The Memories of Emery Lazar: Journey Towards a New Life…
[Editor’s note: If you have not read Part 1 of this saga, you may wish to do so first. It can be found here.]
My parents, brother and I fled Hungary from the advancing Soviet Army in the spring of 1945. My brother was 15 years old at that time, and I was eight. We lived as refugees in a Bavarian village called Gergweis, under very poor conditions. But high school education was free, and I attended the Oberrealschule in nearby Passau.
By the end of 1951, my brother Attila was studying medicine in Munich; previously he had spent a year at the University of Madrid, Spain, on a scholarship. But this was before the economic recovery of Germany (the “Wirtschaftswunder”), and staying in Gergweis for the long range was not a viable option for my parents.
My father, who was 53 at the time, had no hope of finding work. All of our fellow refugees who stayed in Gergweis after the war had already emigrated to America, and there was only a very brief window of opportunity left for us to take advantage of the U.S. Government’s program of admitting thousands of Displaced Persons (DPs) from war-torn Europe. In fact, we were told that the last ship transporting DPs to America would be leaving Bremerhaven in early 1952.
It is not an easy decision to leave one’s homeland behind and emigrate to a new continent, to the unknown. My father in particular was very reluctant to make the move and postponed it for as long as he could.
It is true that for us the issue was not tearing up roots in our homeland, because we had already done that some seven years beforehand, under the duress of the war. But my father had always clung to the unrealistic hope that Communism would fall soon, and we would be able to return to our home in Hungary.
Judging from the vantage point of 2004 (the year I am writing this), he was right, except for the timing. Communism and Soviet occupation were indeed over by 1990, and I am sad that my father did not live long enough to enjoy that marvelous turn of events. He died in America in 1983 at the age of 85.
In January 1952, my parents and I left Gergweis on the first leg of our journey to the New World. Attila stayed in Madrid to continue his medical studies, and the family plans were for him to join us in America later on. By mid-January, we found ourselves in a pass-through camp for DPs in Munich, on a former German military base called Funk Kaserne. Soon we were on a train that took us to another military barracks in Vegesack, near Bremerhaven, where all the DPs were assembled prior to embarking on their journey to the U.S.
We shared a room with a Ukrainian couple with the family name Bondarenko who were expecting their first child. I still remember how the prospective father, in his broken German, was expressing his fervent wish to have a daughter, because daughters continue to stay close to their parents, whereas sons merely say “auf Wiedersehen” to mom and dad as soon as they get married.
I never saw our Ukrainian friends again and hope that their wish became fulfilled.
On January 28, we were loaded onto a train for a short ride to Bremerhaven, where a ship called “U.S.N.S. General C.H. Muir” was awaiting us. It was a battleship-gray Army transport ship, which now was being used for ferrying DP immigrants to the U.S.
A somewhat humiliating surprise was awaiting us as we were boarding the ship. We were told to open the upper button of our shirts, and a sailor inserted a huge syringe in the neck opening to spray a cloud of DDT powder on our bodies. I guess the official thinking was that we may have been infested by lice, which was not uncommon in refugee camps. Keep in mind that this was in the early 1950s, many years before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and the subsequent banning of DDT in 1972.
On the ship, my father and I were assigned a cabin with lots of bunk beds, each accommodating four people, as I recall. There were about 60 male passengers in our cabin. My mother had more comfortable accommodations, as she was still recovering from surgery (a hysterectomy) performed earlier in Munich. Thus, she crossed the Atlantic in relative comfort, in the ship’s hospital.
January 1952 was a notorious month for winter storms in the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Less than three weeks before our departure, on January 10th, the U.S. cargo ship “Flying Enterprise” had broken up and sunk near the English coast. Luckily her entire crew got rescued, but that event undoubtedly contributed to our unease as we were sailing in the choppy waters of the English Channel. The one sight I vividly remember from that early part of our voyage was seeing the white cliffs of Dover in the distance, brightly illuminated by the setting afternoon sun.
