Lotte’s Story, Part III: Coming to and Settling into America

In Parts I and II of Lotte’s story, we saw how my cousin Lotte’s idyllic childhood as the daughter of a successful doctor in Mannheim, Germany, was shattered after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.  By 1937, her sister Doris had left for the US, and a year later, Lotte and her parents Joseph and Anna (Winter) Wiener had moved to Luxembourg, where Anna’s parents, Samuel and Laura (Seligmann) Winter had already relocated.

After visiting her daughter Doris in the US, Anna returned to Luxembourg and convinced Joseph that they also should relocate there.  First, they had to obtain visas to travel to the US.  Lotte wrote:

The nearest American consulate was in Antwerp, Belgium, necessitating a fairly long trip. My grandparents were rather disabled by that time and in no condition to undertake the long journey. Reluctantly, we had to leave them behind when we made the trip. After a long wait we were admitted to the consul’s office where he sat, pipe in the corner of his mouth and feet on his huge executive desk. A most unfriendly man, he asked my parents all the necessary questions. When my turn came up, he quizzed me in some of the simplest arithmetic questions. When he was satisfied that I was not imbecile, he condescended to tell us that we could expect the visas in “six months to one hundred years”. Fortunately it took only a little over six months before we could sail.

While waiting for the visas to come through, Lotte worked at a baby hospital in Luxembourg.  She worked long hours taking care of the infants, and in the end she earned a Red Cross certificate, which proved to be quite valuable when she later applied to nursing school in New York.

The atmosphere in Luxembourg grew increasingly tense.  After the Munich agreement allowed Germany to take over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1938, more and more Jewish refugees were leaving Germany for Luxembourg.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Signing the Munich Agreement
From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R69173 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As Lotte described it:

Many Jewish refugees had arrived in Luxembourg, many only with their fur coats and jewelry in assets. Having nothing else to do but to wait for the possibility of a visa, most unlikely on the Austrian and Hungarian quotas, they spent a lot of time in the local cafés. That in turn aroused a certain amount of the latent antisemitism in the population. Or maybe it was not so latent. My roommate at the hospital, a devoutly Catholic young lady who went to mass almost every morning, confided in me that she needed to “confess” to the priest that she was sharing her room with a Jewish girl. She had to admit, however, that I neither had horns nor did anything evil as far as she knew.

It was becoming very clear that there would be a war in Europe, and the events of Kristallnacht in November, 1938, also frightened those who were still in Luxembourg.

Finally, in April 1939, Lotte and her parents received their visas and could leave for the United States.   There was, however, no way to take Lotte’s grandparents, Laura and Samuel, with them.

Tickets for the voyage were booked, and soon my parents and I found ourselves on a train to Le Havre without them. We never were to see them again. As we found out later, Oma died of a heart attack while looking for an apartment, having been evicted when the German army took over Luxembourg in the spring of 1940. Opa was deported to Theresienstadt where he reportedly died “of natural causes”.

When I think about these separations, it tears me apart.  I cannot imagine leaving my parents behind, as Annie Winter Wiener was forced to do.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “A Woman in Gold” will remember the scene when Maria Altmann leaves her parents behind in Vienna for similar reasons.  It’s a scene that breaks your heart and stays with you long after the movie ends with Maria victorious in her legal battles over the Klimt painting.  Maria was a real person, just as Lotte is a real person.  These are not Hollywood stories written just to wring tears from viewers.  These are the lives and the experiences that thousands and thousands of people endured.

But somehow these people, including Lotte and her parents, survived and found the strength to move on.  Lotte’s description of her sea voyage to America, leaving her grandparents and her homeland forever, reveals that tenacity, the strength, that courage.

Below is the ship manifest listing, on lines 6,7, and 8, Lotte and her parents (her real first name is Leonore) and a photograph of the George Washington, the ship that brought them to the US.

Year: 1939; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 6313; Line: 1; Page Number: 176

Year: 1939; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 6313; Line: 1; Page Number: 176

The George Washington, the ship that Lotte and her parents sailed on to the US in 1939 Ancestry.com. Passenger Ships and Images [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: Various maritime reference sources.

The George Washington, the ship that Lotte and her parents sailed on to the US in 1939
Ancestry.com. Passenger Ships and Images [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.
Original data: Various maritime reference sources.

Lotte chose to write this section in the third person, which I found interesting and revealing.  Was she distancing herself from that teenaged girl who was herself distancing herself from her past?

