Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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I Am an Immigrant
February 2, 2017 -- I am an immigrant. I was born and bred, and had my early schooling, in what was becoming Nazi Germany.
Ingenheim, my hometown not too far from the French border with Alsace-Lorraine, eventually stopped tolerating Jewish children in its school system. I was sent 35 miles north to the more cosmopolitan city of Mannheim to live with my paternal grandparents, aunt and uncle. In Mannheim, I attended a Jewish school with which my uncle was affiliated.
I was probably between the ages of five and six at this time and not fully aware of the serious political developments taking shape around me. But I vividly remember two incidents.
My grandfather, a retired school principal, used to take me to a local bakery for my favorite pastry--a round, chocolate éclair-like confection with whipped cream. But one day we encountered a sign in the window: Juden sind hier unerwunscht. (Jews are not welcome here.) We would also occasionally visit an Italian ice cream shop whose fabulous flavors were sandwiched in a circular wafer that resembled a tiny flying saucer. Then, one day, I remember being met by that same sign.
We lived in a lovely apartment in a handsome building at Number 12 Richard Wagner Strasse. At least we did until Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938. I spent part of that day on the roof. My grandmother and my aunt deposited me there with a cache of homework, notebooks and books. Speaking of books, I believe that I could smell other ones burning as Nazi thugs threw them through windows they had shattered.
I eventually learned that my father, back home in Ingenheim, narrowly averted arrest on that same fateful day. He made his way by train to nearby Heidelberg, where he was hidden in a cellar owned by a Gentile professor. Around the same time, my mother joined us in Mannheim.
The story then gets a bit fuzzy, but here is the family mythology. Somehow my father got a message to us. We were to leave Germany as soon as possible with visas that distant relatives in America had secured for us. My kid brother was transported by bicycle to cousins in Alsace by one of our family's employees. My mother and I departed Mannheim by train. She was questioned at the border, but we eventually arrived safely in Strasbourg and were reunited with my brother. A few days later, my father showed up, having been carried across the border at the bottom of a hay wagon.
Eventually, the four of us reached the French port of Cherbourg and boarded the German passenger liner SS New York for the crossing to America. We arrived in New York City on January 20, 1939, three months shy of my eighth birthday. Five months later, the German liner MS St. Louis was denied entry to the port of Miami by the Roosevelt Administration. It was forced to return to Europe and a quarter of the more than 900 passengers perished in the Holocaust.
Four members of my family in Mannheim, as well as my paternal grandfather in Ingenheim, died in the Holocaust. The same Holocaust in which six million Jews were exterminated, but deemed unworthy of mention in President Trump's proclamation last Friday for Holocaust Remembrance Day. I suppose the dead must accept White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus' subsequent concession that the Jews were "included" in the suffering.
How many of the people turned away by the Trump Administration in recent days will suffer fates similar to my family in Germany and the unfortunates who arrived on a ship five months after me? When you're an immigrant yourself, believe me, you think about these things.
As the lucky ones of 1939, my father, mother, brother and I settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. We learned English and my brother and I lost our accents. As a 12-year-old, I formed a baseball team that represented the 34th Precinct for six seasons in the Police Athletic League. I became a naturalized citizen in 1948, was drafted into the Army in 1953 and posted to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas. That allowed me to meet the distant relatives in New Orleans who had secured our visas. That wing of the family arrived in the South in 1831 and assimilated quickly. It seems I lost a great-grandfather in the Battle of Shiloh. We have a picture of him in his rebel grays holding a musket.
I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan now, six miles from where we settled in 1939. I got a good education at a free New York City university. I married, twice in fact, and am the proud father of an American-born son and an all-American daughter. I've had a multi-decade career in travel publishing.
I am an immigrant, but I have always felt as American as the next guy or gal. And having visited more than 100 nations during my travels, I can honestly say that there really is no place quite like the United States.
As I reflect on my blessed life in a country where hard work is usually valued and one's religion need not be an impediment, I am taken aback by the blatant attack on certain groups of immigrants by our new Administration. President Trump and the other elites who run America now seem frightened of the very things that have always made this country great.
Having been born and raised in a dictatorship, I have an unwelcome feeling that my days as an immigrant could end in similar circumstances.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.