“A Family Flees Nazi Germany” by Nicholas V. Steiner

A Family Flees Nazi Germany

On a bitterly cold day in January 1935 the S. S. Europa arrived in New York. A blizzard had
struck the day before, leaving the city blanketed in deep snow; the pier had to be hacked free of ice before passengers could disembark. On board was a family of refugees from Nazi Germany. My mother remembers the experience as follows:

“Eventually, after what seemed an endless ordeal, the waves calmed, the sky cleared and the air became balmy. Gradually, the decks began to fill with passengers, all somewhat unsteady and pale. In daylight, my mother suddenly appeared elderly, and I realized just how much pluck it had taken for her to accompany us on this trip. We were all showing the effects of the ordeal, except for [my daughter] Ursula, who had regained her bounce and insisted on conducting the ship’s band at noon, while hot broth was passed around.

“Lulled by the suddenly clement weather, we assumed we were entering a period of premature spring. Such was our ignorance of the gulf-stream’s function. But, then, on the morning of our last day at sea, the air turned crystal clear and icy cold. Under a silky, blue sky we saw what looked like a fairy tale view of soaring white castles and innumerable sparkling towers. It was an incredibly beautiful sight – the southern tip of Manhattan. As we prepared to arrive, the passengers were told that on the previous day, New York City had been hit with the worst blizzard of the winter and was under a foot of snow. In order for us to be able to dock, the ice would first have to be hacked off of the pier. Our debarkation would be delayed. Packed, dressed and eager to set foot on solid ground, we were compelled to sit on our bunks and wait, until, finally, an announcement over the loudspeakers beckoned us to an upper lounge to begin the immigration process.

“As I stood in line holding [my three-month-old-son] Nicky, I saw my first American policeman, tall and impressive looking in his handsome and dark-blue uniform. Then, suddenly, his eyes met mine and, to my alarm, he began walking in our direction. I clutched Nicky tight, automatically reverting to the fear I had lived with since childhood in Germany, of anyone in uniform. The officer stopped before me and bent closer to look at Nicky.

“’What a sweet baby,’ he said, and, with a friendly smile, returned to his post. I relaxed my grip on Nicky, still stunned by the unexpected attention, then, found myself smiling as relief and a sudden gladness passed over me.

“Back in the cabin, we bundled up the children and waited. The ship became progressively cooler throughout the day, the captain presumably preserving fuel as we stood. By evening, it was quite cold on board. At around 9:00 pm, we were finally descending the gangplank, with Nicky practically invisible in the roll of blankets, I held in my arms and Ursula equally wrapped as her father carried her. I thought, ‘Now we are alone in a cold, unknown world’. I shuddered. An Arctic wind greeted us as we descended to the pier.”

We stepped onto American soil and into the maelstrom of an American depression.

My parents, like most immigrants, had limited resources and were unfamiliar with ways of life in their adopted country. They made mistakes and were often taken advantage of. After several false starts they settled in Lindenhurst, a small town on Long Island’s South Shore. In time, my father built up a medical practice and in 1940 we all became US citizens. Much later, my mother, drawing upon a keen artist’s eye and sharp memory wrote a detailed three-volume memoir about those difficult early years.

At home life had a European flavor. Initially, we all spoke German together; my parents never stopped doing so. With the outbreak of WW II I stopped speaking German altogether until 1956, when I started medical school in Switzerland. As was customary in Germany our main meal was served at lunchtime, typically consisting of soup, meat, potatoes and a vegetable. Just in time for my father to begin seeing patients — his office occupied the front of the house — at 1:00 PM, sharp. In late afternoon he made house calls and hospital visits, returning at 7:00 PM for evening hours. Supper, a simple meal enhanced y candlelight and a glass of red wine or sherry, often began without him. Now and again my mother, a born storyteller, would talk of her childhood or more recent dramatic times.

My father’s parents were Dr. Julius Levi and Saerle Steiner Levi. In 1931 when he met my mother he was still called Dr. Hans Levi. Several years later after emigrating my parents changed our name to Steiner. Perhaps inexplicably Ursula and I rarely asked why. One explanation was that there were few living male Steiners in our branch of the family. Had concern about anti-Semitism been a factor? I doubt it. Otherwise my parents could have decided on, say, Sterling or Stevens. What appealed to me about “Steiner” is that depending on where one lives — it’s usually Catholic in Bavaria and Austria, more likely Protestant in the US Middle West and Jewish elsewhere –it can be considered either Christian or Jewish. Since I embrace neither faith, this still suits me well.

Confusion could also arise from my differing first names. In Germany “Nikolaus” (on my birth certificate) can become “Klaus” and among Swabians “Kläusle” (“little Klaus”). In 1937 as we moved into a new house, neighborhood children asked: “What’s his name?” Dismayed that someone had recently called me “Kloussie”, my mother replied “Nicky”. And so it remained until college when I opted for the more mature sounding “Nick”.

It took my parents the better part of a year to find a place where we could settle, not least where Dad could set up a medical practice. A kindly refugee physician, Dr. Julius Beckhard, did his best to help. Initially, we stayed in a grungy apartment temporarily vacated by patients of his in Jackson Heights, (Queens) NY. Trucks rumbled by day and night and thundering sounds of the subway came from below. The surroundings were deeply depressing for my parents and and 2 year old sister, while I seemed oblivious to our surroundings. I was fortunate in that by the time I had awareness of anything our lives had begun to improve. At Dr. Beckhard’s suggestion my parents twice ventured to rural upstate New York. Here’s a portion of Mom’s description:

“On the advice of Dr. B., we set out initially for upstate by bus, and took a taxi to a place called Grand Gorge, far north of the Catskills. This God-forsaken village consisted of little more than one street, a few run-down houses, including its former doctor’s residence, and a general store. On seeing the place, I envisioned a tall, imaginary fence just over the surrounding hills, marking the end of the world.

“At the general store, the proprietor proudly informed us that ‘Grand Gorge is the most beautiful place in the world’. His pronouncement filled me with melancholy. What of Paris? Rome? Vienna? I was so overcome with claustrophobia that my throat began to close up.

“’I can hardly wait to leave this place,’ I whispered anxiously to Hans as we walked along the dusty road to the spot where the taxi was to pick us up.

“’I thought you would want to spend the rest of your life here,’ Hans whispered back to me.

“’I can not, I simply can not, and I don’t want our children to grow up here.’ I was out of breath with emotion. Suddenly, we came to a halt in the middle of the road. When I looked up at Hans, I was struck by the unguarded look of depression that not only marked his face, but appeared, at this point, to paralyze him. I took his arm. ‘Come,’ I said, ‘there must be better places.’ He nodded back to me; we resumed our walk and soon were in the cab.”

We went back home, not to Stuttgart, Germany, where I was born in 1934, nor to Münsingen, the town where my Dad’s parents lived, where he was born and grew up, and from where his mother had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp (where she died in 1943). After years of uncertainty we made a home in the blue collar town on Long island’s South Shore and remained there until my father’s death. He died on January 24, 1972, thirty-seven years to the day after our arrival in snow-covered New York.

Nicholas V. Steiner

I’m most grateful to Bill Rees for his invaluable editorial skills and thoughtful suggestions that made this essay possible.