My mother became sick very quickly. Because of the unhygienic living conditions in Shanghai, her liver became infected and she died at the age of 46. That was in 1954 and I was eight. My father kept me away from her. I didn’t see her anymore after she was taken to the hospital. He also didn’t take me to the funeral because he thought I was too young.
I was a day student at a boarding school run by Finnish nuns and lived at home. It wasn’t far from us. After my mother’s death, I was taken in as a boarder. Israel was nice for as long as I was with my parents. I didn’t do that well at boarding school. For example, I didn’t want to eat spinach and was forced to do so there. I vomited onto the plate and then had to eat it again. And red beets, they disgusted me and I threw them up. The sisters told me I could not leave the table until I had eaten it. It was a disaster. No, it was not a good time. We also had earthquakes and were sitting in the cellar when the well in our courtyard collapsed. And then came the Sinai War. It was bad because we constantly had to hide somewhere. Even as a child I sensed the threat. I always saw my father on the weekends. He just worked, had to work here and there. I don’t think he had any friends. I don’t remember any. Or that people visited him. His family had died, his first wife died in Majdanek. I don’t know whether or how my parents heard about what had happened in Germany, what happened in the camps, after the war. I only know that my father definitely wanted to go back. That is what he always said to me: that we were going back to Germany again. Because it’s so beautiful there. The landscape is so beautiful. He only waited until he had enough money saved up. He wanted to go to Munich and nowhere else. So close to Dachau, I could never grasp it later myself. What drove him there?
We left for Germany in 1957. I wasn’t happy to leave Israel. By then I liked it. I had my friends there. But at some point, I had to say auf Wiedersehen to the children and nuns. We went by ship and traveled to Genoa, then took the train to Munich from there. We came into the train station on track 11. That was the track for immigrants for many years after our arrival. The long-distance trains came into track 11, bringing a whole lot of foreigners. There was an Inner Mission (religious social organization) for them, whose employees brought the people down and found housing for them. And that’s how we were received as well.
My father went to the Jewish community center and received support from them in the beginning. We found a room right near the main train station. I was totally happy because the family from whom we sublet also had a girl and she and I quickly became playmates. There was another girl across the way with whom I also became friends. We walked home together from school and did our homework together as well. So, that worked out really nicely. I was enrolled in a normal school. I could speak German, because I spoke German to my parents. I could speak it, but I wasn’t so good at writing. But I didn’t want to stay back a year and repeat the fourth grade again, I already finished it in Israel. I was permitted to start fifth grade, but had to promise that I could improve my German quickly. And I did, too. My father sat down with me and I studied hard. And I never stayed back a year, not once.
When our building was torn down, we moved right around the corner. We had another room we sublet there. I lived there until my father died. It happened in 1960, he was 77. He had an infection in both lungs. He’d had tuberculosis when he was in the concentration camp and was never really healthy again. When I realized how bad he was getting, I told him he should call a doctor. But he was terribly afraid of doctors. He didn’t want a doctor. We had one in the school who examined us regularly. I went to him at some point and told him he had to come to my father. Naturally, he admitted him to a hospital. But for my father, a hospital was tantamount to death. He was sent home after 14 days. He had a relapse and went to another hospital. And that is where he actually died. I only have one memory from that time impressed upon my mind, my career choice. Because on his deathbed, he said, “My God, what will become of you?”
We arrived in Montevideo on the 28th of January , 1940. I had just turned 14, so I went to school briefly and learned Spanish there, more or less. I later took private lessons and went to a trade school where I learned stenography and typing, along with English and Spanish. With that training, I worked as a foreign language secretary until retirement.
My husband, Kurt, was born in 1920. I met him in the anti-fascist committee, where he was very active. His family had lived in Osterode, East Prussia. The Germans persecuted the Jews there, too. They led his father around the city with a sign that said, “I, Jew, may not hit any German boys,” after the boys stuck posters up in his leather shop with “Jew slave” on them. Then they locked him up. He was freed again, but had to report to the police station three times a day. After that, the family decided to emigrate. Kurt had to interrupt his studies to train as a mason in Breslau because he thought you could lay bricks everywhere.
