America, April 2021

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HEROINE

March was Women's History Month.  So, I'm a month late.  I live in a mostly gay male world of my own making, so I didn't think I had anyone to write about.  But, then I remembered that my own mother was a heroine.  She was a Holocaust survivor, a refugee and illegal immigrant.

She was born in 1910 and grew up in a satellite city in the heart of Germany, leading a normal German middle class life.  I have just one tattered black and white photo of her parents, my grandparents, standing stiffly and somewhat grimly posing for a formal photo.  I never met them, they were murdered, gassed to death, by the Nazis in Auschwitz five years before I was born.  They were ordinary German Jews, not particularly religious, raising a family with five children, working hard every day running their Geschirrgeschäft -a kitchenware shop.

In November of 1938, Kristalnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, began the destruction of Jewish life in Germany as homes, shops, and synagogues were attacked and set on fire by crowds of enraged ordinary Germans inspired by Hitler's inflammatory rhetoric (just as Asians and other American minorities are now being attacked inspired by our former president's and current Republican racism). My uncle escaped to what was then British Palestine via a Kindertrasport -a children's rescue project.  My mother, too, decided it was time to flee, saved her travel money and resolved to escape to America.

It is hard to imagine the courage it took for this young woman to embark alone on a life and death journey, without transit papers, no visa, little money, nor any support from anyone. 

This month would be my mom's birthday; she died in the mid 1990s having lived to 86. She was a genuine heroine. She set out for America without papers nor much money on a life and death journey. The rest of her family were murdered in Auschwitz, their ashes buried beneath the barbed wire and snow in the mass graves of Eastern Europe.

Her train was stopped by the Gestapo at the Dutch - German border, "Alle aussteigen, Papeiren!" Everybody out, show your papers. She had no visa, no transit papers. A Gestapo officer saw the 'J' stamped over her photo (Jude, Jew) and confiscated her passport and told her to report to her hometown police station. She know that meant shipment to a death camp. The train left, leaving her alone on the remote border station platform.

She saw the Nazi Gestapo Boarder Headquarters across the street and pragmatically decided that she needed her passport back. She walked in, saw no one in the lobby (lunchtime) and proceeded down a hallway, opening the third door. Inside sat the Gestapo officer who had taken her passport, with passports piled to the ceiling on tables and chairs.  He looked up in outrage and shouted, "Was wollen sie heir, sind sie veruckt! (WHAT do you want here, are you crazy!)" She told him she needed her passport back. In the middle of a World War and Genocide, it was possible for people to do something good if no one was looking. He told her to close the door and fished her passport from the top of a pile. With his back turned, she quickly took and hid an official Nazi rubber stamp seal from a rack on his desk. He gave her the passport back. As an adult, hearing her tell this story, I asked her if he tried something...... "Oh NO," she said, "he was more terrified than I was; he said, 'now get out of here before they shoot me for what I just did!'"

She got on the next train into Holland and hid in the ladies room. When the Gestapo came, again, to empty the passengers from the train for passport control, that same Gestapo officer stood with his back to the ladies room door and told one of his soldiers, "I already checked in there." Without his act of honor, I would never have been born!

In Holland, my mother hid for a month in the home of a Christian family who risked their own lives hiding her. While there, she forged a transit document, using the official Nazi seal stamp she stole. for the final authentication.

A month later she was at the docks in Amsterdam to board her ship to America. A Gestapo officer sat at a little table at the foot of the gangway checking papers. She handed him her passport, fake transit paper, and the equivalent of $100 stuffed in the passport. He took it stamped it, and the money disappeared in his pocket in a motion so fast you could not see it happening. He could just as easily have shot her dead for daring to bribe him. "NEXT" he said, and she went up the gangway with her heart in her mouth. She was so sea sick she could hardly even eat.

A week later the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty at dawn, The ship captain sounded the foghorn over and over to mark the gravity of the moment as a thousand refugees stood shivering on the deck, bursting into tears as the Statue hove into view through the morning mist. "AMERICA! oH MY GOD, America, SAFE! Safe at last!" She was interned on Ellis Island for two months until she was issued a Green Card and stood on the quay on a cold February dawn where she was issued FIVE cents to pay for the ferry boat ride to Manhattan to begin her new life in America. That nickel was the only welfare she ever received during her 60 years in America.

She was also a heroine raising me mostly as a single mother.

My mom knew I was gay nearly a decade before I did, she figured it out when I was 8 in 1954. She waited and said nothing. She raised me to always speak out in the face of oppression, to be self confident and proud and patriotic.  She taught me, when I was a toddler, that "there is nothing more precious in the world than American Freedom."  Its why I volunteered to serve my county during Vietnam, when everyone else I knew was running away to Canada. When I was 21 and visiting her on leave from the Navy, she casually asked, "By the way, are you gay?" I nearly fainted. When i said, "um y-y-yes" she said, "Ahhh I thought so, what would you like for dinner?" Meatloaf.
 

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