It is important to note that we were not sailing towards our new future as paying passengers on a luxury liner. The approximately 1,500 DPs on the Army transport ship were expected to work during the 10-day Atlantic passage to New York. My father’s assignment was to paint the ladies’ lavatories, and I became a bus boy in the crew’s mess hall. Only my mother immigrated to America as a freeloader, confined to the ship’s hospital.
The General Muir was a small boat in comparison to passenger-carrying ocean liners. Its displacement weight was only 10,654 gross tons, and I am sure that this circumstance added considerably to our discomfort during the journey. The discomfort manifested itself as acute seasickness, within a day or two after our departure. The weather became really ugly, and the hatches leading to the ship’s deck were closed. The boat was rocking frighteningly, not only sideways but also forwards and backwards. When we were in our bunk beds at night, there was a recurring, loud scraping noise accompanied by a scary vibration every few seconds.
At first, this made us think that we were plowing the bottom of the ocean. Later on this phenomenon was explained to us as something that was normal in a severe storm: the ship’s propeller was whirling above the waterline, in the air. I remember thinking during the height of the storm: what incredible courage Columbus and his crew must have had to sail into the unknown. And that ocean crossing was at the end of the 15th Century, in a vessel that was a child’s toy when compared to the General Muir. At least we knew where we were going, and we had modern radio communications to protect us.
My father in particular had a difficult time with seasickness, because as he was painting the ladies’ lavatory, they were coming in droves to that facility to relieve the contents of their stomachs. Which in turn induced a similar effect in him. As the storm progressed, some of the passengers were so sick that they abandoned themselves completely and were lying all over the passageways and stairwells of the ship. Such a helpless posture was particularly undignified for the assortment of Polish and Hungarian counts and countesses who were on board.
Seasickness affected me, too, but not to an incapacitating degree. Luckily, the severe storm did not last for the entire duration of our journey, and after a while we got used to the rocking motion of the ship. And we learned how to walk steadily as the ship was wobbling back and forth. Also, the design of the cafeteria tables was quite helpful, because each of them had a metal rim that prevented the eating utensils from flying on the floor.
The passengers on the ship represented many nationalities from the Communist-dominated part of Europe. During evenings when the ocean was not too rough, there were organized activities. The one I remember vividly was a musical event. The various ethnic groups on the ship were invited to give a performance of their folksongs. My father and I joined a bunch of Hungarians for such an impromptu performance.
The General Muir also had a mimeographed daily newspaper, which contained useful public announcements and informed us about the ship’s daily progress in crossing the Atlantic. My parents and I were full of excitement and anticipation as February 7th, our scheduled arrival in New York approached.
On that day we were on the deck of the ship before sunrise, as we were anchored at the mouth of the harbor. I saw passenger ferries sailing by, and there was a bright light visible high above the surface of the water. As dawn broke, we realized that it was the light mounted on the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
What a sight it was, to be welcomed by the Statue of Liberty to our adopted land!
In the morning we sailed by the spectacular skyscrapers of lower Manhattan and debarked onto Pier 61, on the shore of the Hudson River. We found ourselves in a huge hangar-like structure where, together with some 1,500 other homeless immigrants, we were waiting to be picked up by our American sponsor.
Before our departure from Bremerhaven we had been told by the Church World Service (CWS) that our destination was Cleveland, Ohio. Each DP needed to be sponsored either by a charitable organization or by an American relative. Our organization was the CWS, which was supported and financed by a number of Protestant denominations.
As the day progressed, more and more of our fellow passengers were being picked up by their sponsors and were leaving the huge hangar. But we were just lingering around our handful of wooden trunks and suitcases, feeling frustrated and abandoned. After many hours of waiting, a CWS representative came to inform us that there had been some glitch, and therefore the organization would put us up in a hotel in New York until a new sponsor came forward to take us to our final destination. So we wound up in the Hotel Chelsea, on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. My parents in particular were greatly relieved to be able to sleep on terra firma at last, since they still suffered from dizziness after the rough ocean crossing.
In the evening of our day of arrival, we left the hotel room for a walk on 23rd Street, eager to soak in our first impressions of America. The one thing that we found quite odd right away was that food stores in New York were still open late in the evening.
