After processing at Ellis Island, they were greeted at the New York City docks by Marcus’s brother Max in his new 1939 Cadillac Fleetwood. I am sure there was a lot of back slapping and hugging involved in that reunion. They had, after all, pulled off by the skin of their teeth a great escape. Just months before the MS St. Louis with 900 Jewish immigrants were denied entry into Cuba, United States and Canada. While some were accepted into England most had to return to Europe. Most perished in the Holocaust.
What your grandfather remembered about that evening is butter. He claimed that they had not been able to afford or to buy it in Vienna for months and that he was so overcome by seeing it in copious amount it that he ate nearly a pound of it much to the delight of his Uncle.
The New World was literally a completely new world. They had come from a country that was at war to a country that was at peace. A place where at any moment they could be forced into menial and demeaning labor, or insulted spit upon or even beaten with impunity to a place where they could walk freely and without fear. From a country where food was scarce and expensive to where green grocers often gave away fruit when it was past its prime. They had gone from living in a two room apartment, a main room and a kitchen, with a common toilet and bathroom down the hall to living in a two family home at 8 Delay Street that not only had integral plumbing but a large eat in kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms and small yard with grape vines. They had a refrigerator where before they just had a windowsill to keep their perishables cold.
It was such a contrast to the life they had been living that when Ernst described his new life to a friend who been transported to England, the friend responded by saying he was in “fairyland.”
Danbury, about 70 miles NE of NYC, the town in which they settled, was well suited for them. Part of that had to do with the fact that their sponsors in this country, Max, and his wife Sarah, were well established in town. In the 26 years Max had been in this country he had managed to carve out a prosperous life for himself. How he did so is not entirely clear, but no doubt brains, hard work, and luck played a role as did helping boot leggers during prohibition. At the time Max had owned a dry goods store, similar to a general store, and family lore has it that he supplied sugar to those interested in distilling liquor illegally. Whatever his role in prohibition, it must have been significant enough that he eventually received liquor license number 1 in the State of Connecticut when prohibition was repealed. The name of that store, Italian Importing Company, suggests that Max probably had ties to the Italian gangsters who were prevalent at the time and he certainly dressed the part with dark suits, fedora, pinky ring and flashy car. His businesses and personality, engaging and friendly, gave him a wealth of contacts in the town.
Sara, Max’s wife, was a good partner to him because she was much more calculating and transactional. She expected total loyalty and gratitude from people Max, and she helped. She was also opinionated and not to be trifled with which is what made her a politician. She founded the Danbury Taxpayers Association, an organization dedicated to limiting taxes and the role of government, and ran for Mayor many times, never winning. She was in many ways the Donald Trump of Danbury.
The other factor that benefitted them was the town of Danbury itself. The town had been established in the mid 1800’s as a center of the fur trade, especially beaver, that lived in the area. Beaver, and other animals were wildly prized for their fiber which could be made into elegant felt hats and the city eventually became known as “hat city” with many manufactures locating there to make use of the skilled trades. During the 20’s Danbury’s hat trade became famous for another reason. Mad Hatter’s disease. This was not really a disease but the environmental poisoning of workers with mercury that was used to remove the fur from animals. Symptoms included diminished mental acuity, irritability and tremors and shakes that eventually made it impossible to work. Labor unions fought for years for companies to use safer chemicals and eventually, in 1941, mercury was banned.
But Marcus’s work experience in the abattoir and being a brush maker made him a perfect candidate for a job in the hat industry as felt is made by the amalgamation of animal fiber through a chemical process. Through Max’s and Sarah’s connection he eventually found work at the Bieber-Goodman Felt Body Corporation a manufacturer of fine hats. Jenny too put her skills as a seamstress to work taking in “piece work” and joining the International Women’s Garment Union.