It was a grey and rainy day in April of 1939. A wet and blistery wind blew, adding to the girl’s anxiety. The security of her world had been shattered, slowly at first, but then with increasing speed and ferocity. Her best friend had been left behind – without her being able to say a proper good-bye – perhaps they would never have a chance to see each other again. Here she stood at the pier in Le Havre, ready to embark on the longest journey of her young life. Slowly she and her parents stepped on the planks of the ship, the ocean liner which would bring them from a Europe threatened by the certain relentless march toward war to the vast and unknown entity of America which lay before her.

The voyage was stormy and rough. The ship rocked from side to side with the huge waves. Most of the time she felt sick. Staying in the cabin was awful. When she stepped on deck, she felt even worse. Looking at the ominous grey sky above as well as watching the wildly moving waves below made her dizzy. Eating became a nightmare. Keeping any food down was impossible. They suggested broth. That wouldn’t work. Eating a baked potato– who had ever heard of a baked potato before? The English spoken on board did not sound at all like what she had learned in school. The ship’s entertainment was provided by an enormously fat and very jolly man with the incongruous name of “Tiny”. Was everybody crazy?

Finally, during the fifth night, the storm passed, and in the morning the sea was calm and the sun shone brightly. She stepped outside and saw to her right the exhilarating sight she had been told to expect: New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty. Suddenly she felt well. Her excitement grew. Soon she would be able to set foot on the land which would be her new home. She resolved that she would accept whatever there was. She would not compare things with what had been.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lotte seemed to stay true to those resolutions.  She quickly adapted to life in New York City, working as a babysitter while awaiting acceptance to a nursing program.  She was accepted into Cornell University-New York Hospital’s nursing program for the fall of September, 1939, less than six months after her arrival in New York.  Lotte wrote about some of the culture shock she experienced when she began her nursing studies in New York:

Once I was notified that I had been accepted at the prestigious Cornell University – New York Hospital School of Nursing, it took me exactly one week to purchase the few required items and to pack my suitcase. Actually admissions had been closed quite a while before, but they had made an exception for me. Of course I had lost no time getting all my documents together and to have my credentials translated and notarized. I had taken a six-week crash course at a private school in Manhattan, located on Sixth Avenue behind the Public Library. How I had sweated that summer, taking the Subway from Kew Gardens to Times Square and back, and then to take the Regents exams! The courses, American History, 4th Year English, and Civics, were required in order to obtain a “Nurse Qualifying Certificate”.

So one fine September morning in 1939 my father and I, all of 18 years old, set out to travel from Kew Gardens, Queens, to the nurses’ residence on York Avenue in mid-Manhattan. With two big suitcases we walked to the subway station, went downstairs, took the  train to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, dragged the suitcases back upstairs, walked to the Second or Third Avenue Elevated which was still running at that time, and then walked to the York Avenue address. As we entered, we saw several taxis pulling up, bringing some of my new classmates to the same destination. Only they did it the easy way. It had never occurred to us to take a cab as money was very tight. I said goodbye to my father and went about to register and to get settled in my new quarters.

The schedule of activities for the first day included a four o’clock tea for all the newcomers in the formal and somewhat stuffy library. True to my nature I was there right on time, the first one to appear, to be exact. All the others were still busy taking showers and changing into the kind of clothes you were supposed to wear for an afternoon tea. Little did I know that that was the thing to do. I was still in my travel outfit and felt rather sweaty. Well, I entered the library and found a stunning-looking white-haired woman in a gorgeous red dress seated at the solid oak table, “pouring” tea. I learned that she would be one of my nursing instructors. Soon the other students came, and we began to get acquainted.

*****

During the first six months the emphasis was on academics. Actually one of the entrance requirements had been one year of chemistry. Most of my classmates had two years of college with all the needed requirements behind them, while I had barely obtained my high school equivalent certificate. My European education had been superior in some ways, but badly missing in science. I did not even know how to balance a chemical equation. So here I was supposed to obtain a basic knowledge of inorganic as well as organic chemistry in all of six weeks. It seemed like it was going to be a disaster. But with the help of a fellow student who had dropped out of medical school, and with the kindness and understanding Miss Rynbergen, my teacher, showed to me, I did overcome that hurdle and even managed to get an “A” in the course. None of the other courses presented any problems, at least not academically.