He also experienced Kristallnacht in Breslau. He lived with a widow there and the Gestapo came and arrested her older son on the 9th of November. They could have taken Kurt as well, he was actually 18 then. But he slept in the maid’s room and they didn’t look there. The son was released and went to Uruguay with his brother. They never got their mother out. She was murdered.
My husband arrived in Montevideo with his parents at the end of 1938. His sister had already been sent with a Kindertransport to Atlanta, Georgia in 1937. After the war, her parents wanted to see her again. All three of them went to Houston, Texas, because a relative had a meat processing factory there. My husband and his father worked there as security guards at night.
For the first several days, Kurt was excited by all the modernity. But he quickly picked up on the fact that there was great discrimination against the black population. That everything was separate, the neighborhoods, the schools, the movie theaters. For someone who came from Nazi Germany and remembered how the Jews were alienated, of course it came as a great shock to him. In Uruguay, Kurt was embedded in the union of the emigrated youth. In America he felt lonely and unhappy. He wrote, asking if I would like to come. After discussing it with my parents and friends, I went to Houston in January 1948. A month later, we were married.
I got a job and supported my husband, who was politically engaged with the Civil Rights Congress and the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and also, in the Communist Party. It was tiny, but it existed. He was especially dedicated to fighting racism there. I jumped into that fight as well, I was as much an advocate as he was. Of course, we also talked about our German pasts.
When the workers in the meat processing factory where my husband worked wanted to start a worker’s union, the boss was against it, so they went on strike. My husband had a choice, stand with his cousin, the boss, or go on strike with his work colleagues. He chose the latter.
As a result, the cousin reported us to the immigration authorities as communists. The Communist Party was not illegal, in fact, but they were accused of campaigning to overthrow the government. We were ordered to appear before the authorities and make a statement about ourselves and what our political activity looked like. We refused. The questioning stopped, but then there was a file with our names on it, “Kurt and Steffi Wittenberg.” And it was publicized in the press that there was a lawsuit against us in which they accused us of participating in taking down the government.
It became increasingly harder for us. Kurt had lost his job and worked for a demolition company. I was also let go and worked in the office at a shoe store. The Korean war started in 1950 and one day a colleague slapped me and yelled,
“You damned communist! Our boys are fighting against the communists—and you are a communist!”
It was the McCarthy Era, a time when anti-Communist hysteria broke out. There was the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which there was always only one important question at those terrible hearings:
“Are you [now or] have you ever been a member of the communist party?”
Because we made less money (I had lost my job again), we had to sublet. None of our friends or neighbors harassed us, but the majority of the German Jews, who themselves had experienced racial discrimination, didn’t understand our fight. Second generation East European Jews, however, supported us and collected money so that we could go to Europe. Because more and more, we were ready to leave the country. We tried to get permits to travel to East Germany. In 1950 or 1951 we wrote the government there, “We would very much like to participate in building a socialist Germany.” The answer was, “very nice,” but if we wanted to participate in building a peaceful Germany, then we should go to West Germany. From their point of view within East Germany, they were afraid that someone was a spy from the West, and rightly so if they came from America. But we really did want to build a different Germany.
After we had signed away our right to return to the USA in May 1951, we drove from Houston to New Orleans, accompanied by an immigration officer. He escorted us onto the ship and gave the captain our passports. Getting them was not easy. All emigrants, whether politically persecuted or Jewish refugees, were stripped of citizenship from Nazi-Germany. It was now the Federal Republic of Germany. Our citizenship was not automatically reinstated. Instead, we had to put a request in for naturalization documents. We sent them to the German consulate in New York and then received our passports.
In Hamburg, we were met by a man from German immigration with the words,
“Hello, Herr and Frau Wittenberg. Welcome to Germany!”
Published with permission from the publisher
Going Back: 16 Jewish women tell their life stories, and why they returned to Germany – the country that wanted to kill them
Andrea von Treuenfeld
Translated from the German by Cathryn Siegal-Bergman
2018, Clevo Books