Also, we noticed that some people were staring at us, as if there had been something unusual about our appearance. Naturally, this made us uncomfortable. Only a couple of weeks later did we find out the reason for this phenomenon, when a group of my new American teenage friends offered to take up a collection to buy me a pair of trousers. I was taken aback by this offer, but they explained that they had never before encountered anyone in their lives wearing knickers. In Germany, this garment was still fashionable for young people who had not yet reached adulthood.
As we continued our walk on 23rd Street and went by a grocery store, the merchant behind the show window grinned and waved at us, trying to entice us to enter his store. We thought that he somehow possessed a sixth sense for recognizing immigrants who had just stepped off the boat.
On our second day, we became more adventurous and decided to pay a surprise visit to Aunt Hedwig, my mother’s first cousin and our only relative in America. She lived in Brooklyn with her husband, Uncle Béla. My mother had deliberately kept her in the dark about our coming to America, not wanting her to feel obligated to lend us material support. The rationale was that DPs who had American relatives were expected to be sponsored by those relatives. As a result of our total ignorance about life in New York, we chose to take the subway to Aunt Hedwig during the height of the evening rush hour. The only thing we knew about Aunt Hedwig’s location is that it was in Brooklyn, and we took her street address with us on a piece of paper.
As we descended into the subway station, we were stunned by the sight of the enormous crowd waiting on the platform for the next train. Coming from a rather homogeneous society, it was a particularly exotic sight for us to observe the unbelievable racial diversity of people who travel on a New York subway.
The first time I had seen a black person was when the American tanks rolled into Gergweis at the end of the war. In this New York crowd were not only black faces, but facial features and skin colors that we had never encountered before. Now this assorted mix of humanity was patiently awaiting the next train. When it rolled into the station, it was already full, and only a few people got out.
Then an incredible pushing and shoving by the crowd on the platform ensued, and we were just carried along with them until we found ourselves squeezed into one of the cars. Packed into a crowded subway car like sardines may be uncomfortable for a New Yorker, but it is an absolutely frightening experience for a new immigrant. Among the three of us, I was the only one who spoke some English, which I had absorbed over a period of four years in school in Germany.
So we resolved to hold onto each other for the duration of our subway ride, because my parents wouldn’t even be able to communicate with anyone if we became separated. Our apprehension soon turned into panic as the multitude of fellow sardines frantically pushed and shoved themselves into and out of the car at each station where the train stopped. Luckily we were somehow able to hold onto each other and arrived together at Aunt Hedwig’s apartment on Fourth Avenue and 85th Street in Brooklyn. But we were able to reach our destination only thanks to the incredible kindness and helpfulness of many New Yorkers, who went out of their way to assist three total strangers who needed travel directions in an unfamiliar big city.
One day, after having stayed at the Hotel Chelsea for over a week, a stranger knocked on our door. He introduced himself as Rev. Clarence Howard, a Dutch Reformed minister from Jersey City. Our sponsoring organization had sent him to take us along to his congregation, where we were to begin our new lives in America.
Rev. Howard was a tall man in his 40s, with an infectious smile and radiating kindness. He told us that a family in his congregation who had immigrated from Hungary before World War I had volunteered to take us in until employment and a permanent shelter could be secured for us. Then he took us downstairs to his waiting car and drove us to Jersey City across the Hudson River.
We crossed the river by ferry. It was an unforgettable sight to behold the magnificent New York skyscrapers from the deck of the boat. As we were crossing the river, my mother became emotional and began to cry.
Strangely, the tears that flowed down her face were not prompted by the joy of the occasion but by the sorrow of having had to leave our homeland behind, and a sense of apprehension because of our uncertain future. In contrast, my father and I were excitedly and optimistically looking forward to our new lives in America.
Within a few minutes of reaching the New Jersey shore, Rev. Howard stopped at a modest little house on Pine Street, in a decaying neighborhood. Awaiting us at the curb with outstretched arms and a cheerful smile stood Mrs. Toth, a kind and matronly woman in her 50s. To this day, I see her standing in front of us, exclaiming: “Isten hozta magukat Amerikába!” (“God has brought you to America!”).
This moment was the beginning of our lives in the New World.
by Emery Lazar, Castleton
[Part 1 of this saga can be found here.]