 

Obviously, Lotte was an extremely gifted student.   She had neither the academic background nor the social benefits of most of her classmates, yet she excelled in her studies, even though English was her second language.  In fact, Lotte did so well that she tried to be admitted to NYU Medical School and met with the dean to discuss her application.  Here is what happened:

I had mustered a lot of courage. After two years of practicing hospital nursing I really wanted to pursue the ambition I had nurtured since childhood – to become a doctor like my father. Thus I marched up the long corridor at my hospital’s medical school and entered the dean’s office. Of course the visit had been properly scheduled ahead of time. The dean, bespectacled, grey-haired, lean and stern-looking, listened to my brief story: that I was dissatisfied with the prospect of my future nursing career, and that I really would like to find out how I could be admitted to the medical school. The man just took one look at me and smiled. “My dear, you are asking for the impossible. First of all, you are a woman. There is quite a limit placed on the number of females at our school. Secondly, you lack the necessary college preparation. It would take several years for you to catch up with our requirements. Thirdly, you are Jewish. Do you know what that means? All kinds of difficulties along the way! You’d better forget about it.”  

Lotte must have been devastated.  She was being discriminated against as a woman and as a Jew.  The fact that she had excelled in the nursing program was not enough to outweigh her limited pre-nursing school education.  She had left Germany to escape anti-Semitism, and here it was, thrown in her face again.

In 1942, as World War II was in full force with the US now itself involved, Lotte graduated from nursing school and began working the night shift in the internal medicine department at New York Hospital.  The family received news of Samuel Winter’s deportation to Theriesenstadt, and the news overall was quite disturbing.  Lotte somehow kept a positive outlook.

Terezin

Terezin

My mother was desperate. This war is going to end in a terrible nightmare of defeat, she stated. But I, being young and more optimistic by nature, I just KNEW that good had to prevail over evil, that things would eventually come out all right. I knew that history had its ups and downs. This was a down. Sooner or later there would be an up. I wrote so to my friends. I never gave up hope. In the end, I was right.

How incredible is it for Lotte to have concluded, after all she had experienced and all she would soon learn about her relatives in Europe, “that things would eventually come out all right?”  It truly takes a real strength of character and a positive view of the world to see things that way.  I greatly admire her for that depth of character and strength.

There is much more in Lotte’s memoirs—stories about how she met her husband, their courtship and wedding, and their happy marriage of 58 years.  There are stories about their travels and anecdotes about various events in Lotte’s adult life.  But I will end Lotte’s story with one that I think says so much about her—who she was as a child and who she is today.  It’s a story that brought tears to my eyes.  It has nothing to do with the Holocaust or the war per se; it’s about an incredibly sensitive and generous woman.  I hope you find it as powerful as I did.

A PRIZED POSSESSION

There was a piece which was part of me. Ever since I was a teenager it went with me wherever I moved. But it is no longer in my possession. I gave it away. But I do hope that whoever uses it now appreciates what I did and gets as much enjoyment from it as it gave me at one time. It was my violin, my beautiful Italian violin bearing a label, glued to the inside, reading

 “Matteo Albani fecit Bolzano anno 1698″.

How did I receive this beautiful instrument, and why did I dispose of it the way I did? It’s a long story which began in 1937 when my parents began to make preparations for our eventual emigration from Germany to the United States. Since they had been able to put aside a sizable sum of money which could not be legally transferred abroad, they had to find various ways to buy objects of value which might be suitable for a later sale in the U.S. or which might be useful to us. My mother schemed and bought a trousseau for my sister and also for me. They bought two Leica cameras, modern lamps, clothing and many other articles. But my father, who had at one time played the violin, insisted that he wanted to buy me a fine instrument which hopefully would not have to be sold so soon.

That’s why he traveled with me to Stuttgart, a city about two hours away, where, with the help of my violin teacher, he had located an internationally known dealer of fine string instruments, Hamma & Company, which incidentally is still in business at the present time. I did not have much to say in the matter, but between my father and my teacher they found a suitable violin, full size but not too large, for the acceptable  price of DM 3,000.00, bargained down to DM 2,200.00, a substantial sum of money at that time. Proud as a peacock I traveled home with my new possession, my princess, carefully wrapped in a blue silk cloth and placed in a light brown leather case with light blue plush lining.