Ernst primary responsibility was to go to school which was not easy as English was not a language he knew well. At first, they put him into 2nd grade but with each passing day and every Ronald Coleman film (he claimed the movies taught him English) and each reading of the dictionary got better and before long he was back with his age group in High School. Apparently, he was extremely popular there and even tried out for American football as opposed the football he loved playing in Vienna.
Ernie too had to contribute to the finances of the household. Primarily he worked for Max in his stores as a stock boy in the liquor store and in his grocery business. The later he loved because he could eat all the fruit he wanted as a sharp contrast to the lack of produce he had seen in Vienna.
Life settled into a pattern for them at 8 Delay St. Everyone worked. Ernie studied hard in the hope of attaining the “Fairydust” dream of going to University to become an anthropologist or physician. Marcus would grumble about his studying and occasionally after a beer too many would rage about his studying and throw all his books off the kitchen table. This emotional and physical abuse would create a distance between father in son. In fact, after Ernie graduated from Danbury High School in June 1943, he immediately left for Syracuse University never to return home again except for brief visits.
With Ernie off at college, life on Delay St must have been exceedingly difficult. Jenny was a sweet soul, but Marcus was a man who liked to flirt with woman and drink. Generally speaking, that does not make for a stable marriage or quiet home life and what we can gather that was a fact here. There were rumors of bursts of tempers and beatings.
By August 1944 Ernie had completed his sophomore year in College and being 18 was drafted into the Army. On the last day of the month Max, Jenny and Marcus drove him to Hartford where he was inducted into the army and sent off to Ft. Wolters, Texas for basic training. I am sure that he corresponded with his parents, but no letters were kept but knowing Pops sense of humor, he probably wrote them frequently about all the dangerous things that he was doing to make his mother worry. (Note: For the rest of her life Jenny would keep a piece of shrapnel that Pops had sent her having explained that it almost killed him.)
In January of 1945 Ernie was sworn in as a citizen and then immediately transferred to Ft. Sill Okahoma for Artillery Officer Candidate School. I have no doubt that it made Marcus and Jenny immensely proud as they saved the announcement of his appointment for over 75 years.
On the day that barely 19-year-old Ernie was assigned to OCS, January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the German death camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rumors of the horrors of the death camps and the cruelty of the Nazi’s of the Jews had been circulating for years but the liberation of the first death camp must have come as quite a shock to the entire Rothkopf clan. Poles had called the town the camp was in Osweicim. It is within walking distance of the shtetl of Grodzisko where the Rothkopf brothers and sisters were born. Two of the three Rothkopf’s sisters lived in that market town. Max had visited them there in 1936 and it was there that he took the train to Vienna to visit with his brother and his family.
Auschwitz was followed by Buchenwald April 11; Bergen-Belsen on April 15; Dachau and Ravensbruck on April 29; Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5; and Theresienstadt on May 8. Each revelation of new death camps must have fueled anxiety, pain, fear and perhaps even some survivor’s remorse. Did their family and friends survive? Where do I go, whom to go to find out what happened to those I loved? Today, we expect instantaneous answers measured at worse in hours. Then information dribbled in single drops over long periods of time. Each day visit to the mail box must have been filled with hope and dread. Hope of good news and dread should there be none or worse the news that the one they loved had been consumed by the conflagration.
I never spoke to Marcus or Jenny about what those days were like. I was too young. But I know that loss never left your grandfather nor the hope of finding one of his lost relatives and friends alive. I realized this one afternoon in kibbutz Lohamei HaGetatot in the Western Galilee region of Israel. The kibbutz was founded by those who survived the Warson Ghetto uprising and they had a small museum to remember that uprising and of the Shoah. It was our custom when traveling together and visiting museums to go off separately and see the exhibits at our own pace. When I had completed my tour of the museum, I went to look for Pops and found him staring at a large 2 meter by 2-meter photograph of Jewish slave laborers in Hungary doing roadwork. He was quite silent, and I could tell by his demeanor how upset he was, so I asked him what was wrong. He pointed to one of the people in the photograph and said “I think that is one of my Uncles. We never knew what happened to him.”
