her office, reading the newspapers.

"Miss Hanna," I said excitedly. "The Bismarck has been sunk!" I looked straight at her, eager for an answer. She looked back intently, and kept silent at first. But then, in the quietest of tones, and with the utmost deliberation, she said, "the Bismarck... sunk...think of all those poor German sailors drowning."

I do not know how long I hesitated before stepping from her office. Nor do I remember exactly when I started crying. I know it was not in her presence. It must have been outside in the hallway, as I awaited the arrival of my classmates. I was overwhelmed and cried disconsolately. Miss Hanna had reached the innermost confines of my soul. She had changed me for life.

The Train
Few days are as vividly imprinted in my memory as that day in September 1937 when I got my electric train. I was eight years old and we had just settled in Montevideo.

We had eagerly awaited that September day because it was to bring our grandmother Clara on a visit from Germany. Against all better judgement and family advice Oma Clara had chosen not to leave Germany with us in 1933. We had overreacted, she thought. Hitler would fade with time, and the thing to do was to wait him out. What is more, she had written us that she had every intention of returning to Germany after her South American visit. It was my parentís hope that they would be able to dissuade her. But we knew it would be difficult. Oma Clara was a stubborn woman.

The reunion at the harbor was emotional and joyful. Oma had traveled in style, on the German luxury liner Caparcona. It had been a marvelous trip, she reported. "Not a trace of anti-semitism on board..."

"Wait ítil you see what I brought you kids," she said, whetting our appetites. When we got back to the house she was quick to call us to her room to take part in the ceremonial unpacking. I have quite forgotten what she brought for my sister, but I remember my excitement when I caught a glimpse of that box with the Maerklin label. Maerklin was the top of the line for electric trains at the time, and the idea that I would come into possession of one was beyond belief.

Unpacking that box was a divine experience. There was a locomotive, two lounge cars, a freight car, a caboose, and enough track to lay an expansive double loop. I did little else but play with the train in the next days, and the family would often join me to have a peek. My father loved to sit on the floor with me and operate the transformer.

Oma stayed long enough to celebrate her seventieth birthday with us, but there was no way of convincing her to stay. Seeing her off at the harbor was heartbreaking. For my parents, who had a premonition of what was to come in Europe, the occasion was full of foreboding.

I kept spending hours "by the tracks." My parents, always conscious of my performance in school, had to put limits on the time that I committed to my new enthusiasm. But I had immense fun, often in the company of buddies who would come over for no other reason than to play with the train. The tracks were laid out at all times, and it required great skill to tiptoe through my room.

We also did dumb things. The train was run by a transformer with a 20-volt output. This was enough to give you a real jolt, particularly if you had your tongue laid across the rails. We had a game in which we took bets on who could withstand the highest voltage. One of us would lie on his tummy with his tongue on the tracks, and the other would increase the output of the transformer by increments. It was an awful experience and it was difficult to keep from screaming out. But we did it, placing our bets, and a considerable amount of pocket money changed hands in the process.

In Europe the tension was rising and it became clear even to Oma that she would have to get out of Germany. Her other son, Kurt, and his family had emigrated to Holland and she decided to follow him there. My parents saw the war coming, but like many others hoped that the neutrality of the Low Countries would be respected and that Oma would be safe there. For me, playing with the train was a constant reminder of Oma and of the peril faced by all our Jewish relatives.

There followed the Anschluss, the annexation of Czechoslovakia, and to the surprise of few, in September 1939, the outbreak of war. Our hope had proved for naught. Belgium and the Netherlands were quickly overrun. In the five years that followed we could do little more than worry. The news of deportations and concentration camps had reached us and in our darkest moments we had come to fear that we would never see Oma and the rest of the family again.

Something odd happened to my train in the meantime. One of the wheels of the locomotive simply broke into pieces. Whatever alloy had gone into its manufacture simply did not withstand the test of time. The other wheels were eventually to fall apart as well. Hitler, it seemed, had siphoned off the best metals for his war industry and allowed only junk to be diverted to the production of toys. I was struck by the depressing thought that the war had been destructive even to my memento of Oma.

And then came the miracle. Shortly after the liberation of Eindhoven we received a telegram from uncle Kurt telling us that the entire family in Holland had been saved. Most had spent the years hidden in basements by courageous Dutch families. Oma, too, was first in hiding in a household, but she had later been transferred to a hospital where she had been kept as a "patient," although she was perfectly healthy. The entire staff of the hospital knew that she was a hidden Jew, but the secret never leaked out. To this day we feel tremendously indebted to the Dutch.

Oma was to remain in Holland, where she lived well into her eighties. We corresponded on a very regular basis, but I never had the heart to tell her that the train was out of commission.

The years went by and we eventually emigrated to the United States. The train went along on all our moves, packed neatly in boxes, but nonfunctional. Oddly, it took another war to see it fixed.

In 1982 I took a trip to Europe. I went by boat as usual since I donít fly. Going by boat these days means going by way of the Queen Elizabeth II, since there are virtually no other passenger liners in service. I was a veteran aboard that ship, having taken it across the Atlantic nearly a dozen times.

That particular crossing coincided with the outbreak of the Falklands war. Argentina versus Britain it was, over ownership of the islands. The conflict seemed absurd. Like two bald men fighting over a comb, was how Luis Borges put it.

In mid-Atlantic we got the news that another major British liner, the Canberra, ordinarily in trans-Pacific service, was requisitioned for troop transport to the Falklands. Certainly the QEII would be requisitioned as well, I thought, and sure enough, she was.

I heard the news in a cab in Hamburg. Stranded passengers were to be issued return air tickets, but that, most certainly, did not apply to me. I was stuck and felt rather desperate. After attending to my affairs in Hamburg, I hastened down to the waterfront to see if I might not locate a ship, a freighter perhaps, willing to take me back to the U.S. I wandered from dock to dock without luck until I came across a young Scandinavian officer who told me there was a Polish liner in regular service to Montreal. I rushed to the nearest travel agency and learned that the Stefan Batory was scheduled to depart for Montreal in a few days. I made the booking then and there, picking a nice outside cabin my wife Maria and I would enjoy. Maria was visiting family members in Holland and would join the ship in Rotterdam.

Vastly relieved, I went back to the harbor to stroll around some more, when I noticed a small shop with an enticing sign over the door: We Fix Old Maerklin Trains. I went in and told the nice elderly owner that I had an old locomotive in need of repair. "Ah," he said, "the wheels, they fell apart?" He went on to explain that it was a common problem, and that yes, he would be able to provide new wheels. "Danke schoen," I said, as I slipped his card into my pocket and left.

The return trip, aside from being rather stormy, was a delight. The Stefan Batory was actually the former Maasdam of the Holland America Line, which Maria and I had taken together a quarter of a century earlier. At some time during the trip, I told Maria about the Maerklin shop. How nice that such old toys can still be fixed, I commented, never for an instant implying that anything should be done about my own train. Afterward, I completely forgot about the shop.

But Maria found the card I had taken and sent the locomotive to Hamburg to be fixed in time for Christmas. It was one of the nicest surprises I ever received. Rolling now on peacetime wheels, the train runs like a charm to this day, and we love setting it up for the grandchildren when they visit.

Tom Eisner is a biologist at Cornell.

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