Now I must describe my pride and joy: It was beautiful to look at with its light orange-brownish varnish. The top was made of spruce with fine, even grain. The back, pleasantly curved for an aesthetic feel of form, was made of two pieces of maple with small, faint flames. The label, mentioned above, was found on the inside, to be seen through the F-shaped openings on the top. Later on I was assured that the label was authentic, and that the violin really was the work of Matteo Albani, a highly respected violin maker, and that it was a fine example of his work.

Yes, it was beautiful to look at, and beautiful to feel. But the most important quality of such an instrument is, of course, its sound. Played by my teacher it sounded magnificent. My own technique left something to be desired, but I had received the impetus to improve, and I worked hard at it. Friends in my chamber-music group admired it, envied me for it. I took good care of it. I treated it like the princess it was, what with the silk wrap and plush lining of the case.

From now on the violin went with me wherever fate took me. In 1938 we left Germany. After one year in Luxembourg we embarked for New York where I ended up living in my hospital’s Nurses’ Residence. I did not have much time to practice or to play, but I did have my own private room where I could do so at various times. I also once participated in a talent show where I played something or other in a miserable performance. My fellow student nurses were not very kind. They made a number of nasty cracks about my playing, but assured me that it was all meant in good humor.

My violin was with me on Pearl Harbor Day. I had been playing some chamber music on a rare, free Sunday afternoon and found myself on the platform of the A-train subway in Washington Heights when the terrible news broke. I will never forget it.

Later on, while raising my family and through most of my married years, I played only sporadically, sometimes in orchestras, sometimes in chamber music groups. At one time I even took some more lessons. But I found that I did not have it in me to work at it the way I needed to in order to really improve. Most of the time my precious fiddle was locked up in a hall closet. Yet I knew it was there.

And then disaster struck. At pretty much the same time I developed arthritis and a great clumsiness in my fingers along with a noticeable loss of hearing. The latter distorted many of the higher frequency sounds, thus making it impossible for me to play with the required accuracy. I grew discouraged and finally gave up. Much as I loved my violin, I knew that it was no longer of service to me. I also knew that it had appreciated greatly in value. Thus I made a very painful decision.

Selling my violin would have been like selling a piece of me. Leaving it to my children might create problems and certainly cause unnecessary difficulties. Yet it was not doing me any good. So I decided that I would give it to someone who would truly appreciate it. I made a number of inquiries and soon learned that there was a place for my intended gift right here in town. The non-profit Colburn Foundation collects instruments for use by aspiring artists, to be loaned and returned when they can afford to buy their own.

The decision was easy, the execution was hard. On one rainy afternoon in 1996 my husband and I traveled to the magnificent Colburn mansion in the Hollywood Hills. We were greeted quite cordially and even received a tour of the estate. That’s where we left my beautiful princess, still wrapped in blue silk and in her blue plush-lined leather case, to be given to someone who really needed it. I never found out to whom it was given, but I do hope he or she is taking good care of it. After all, although the wound has healed, it was a part of me.

For me, that final sentence says it all.  It is not only about her lost violin, but also about every other loss she suffered:  her grandparents, her home, her friends, her school, her country, her language.

An Albani violin

An Albani violin

Perhaps someone reading this will know the fate of Lotte’s beloved violin.  If so, like Lotte, I hope it is being well taken care of and played with all the heart and soul and passion that Lotte herself has demonstrated through her writing and throughout her life.

Thank you, Lotte, for sharing your life story with us.

13 thoughts on “Lotte’s Story, Part III: Coming to and Settling into America

  1. Oh my, this is a beautiful ‘end’ to the story. The memories she has (I can’t believe it!) and the love of her past is so wonderful. And you’re right, that final sentence says it all. And now I need a Kleenex.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredible woman! I was so moved by her story, and by her stunning act of generosity at the end. Also, I’m so glad you got to see Woman in Gold–I thought you’d appreciate it after all your recent travels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that last story moved me so much. So much loss suffered, and yet she could give away something she treasured to enrich the life of a stranger.

      Woman in Gold was excellent. It sure didn’t change my mind about Vienna though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and the writing was so exciting. I live in the Kew Gardens area that now is inhabited mostly of Russian Jews. I have learned a little Russian Spa see ba. Meaning thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Lotte’s Story: A Post-Script « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  5. Pingback: The Memoirs of Lotte’s Sister Doris: Another Perspective on Life in Hitler’s Germany « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  6. Pingback: Bingen: The Early Home and the Last Home in Germany for Many in the Seligmann Family | Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

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