I am sure that the post war years were full of that sense of loss and survivor’s remorse for Jenny and Marcus.
What I did not know during our trip to Israel, nor for many years later, that as the camps were being liberated it is highly possible that Ernie was in Europe. There is a lot of mystery surrounding those months of his service. He admitted to being part of the recovery of the Crown of St. Stephen on his death bed but would not share what that role was. Further research suggests that sometime during his time at OCS, an unusual 6 months for a 4 month course, he flew to Europe via Brazil, Dakar to help recover the crown and that he spent at least a few days in Vienna shortly after VE day. This is confirmed in his official Columbia biography and several fiction pieces where he mentions being in Vienna during that time period despite the fact that the incomplete army records show that he was Oklahoma at the time.
On a trip to Vienna together in 2007 we talked extensively what it was like to return to Vienna just 6 years after his departure. I wondered what it was like to leave as a 5’2 adolescent and return as a 6’2 adult to the city of his persecution. A city he had been forced to flee and was now returning as an officer in the conquering army. He, like most members of the greatest generation, was very understated about it. Sitting in a café beneath his boyhood apartment I asked him what happened when he had come across the landlady who had tormented him as a child now that he returned a foot taller and as officer in the conquering army. He told me that she was scared. When I asked how that made him feel he told me after a pause with a wry smile and said, “pretty good” and then changed the subject.
The reason for the change in topics was no doubt to mask the pain he also felt when looking for friends and family that had disappeared into the crematoria. He told me of the heartbreak of being unable to find those he loved such as his Aunt Pepi, in everything but biology his grandmother, and of lost Tuechlers, Hackers, and Hess’s. And of hearing the horror stories of the survivors including Uboaters, those who like Aunt Leni and Paul Grosz who had spent much of the war in a clandestine settlement in Vienna’s sewers.
I have no doubt that Ernie communicated to Marcus and Jenny what he found and did not find in Vienna. I am just unsure when he did it. Ostensibly the reason he was in Vienna was classified. He was not supposed to be out of the country. I am also sure that Jenny and Marcus were doing all they could to find lost and displaced relatives and that every trip to the mailbox was filled with equal parts dread and hope. Every return trip a mixed bag of disappointment, sorrow, or joy.
On September 28, 1945, while their son, a newly minted 2nd Lt and home from his secret mission and while awaiting deployment to Europe at Fort Bragg, NC, Jenny, and Marcus stood before a judge, raised their right hands and repeated these words:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
And became US citizens. There is no doubt that both were dressed in their finest clothes and were escorted to the ceremony by Max and his wife. I am also sure that considering the post war mayhem, a new world that vastly differed from that of their birth and that this was Marcus’s fifth country of residence, becoming a citizen of the US must have been quite a comfort for them. They also must have paused to reflect their journey. In just 7 years they had gone from marginalized, reviled sub-humans to citizens of the greatest country in the world entitled to all the privileges and obligations there off.
The Rothkopf’s life took on the air of normalcy. Marcus continued his work at Bieber Goodman. Jenny continued to do piece work for the ILGWU and Ernst, after his return from Europe and discharge from active duty in the Army, returned to Syracuse University where he graduated with the class with whom he had matriculated .( No easy task considering the 2.5 years spent in the Army.) He spent a year at Columbia thinking about being a writer and then enrolled at University of Connecticut, Storrs to get a Doctorate in Experimental Psychology.
That summer of 1948 he also met an 18-year woman, Carol Louise Zeman, who had been weekending at Candlewood Lake in Danbury. Mom’s recollection of that day always included a reference to how Dad had spent much of his time teasing her for being a Park Avenue dilettante. (Today it would be called negging and no doubt your grandfather would have claimed he invented it.) This was followed up by a dozen roses the next day. For her part, I think Carol was smitten from the beginning as this photograph taken that day shows.
