The new family settled into a small apartment at 48 Ottokringerstrasse. The apartment had only two rooms. A kitchen that had no refrigerator except for the ledge outside the window and also doubled as a bedroom for Ernst and a living room that also doubled as a bedroom for Marcus and Jenny. Their bathrooms were communal and down the hall from the apartment.
The living quarters might have been tight, but they were surrounded by family. Jenny’s family. Jenny’s cousins, her mother’s sisters’ children, the Tuechlers and Hackers lived on surrounding streets as did her brother Robert and Alfred.
For the next few years, the family created a life for themselves in Vienna. Jenny worked with other women in her building sewing ties that they would sell to Winter’s, a large department store in Vienna. They would sew and chat and often socialize together with Grandpa often being the center of attention as he was one of the few children in this group of friends.
Marcus continued his work at the abattoir and was at least good enough friends with them that he preserved this photo of him with his co-workers.
Your grandfather went to school at a nearby elementary school.
He played at a nearby park and they all went to a Synagogue just a few blocks from their home.
On warm days, they would go to the Danube where they belonged to a beach club of sorts where people who were poor or of modest means could go and spend their time cooling off in the river and playing volleyball, soccer or other outdoor activities. According to your grandfather, the beach was not his mother’s favorite place. He thought that this was due in part to his father’s flirtatious behavior with a number of women on the beach especially one who was the daughter or granddaughter of the Austrian coffee magnate Julius Meinl.
One of your grandfather’s favorite memories of this time was clothes shopping with Marcus. He was a sharp dresser and wanted his son to be outfitted properly. He especially wanted his son to have good shoes and he would spend a lot of time picking out the exact right pair for Dad to own. I have come to imagine that this had a lot to do with his time in Siberia where good shoes were necessary for survival and were likely in noticeably short supply. I have also wondered, from time to time, whether this is a genetic trait of Rothkopfs as I spend an undo amount of time picking out shoes.
There was also a darker side to Marcus. He liked to drink and often would return from work after a few beers with his co-workers in a very dark mood. Your grandfather who was at the kitchen table would often be the victim of his anger. He would tell Grandpa that studying got you know where that only hard work got you anything and that he should prepare for a life of labor, not of books, often while sweeping your grandfather’s books onto the floor. Sometimes during these dark moods, he would hit Jenny. I know that these dark moods and temper tantrums scared and traumatized Ernst. But in talking about its years later he seemed to understand these dark times. That a man, like Marcus, who had been through such a difficult time was never going to be a saint or without scars from those awful times, but underneath it all, there was a man who loved and wanted the best for him.
If grandpa would not judge his father for the dark places his father went, I will not either.
By 1936 the Rothkopf’s life had stabilized. The had an apartment that while not spacious met their needs. Marcus had a steady job that considering the state of the worldwide depression was remarkable. Jenny helped make end meet with her sewing and Dad was having a reasonably normal childhood centered around school, play with his friends, and religious training so he could become a bar mitzvah.
On June 19, 1936, a telegram arrived at Ottokringer Strasse 48 from Osweicim announcing that Max, who had started his European trip visiting his sisters and no doubt visiting his parent’s graves, would be arriving that day.
The brothers had not seen each other in over 20 years. One had become an American citizen and built a successful life in the United States and the other had suffered internment and the torments of a destroyed economy. I cannot imagine what their reunion must have been like, but it must have been emotional. Nor do I know what they spoke about as your Grandfather only recalls that Max bought him a suit. Their visit was short. Max’s ship, the MS Pilsudski departed from Gydnia, Poland on June 26. I am confident that one of the subjects that was broached Vienna Rothkopf’s immigration to the United States. The rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism, the impoverished nature of his brother’s life would suggest that Max would have certainly raised the topic.
[Authors Note: One of the questions that occurred to me while writing this piece was what did Max do for his sisters? Did he try to help them escape Poland or was it not a priority as during his visit Poland was a free and independent country from Germany.]
When Marcus decided to immigrate to the United States with his family is unknown. What is known is that the process of getting a visa to the United States was lengthy, complicated, long on hope and ripe with disappointment. In the early 1920’s believers in Eugenics, a pseudo-science that theorized you could improve the human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, had managed to convince Congress to severely limit immigration to the United States. Due to immigration laws in the US he could not apply for a Visa as a “German” which had the most amount of visa’s available but as a Pole because that was his country of birth. Poland had ¼ the Visa allotment of Germany.
