Michael Steinitz



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My wife and I got engaged in Germany. We met when I was an exchange student in Goettingen, where my wife was also a student. At the end of my year, we borrowed the money for a one-way ticket for her to come to the States, where I was finishing my studies. I expected interesting discussions when I introduced her to my German-refugee parents (we used to call ourselves Refujews), but I was very surprised when I found my fiancee and my father deep in reminiscences. "Do you remember the cocoa?", "Yes, awful and gritty - but good.", "and the noodle soup?", "Of course!"

They were comparing memories of their common experiences just after the war - but they were talking about two different wars, and events twenty-seven years apart. The topic was the food provided by the Quakers. It was known in 1918, as in 1945, as "Quakerspeisung" or Quaker-food. After the capitulation(s), all German school children brought a tin mug and a plate to school, where they were given warm food provided by the Quakers. For quite some time it was the only wholesome food they could get. In each generation we have owed the Quakers a lot.


My Uncle (My Mother's Brother) - A Runt

He was always a small, skinny boy whose parents worried a lot that he would grow up to be a dwarf. He ate very little, and often paid his sister surreptitiously to eat his dinner for him. The maid was often sent out with him to a local cafe in the hope that he would eat one of the very fattening chocolate covered, whipped cream filled, German pastries. When Hitler came to power, the school teachers took special delight in instructing the schoolboys to beat up that "disgusting Jewish runt" during recess. One boy took particular pleasure in mistreating him and frightened him terribly.

In 1936, beginning puberty, he came to America with his parents. Such is the perversity of nature, and the nature of puberty - he began to eat, and to grow. In 1941, being eighteen years old, and close to six feet tall, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, which, with typical efficiency sent him to Alaska. When they finally realized that he could speak German, it was 1944 and he accompanied the U.S. Army up through Italy, interrogating German prisoners. One can only imagine the gamut of emotions when one day he recognized the prisoner whom he was interrogating as his former nemesis from school. The German had not recognized him with his well-fed stature and American uniform, and indeed, it seemed to him that the German had shrunk a great deal.


German Orderliness

On a visit to what was then 'East Berlin' my wife experienced the epitome of German order. We visited the Pergamon Museum on the Museum Island, especially to see the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. At the entrance we bought a permit to allow picture taking, albeit without flash. Near the Ishtar gate was a staircase (a modern one leading to the second floor of the museum), upon which my wife sat herself down, in order to steady herself for the long exposure in the dim lighting. No sooner had she sat down, than a loud voice was heard from the other end of the hall, shouting, in German, "Get up! Get up immediately!" It was one of the museum attendants, in uniform, who rushed up to us still shouting. My wife asked her "Excuse me, but why?", a question which we suppose nobody had ever dared to ask her before. The guard was nonplussed, stumped, and then finally said "You'll get your skirt all dirty if you sit on the step!"



My wife and I met in 1963 when I came to study at the University of Goettingen in Germany. After a brief courtship we became engaged, but as her father had recently died, and her mother was in pretty bad shape, we delayed any public announcement for a few months. On a visit to her home town, some 50 km away, my fiancee, as she then was, met a friend of her mother's at another friend's home. By some circuitous route the conversation got around to Jews and the lady in question said, "Could you ever imagine marrying one of them?" My wife replied in the affirmative, but in as non-committal a manner as possible, as she did not wish to spill the beans about our engagement. "Well, I guess, if you say so", said the lady, "but imagine, having children from him, that would be the nauseating part, wouldn't it?"


Her Prisoners

A good friend of ours, whose husband had the distinction of having a street in Germany named after him because he was the first person killed at Dachau, had a very interesting 'Aryan' friend, in an unlikely profession. Her friend was a prison warden. She conspired throughout the Hitler years to have Jews from her town sentenced to prison for criminal offences, so that they should not be sent to concentration camps for being Jewish. She kept accusing them of further infractions in prison, so that they could stay there, and thus she saved a great many people. When she retired, this German prison warden spent her golden years traveling around the world, visiting her grateful former charges in their varied places of exile.


The Baron

A cousin of my father's, having a non-Jewish mother and a non-Jewish wife, imagined that he could get away with staying in Germany. He was a sea-captain, and was successful until 1943, when he was taken from the bridge of his ship to a concentration camp. A classmate of his at the maritime academy, a member of an old German noble family, had remained his friend and took it upon himself to take care of our cousin's family while he was in the concentration camp, at great personal risk, as one can imagine. Our cousin survived the concentration camp, but the tuberculosis he got there prevented him from ever going to sea again. Long after the war we got to know this heroic sea-captain - the first Baron I had ever met, I'm sure.


A Cuban Immigrant

My father was a Cuban immigrant. His ancestry in no way prepared him for this role, but fate decreed it. In 1936 my grandparents, who died in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt, received a visitor from the United States in their Berlin apartment. He offered to help my father get a visitor's visa to the U. S. and to assist him in becoming an immigrant after that. On short notice, my father packed his things and left his parents, and the only homeland he had ever known, never to see them again.

Once in the U. S., my father began the application process to become a "registered alien". Having a Ph.D. in physics from the Polytechnic Institute of Berlin was of great help in this, but the Americans, like the Canadians today, had a rule that once the application was approved, the final application had to be made from a point outside the country, at a U. S. consulate or embassy.

To this end, my father undertook what he thought would be a one day journey to Ottawa or Toronto, to fill out the forms and return to New York as quickly as possible. At the Canadian border, in line with the policy enunciated by the minister of immigration in the House of Commons of Canada, that "none would be too many", the officials told him that Jews were not desired, even for one day visits. In the end my father returned to New York, took a bus to Florida, paid for an air ticket on a flying-boat to Havana out of his $40.00 per month salary, and became a Cuban immigrant.


She Wouldn't Have Understood

A friend of ours, a German Jewess by birth, married into a very distinguished Florentine Jewish family. They were able to emigrate to the United States before the second World War began, but his mother had to remain behind. Toward the end of the war, when the Germans invaded Italy, Mama fled to Rome, but the Nazi armies came there too and she had to go underground and be hidden away.

When Italy was liberated, our friend returned to Italy to search for his mother and find out if she had survived when the Germans killed off all the Jews of Rome. He did indeed find her. She had been hidden away in an attic of a large house in Rome.

"They took such wonderful care of me", she related. "They brought me food and were so good to me. I don't know what business those girls are in, but they are truly wonderful".

Our friend told us "I didn't have the heart to tell her, and anyway, with her upbringing, she wouldn't have understood".

Mama had been hidden away in the attic of a bordello for a year, but she never found out, and he never told her - and anyway, she wouldn't have understood.

Mama's fate was much better than that of a Polish friend of ours, whose family was also hidden successfully for the duration of the war. Their host, however, was a Polish farmer's wife, who confessed to the Priest every week at confession that she was harboring a Jewish family. The Priest offered her forgiveness, and counseled her each week to turn the family in to the German authorities. Upon her return home from church, she discussed her difficulties with her conscience with the Jewish family, to their great distress, one can imagine.

28 July 1998