Their relationship would result in marriage 4 years later and a marriage that lasted just a few months shy of 60 years
By all indications Marcus genuinely like Carol. She spoke fluent German so they could communicate with each other. And, apparently Marcus was a flirt. He had always liked pretty women and your grandmother was pretty and well put together. The combination made for a good relationship. It also did not hurt that she was the daughter of Park Avenue Physician and your grandfather was boxing above his weight class.
When Carol and Ernie got married on a very hot August 28, 1952 (there was no air conditioning in the apartment in which they were married and your grandfather perspired so much that the dye from his suit tattooed his skin) there was no one happier than Marcus Rothkopf
I can only imagine what must have been running through his thoughts that day. Surely, he remembered the shtetl he was born in and the difficulty he had in school and with his father. He must have contemplated his search for a life and the war, wounding, capture and captivity in Siberia that robbed him of his young adulthood. The struggle for a life in Vienna and how he managed to keep his family safe and eventually arrange their escape and passage here. Now just 12.5 years later his son, now a PHD, was marrying the daughter of a Park Avenue Physician. It is the stuff of “Fairyland” and I have no doubt that Marcus realized it and reveled in it.
The young couple soon moved to Chamapagne-Urbana Illinois. Ernst was working for the Air Force researching how to instruct young airman and had been assigned to Chanute Air Force Base, the home of Air Force field training command. While no correspondence remains, I have no doubt your grandmother wrote Jenny and Marcus frequently about their new life in the heartland of the US. I am sure that phone calls, which were awfully expensive for a couple living on Spam Casserole, were infrequent and probably holiday and life events.
No doubt one of those life events occurred in early Summer of 1955 when they called Jenny and Marcus to let them know their first grandchild would be born later that year.
First grandchildren are often celebrated as they symbolize the renewal of the family. The continuance of legacy. For Marcus, Jenny, Carol, and Ernie this must have been highly amplified. They had lost the country of their birth, most of their family and friends and now there would be a child born who could help rebuild the legacy that been lost in the Nazi ovens. If I listen hard enough I can still here your Great Grandmother Jenny kvelling about it.
And when a baby boy was born on December 24, 1955 it was no less a miracle to the Rothkopfs than the miracle that was celebrated on the following day. Even his name was chosen with great care. David, in Hebrew means “beloved.” David was the poet and warrior of the Jewish people. It was also to honor your Grandfather’s mentor David Zeman and your Grandmothers father, Fredrick David Zeman, but the middle name Jochanon was chosen so his Hebrew name would be Jochanon Ben Zakkai, an important Jewish sage and the most famous scholar at the time of the second temple…a name that also paid tribute to your grandfather’s failed Zionist dreams.
Everyone was proud of their accomplishment. In the late spring of 1956 Marcus and Jenny took the train Champaign Urbana to visit with their first grandchild. Marcus was particularly proud, and he would take the baby for long walks in his stroller. What family secrets that were disclosed between grandfather and grandson is not known but what is remembered is that Marcus returned from each of these trips with baked goods from the local bakery shop. Apparently, Marcus had been using David as bait in a flirtation he had been having with a bakery clerk.
Shortly after their return they that their son, daughter in law and grandson were moving even farther away, to Denver Co where Ernie had been transferred. It was not long after the transfer that Carol became pregnant with their second child who was born March 14, 1957. While not quite the event of the first his name was chosen to have significance to both sides of family. Paul was chosen to honor Paul Gross. As boys they had roamed the streets together. At wars end Ernie had looked for him desperately knowing that he not managed to leave the city and finding him at his mothers apartment having escaped the war by being a uboater and living with the city sewers. Herr Gross would eventually become the leader of the Jewish Community of Vienna.
In 1958 the last of the hat companies of Hat City closed. Bieber Goodman was no more and with that Marcus, now 70 years old, retired officially. But Marcus was not a man who could easily sit around and watch his garden grow. He needed to do something to feel valuable and alive. So he started working for the city of Danbury doing custodial work on the parking lots adjacent to his home on Delay Street. Every day he would take a wooden stick with a nail protruding from one end and use it to spear trash and place it in a large burlap sack he had slung over his shoulders.