As a consequence, the process took years. Once you applied for the Visa, you then had to gather documents needed to satisfy the visa requirements of the United States. They included:
- Birth certificates for all members of the family. (As birth certificates were not common at the time, especially in small towns in Poland and Hungary, this must have been quite a chore.)
- Medical clearance.
- Tax documents
- Police certificates to prove you were not a criminal.
- Military discharge to prove you were not AWOL or avoiding conscription.
- An Inventory List of all the items you were taking with you, down to the pillowcase, that was given to the Nazi Government to prove you were not looting the country.
Once the paperwork was done you needed to prove that you had an American Financial Sponsor. This included getting a recommendation letter for that person along with a bank letter proving financial viability, tax returns and affidavit promising that you were be responsible for those whom you are sponsoring.
This must have been a tremendously time consuming and difficult process and while Jenny may have helped the burden of this work must have fallen on Marcus. Not only was it his brother who was his sponsor, but it was difficult enough for a man to get around Vienna at the time let alone a woman. I can only imagine the type of stress the collection of the documents, the waiting of letters from the United States, and all the other things that had to be accomplished would have been placed on Marcus.
Once all the paperwork was completed you needed to prove to the US consulate that you had a ship ticket and transit visas from the Nazi’s. Only then would the US Consul interview and determine whether or not you would be allowed to immigrate to the United States.
At the dawn of 1938, Austria was in rough shape. Hyperinflation, the Depression, the burden of the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of stature by the dissolution of the old empire created a stew of political instability that resulted in wide spread scapegoating of Jews and the inevitability of the annexation of Austria into Greater Germany.
On the morning of March 12, 1938, the German Army crossed the border with Austria. Adolph Hitler, an Austrian by birth, entered the country later that day and spent the next several days holding cheering rallies across the country concluding with a triumphant rally in Vienna
The campaign against the Jews began immediately after the Anschluss. They were driven through the streets of Vienna; their homes and shops were plundered. In Marcus’s case it meant being forced to clean the sidewalk with a toothbrush and other acts of deference including the licking of the bottom of storm troopers’ boots. It meant listening to their anti-Semitic landlady say vile things to him, his wife and child and others. There was violence. Jews were beaten without consequence. Your grandfather once had a spear thrown at him that managed to hit him in the head. It was terrible for your grandfather but for Marcus it must have been exceedingly difficult as well. How do you respond when your child is hurt by a mob of anti-Semitic boys or your wife insulted by the landlady and others? How do you deal with the daily personal insults? If you reacted with anger you would likely be beaten and arrested or worse killed. If you want to survive, to protect your family and have hope for leaving this all behind you you’re your mouth shut and your fists silent, which takes a kind of courage and will power I don’t know if I possess.
Aryanisation began, and Jews were driven out of public life within months. This included Jews not being able to ride public transportation including the trolley’s that Marcus took each day to and from his work. This meant he had to walk 5 miles each way, every day, just to earn a living.
Events reached a crescendo in the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9–10 November 1938. That night they burned down your Grandfather’s synagogue just a few weeks shy of the bar mitzvah he would never have. It was the night they arrested Marcus, while your grandfather hid under his covers, and was sent off to prison along with 6,000 other Jews. Marcus was lucky, as a war veteran he was released after a few days, but most were sent to concentration camps, and most of those did not survive the war. Your grandfather was no longer allowed to go to school. Marcus lost his job and Jenny’s sewing and the few odd jobs Marcus could scrounge were their only steady source of income.
The Nazi’s made it clear. Get out of Greater Germany (Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria) or your fate would no longer be in your hands. For many Jews in Austria it became a part of daily life to find out what countries were offering up visa’s and go and stand in line to see if you could win the lottery and receive permission to enter that country. But as today, countries were reluctant to admit so many immigrants especially if they were Jewish. Anti-Semitism was rampant everywhere including the US
Your grandfather and his friends scrounged everywhere for a way out of Austria. Several of his friends went to Shanghai which accepted a vast number of Jews from Europe. His friend Edouard managed to become part of the Kindertransport program which took Jewish children and brought them to England while leaving their parents and all they knew behind. Others, like Dad’s cousin’s Lizzi, were sent to stay with family and friends in neighboring countries hoping being out of Greater Germany would save them. [ We have correspondence from Edouard that describes his life in England and how difficult it was for him to be separated from him family. Sadly, he died on the last day of the war as an airman in the RAF. Lizzi’s journey was also troubled the Aunt who was supposed to take in died while she was in transit and eventually, she was “adopted” by a Belgian family who at the outbreak of the war was trekked across Europe by foot to find safety first in Spain and eventually Portugal]
Young Ernie was nothing if not enterprising. He managed to get himself a visa to Palestine where he hoped to become a kibbutznik and call himself Zakki Ben Mordecai. It never happened because Marcus forbade it much to the frustration of his son. (It was a painful enough memory for him that it took me traveling with him to Israel to admit his Zionist passion. From then on whenever I wanted to be especially intimate with him I would call him abba and sign my name Daniel Ben Zacharias) Marcus insisted that the family stay together whatever the consequences. The gamble he was taking was immense and the stakes could not have been any higher.
