Thursday, March 5, 2015

52 Ancestors #8 / Genealogy Do-Over Week 2: Interview with Omi

One of the first tasks in the Genealogy Do-Over was to interview family members. Sadly, we have almost no one left in my parents' generation to interview. My mother, Doris Lichtenthal Falcone passed away on Dec. 2, 2011. Today she would have been 83 years old.

I spent some time regretting the fact that I didn't embark on my genealogical journey earlier, then remembered a project my daughter Caitlin did while she was in school. Caitlin interviewed her grandmother, her "Omi", about her 1938 journey to America and videotaped the interview to share with the class. Thanks to my son-in-law, Andy, who hooked the VCR up to the new flat screen TV, I was able to view the video last week.  I can’t think of better topic to write about on this day.

Caitlin interviewing her grandmother.

While I am going to share the facts of my mother’s 1938 immigration experience, this post is not about facts. It’s about life. The things that happen to us. The things we can’t control. The manner in which we handle those things makes our life what is – for good, for bad, for the better.

Some of the dates and events may not be completely accurate, but are exactly what my mother shared in the interview. Keep in mind that Mom was probably 71 when she did this interview and she was speaking about events that had happened 65 years earlier.

“I left Austria in 1938 at the age of 6. The Nazis came, took over our apartment and put my father in Concentration Camp.” My grandfather, Paul Lichtenthal, was taken prisoner on May 31, 1938. He survived Buchenwald and Dachau and was released in early 1939.

Doris' 1938 Passport photo

Doris, her mother and grandmother first went to Holland then the United States. Describing the train trip to Holland, she said, “I think it was night time. I remember looking out the window and seeing a big hotel on fire. Wasn't really sure where we were going. Ended up in Holland. At some relatives [of?] people that worked for the Holland-America Line. Think he was a ship captain. Holland was great - so clean so beautiful. Had a really nice time. Next thing I knew we were on a ship. The thing was rolling. I was sick. My mother was fine – she was having orange juice. I told her to tell the captain to stop the ship because I want to get off. Think it was the channel. Stopped at England somewhere.  Then went on to United States. I don’t really remember getting off the boat.” Relatives came and took us home. It was 1938. Terrible hurricane. We were in Merrick, Long Island. All I remember is being in the basement and my aunt gave me a candle-holder to hold. It was a terrible hurricane. – still have the candle-holder. Yea- that was our trip. Then we went to New Rochelle because my mother’s brother was the manager of the apartment house. And that’s where we stayed.”

Passenger ship manifest for the SS Statendam - September 10, 1939. First part.
The first part of the manifest lists Doris and her mother, Rosa. Doris' entry is stamped UNDER 16. Rosa is listed as 34 years old and a housewife. Doris is 6. Rosa's place of birth is listed as Semarang in the Dutch East Indies. Doris' place of birth is fairly interesting. It lists Vienna, in the country of GERMANY, not Austria, as one would expect. The reason for that is Austria had just been annexed to Germany by Hitler. 

I always thought my mother, her mother, and her grandmother traveled to America together. Careful research revealed that Sophie remained in Holland until 1939 and then traveled alone to America in 1939. I assume she wished to spend more time there with her best friend, Katherine Barendse.

Passenger ship manifest for the SS Statendam - September 10, 1939. Second part.
The second part of the manifest gives details of the passengers' travel plans. Doris and her mother's home address in Vienna is listed : XIX Silbergasse 43. Their final destination is listed as New York. Their passage was paid by Doris' father. They had more than $50 with them. Next to Rosa's entry it states she has never been in the US before. I know that to be false. I don't know the reason for the error. Rosa's brother Emile Speeger is listed as the person they intend to join in the United States. Emile changed his name from Spiegel many years earlier as he wanted to seem to "more American"! Both are listed as intending to become citizens of the United States. Rosa is described as being 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. Doris is 4 feet 7 inches tall also with a fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. (I remember her eyes as being hazel!!) They were both in good health.

Left-to-right: Sophie Weiss Spiegel, Doris Lichtenthal, Rose Spiegel Lichtenthal - 1939

Asked what her expectations were in the US, my mother said, “I came for the Jazz.” She told Caitlin that her mother was sad because she had to leave her husband. Her grandmother was okay, she had relatives here already. She shared something I never knew – that “…they [her grandmother and mother] were going to come in 1927 but were talked out of it. Things would have been different.” That’s for sure! If they had come then, my grandmother would not have met her husband, Paul. My mother wouldn't have been born. I wouldn't have been born. You wouldn't be reading this blog post.

When asked if she came over thinking it would be a better life in America, my mother replied, “Wouldn't have been a better life because we were rich. Had to start from the bottom. Actually, it was better because I learned a lot. Kids learn quickly.”

She shared that she knew English already. She didn't realize that she had left everything behind, “I really didn't even realize it. It was like an adventure. I was only 6 years old!”

Mom had no real problems assimilating to life in America, “I don’t think kids do [have problems adjusting]. Kids were very good to me.” She did have difficulty adjusting to the weather, suffering with sinus issues and missing a lot of school as a result. She wasn't treated differently except for her clothes. “The clothes. My mother made me wear high tied shoes because I had flat feet. People would laugh. Always wanted to wear sandals.”

She was glad she came to the United States. “Oh yea. I think about it. How would it have been? Except for school. I was already to start school. Had the backpack and everything. Still have the backpack.”

Mom described the differences between her home in Vienna and that in New Rochelle. “ A lot smaller [in New Rochelle] Didn't have a room of my own – had to sleep with my grandmother. It was only a two bedroom apartment. Before I had my own room. So it was different that way. It was kind of a shame…everybody had more than I did. In the long run it was probably better because you learn more that way."

Doris' new home - 30 Eastchester Road New Rochelle, NY - approx. 1939

Caitlin asked how the family made money in New York.  This was another story I had never heard before. “A group of women from New York took my mother in and also women who had never worked before and taught them how to do crafts. They taught her how to make place-mats. She was a very good artist. During the war linen was in short supply. Maids were gone. My mother made these beautiful mats out of woven plastic named Plexon. [My grandmother opened her own business making these mats. The business was named D’Orette Linens, I assume in honor of my mother, Doris.] Dad went to Danbury Hats – from New Rochelle to Danbury [Connecticut] every day at 4 a.m. [driving] on the Merritt [Parkway.] Working in a factory…was a real come down when you owned five shops.” [The Lichtenthals owned a factory and five shops in Vienna – all taken by the Nazis.]

When Caitlin asked if her parents were resentful, Mom replied, "Never said. It was a matter of surviving. Didn't have time to do anything. Just had to survive. And they had people here that they met socially. They were the same people they knew that came over. People from Germany could bring money. We could bring household goods and ourselves, but no money. So that was the difference. So the people from Germany in New Rochelle were much better off than we were. Kind of resented that. But you really can’t resent it. I had a good life. New Rochelle at that time was fantastic.”

When asked about returning someday to Vienna, Mom said,“No I wouldn't. Nothing to relate to. Because it would just be going to see scenery. There are no people left. I think people is what makes it all up – you know – your life. And they’re here!!"

I could use many adjectives to describe my mother,
but the one that describes her best is
LOVING MOM (and grandmother!!)

Note to my relatives (who hopefully read this) - I am planning on having the videotape digitized. Just to be safe, I recorded the interview on my digital camera. The quality isn't the best but at least we have the interview preserved in case something happens to the tape before I can get the job done. The quality is good enough for you to hear the birds outside the window and watch the crazy squirrel on her deck. If you knew my mom, you'd be laughing now!! 

Miss you Mom! 

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