This image of a shabby man, wearing shabby clothes, and smelling of beer and cigarettes is how I first remember Marcus.
In June of 1966 Marcus developed pneumonia and was taken to the hospital. This did not please him. He did not think he was sick enough to be in the hospital. Compounding it he could not smoke nor have his beer. Communication with the staff at the hospital difficult as he spoke English badly and there were many misunderstandings that caused him to be restrained at the wrist and ankles and to be sedated. When David and I had visited him at the hospital I remember how black and blue he was and while I could not understand the German I remember how animated he was about leaving. It was a scary experience for a 9 year old.
Several days after our trip Marcus died. Not of pneumonia but of brotherly love. Max, compassionate soul that he was, had managed to sneak him a beer. No doubt Marcus enjoyed the beer. However, as kind an act as it was for Max to give his brother a beer. It was also a fatal mistake as the alcohol in the beer combined with his medications in an extremely negative way that resulted in his death.
Marcus’s loss to the family went far greater than the mourning to a loved one lost. It inspired Carol and Ernie’s creative nature. On March 25, 1967, just about 40 weeks after his death, Carol gave birth to a baby girl. She was given the name Marissa to honor Marcus’s memory.
[A note to my nieces and nephews]
When your Grandfather Rothkopf died I decided that I began to investigate his service during the war. I wanted to see if it would be possible to document what his involvement with the capture of The Crown of St. Stephen. Then, as now it fascinated me to think, that a man could keep a secret this big from his wife and family for so long over an artifact that nearly no one had ever heard about. One of the first thing I did was ask your Grandmother for any papers he may have accumulated years to see if there were clues contained within them that I could track. Mom, as you well know, was the opposite of a pack rat. She, the product of growing up in the NY City apartment, always felt the need to shed and was only to happy to provide me with a large collection of your grandfather’s ephemera.
Sadly there were no clues within that box regarding the Crown of St. Stephens. That quest continues.
However, one of the items in that collection caught my imagination. The accordion of postcards Marcus had bought in Port Said in 1921. They made me wonder why it is that these postcards had preserved for almost century. What had they meant to Marcus? What had they meant to Dad that they were still here. They made me think about Marcus, more than in just passing,for the first time in my life. It made me reconsider him with adult eyes and for the first time appreciate him for the man he was.
He had accomplished something that many people can claim. He had, largely on his own, saved his family. If it were not for him and his timeliness in applying for a Visa none of us would have existed. Instead, Marcus, Jenny and Dad would all have become some of the forgotten names of the Shoah.
Marcus managed this because he had a single trait that allowed this to happen. He was a survivor in every sense of the world. He survived a war. He survived a Gulag. He survived the Nazis. Realizing this made me here Pop’s voice when I was small and wanted to give up on a hike or whatever task was at hand. He would tell me “Rothkopf’, never give up.” Perhaps this is something Marcus drilled into to him as well. I do not know. What I realize now is that, like Marcus, it is a phrase I have lived my life by. Never give up…ever because where there is life, there is hope.
The deep dive into Marcus’s life also made me realize another truth. That our impression of people is often surface deep. We should not form a concrete opinion of someone until we have known there whole journey. What they have gone through and endured; what they are enduring now will help us understand them and appreciate them for who they are. In the case of Marcus, I had thought of him for years as the nasty old man with a stick in the park lot who had been cruel to his wife and to his child. Knowing his story as I do now I understand how a life faced with unimaginable adversities may have shaped him and allowed me to appreciate for what he really was: A man who saved his family which is feat few men can claim.
Looking at those postcards today, I no longer have any question as to why Marcus held onto those cards. They symbolize his journey, his passage between worlds and lives. It is a journey that is constant in life and I hope as you look them now you remember his journey and how he saved a family but also think about yours and the course you will chart.