On September 1st, 1939, the stakes of his gamble were raised immeasurably when the German Army invaded Poland. The 2nd World War had begun. For Marcus, the urgency to gain a visa must have been intense. He had bet his life and the lives of his wife and child on receiving that visa. Every day the war news must have brought additional stress. Did he make the right decision not to allow his son the chance for a life in Palestine? What of his sisters and their families who lived so near the front lines in Poland? What was going to happen to his family if the Visa did not get through, Jewish men and their families were being arrested daily.
Finally, on November 8, 1939 the United States Consulate in Vienna issued visas to Marcus, Jenny, and Ernie. The same day an assassination attempt was made on Hitler’s life and somehow the Rothkopf’s manage to cross the Austrian frontier into Italy just before the border is shut. I have often wondered what it must have felt like to finally escape a country where you have been under the boot of oppression, with arrest just a knock on the door away, and the near constant fear of physical violence and verbal abuse to suddenly be beyond their reach. Joy, exaltation, relief, sorrow for those left behind, anticipation, fear of the unknown…so many emotions the mind would have spun as if on spindle.
Their train trip, with all of their belongings in just a few bags went from Vienna to Trieste. From Trieste on to Milan.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Milan Jenny’s first cousin (son of her mother’s sister) Benno jumped on the train to say hello to them before jumping off the train just as it pulled into Milan station. He had been arrested on Krystalnacht and forced to flee Austria under of threat of imprisonment or death and had been living a subsistence existence in Italy as he was an illegal immigrant. One of the enduring mysteries to your grandfather was how Benno knew they were to be on their train (texting had not been invented as of yet) but he thought it could be that Benno * jumped on many trains in hopes of finding them or someone he knew.
From Milan they traveled to Genoa, which young Ernie no doubt noted was the home of the man who discovered America, Christopher Columbus, and likely shared with his parents as there is large statue of him directly adjacent to the main train station. There they were treated a luxury of a hotel, no doubt a rare if not first-time experience for them, while awaiting their ship. There, they also had a visit with one of Jenny’s relative, her Uncle David’s son, Hans. He had been trying to cross the Green line into France, no doubt to join the war effort, but had been unable to find a way to cross the border. He had not eaten in days, so they bought him a meal before their departure.
On November 25, 1939, just two days past Thanksgiving, the SS Vulcania sailed for New York with the Rothkopfs safely ensconced in their third-class cabin.
This was a ship of immigrants who had managed, by the grace of god, and doubtless hard work, to escape Europe as global war engulfed the continent. Friendships were made and conversations had about the circumstances of their current journey.
No doubt much of the conversation was said over meals at table 44 in the 2nd seating in the third-class dining room. For many including the Rothkopfs this was likely some of the best food that they had in some time and certainly for the women making the journey a blessing not to have to prepare the three meals a day that they had to fit into their lives. I am sure time was taken at these meals to savor their escape and the freedom to be at leisure they had never known in their hard knock lives. There must have been conversations about the world they had escaped from, the relatives and friends that were left behind and what would happen to them even as they made their escape. They probably compared notes on how they came to be on this ship and where their ultimate destination was and the life they would lead when they got there.
On December 6, 1939, after nearly a month of traveling and 12 days at sea the SS Vulcania, cruised by the Statue of Liberty and the Rothkopf’s were welcomed into this country at Ellis Island. It is unknown what Marcus and Jennie thought of seeing that majestic lady with her up raised hand. I doubt that they knew of the poem written in her honor, The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Your grandfather from that point forward would call her Ladily and in happy tones recall that first trip into New York Harbor and his first sighting of land, A neon “Wrigley” sign.
(Part 4 Will be Published 5-8-20)