Saturday, January 5, 2008

Born a DP

Whenever someone would ask me where I was born I would immediately cringe at the thought of having to answer that most uncomfortable question. The response usually demanded a lengthy, intimate and uncomfortable answer with elaborate explanations.

Skirting the question was the best solution as I would answer a similar question instead. My response was usually the the place where I grew up - the Bronx in New York City. The South Bronx to be exact, with the manipulatively misleading assumption that it was the place where I was born rather than merely bred.

The mention of the Bronx had its own legs and appeal which usually elicited distinct historic interest. Especially when I threw in that very red herring by bragging about my employment for Harry M. Stevens the famous sole vendor franchise at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium where I barked and sold peanuts, popcorn, soda and CrackerJack. Probably other foods and flags as well.

Yankee Stadium was the place to be. It was a classic icon in its own time. I often got to see and sometimes say hello to the Bronx Bombers: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, Tony Kubeck, Billy Martin, et al. And of course we all loved Mel Allen.

Back to born. If my comfort level is running high, I reveal that I was born in Germany which immediately prompts a bit of surprising curiosity followed by “what happened to your accent?” We all laugh and I take my leave if I don’t have the energy or time for a lengthy explanation. One disguised reason is that I still don’t have all the answers.

If I’m feeling a bit feisty, courageous or having recently imbibed in a couple of Kettle One martinis “neat,” I begin to reveal more historical information about my birth which usually begins without a long introduction. But beware of the Stark truth.

My birthplace and the events leading up to why did I end up “there” can turn a casual conversation into a serious story with a plethora of deep rooted questions; some welcomed and others uncomfortable. I take a deep breath while only a few eyes are making contact with me as I begin my birth tale. Within a few moments most eyes open wide and ears turn toward me for the historical details of a life so different from theirs it seems to be a million miles away.

I was born in a DP camp in Germany after WWII. DP stands for displaced persons or refugees who fled the horrors of war and were without a place to call their own or hang their hats. These refugees were unable, unwanted or unwilling to return to their former homeland. So DP it was and is. Built and run by the US Army the camps was cared for by the US Army GI’s and the German people in the nearby town who my mom and dad always told me treated us well.

Maybe the reason I don’t like to share this information very readily is that I’ve never really liked the label of being called a displaced person. DP somehow sounds, well, more like a cold government acronym, stamp or indifferent number rather than an ingratiating, welcoming and warm term. During my lifetime I’ve been e-placed, misplaced, and recently replaced. But not displaced since I was born.

The name of the DP camp was Bad Reichenhall and located in the outskirts of the city. Only recently have I researched the town’s history and was surprised to discover that it is a small health spa resort city located near Salzburg and the German Austrian border.My sister was born nearby in Munich and I was born in Bad Rachenhall.

Years later during a visit to Israel I met my aunt Sonja in Tel Aviv and discovered that we also had a brother born at the DP camp who didn’t make it. My folks never brought up the subject and I didn’t ask about any of the details upon my return. Some secrets need to remain secrets for no particular reason other than a secret is a secret for a reason.

During our stay at Bad Rachenhall a private organization named H.I.A.S. which stands for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society tried to locate and identify holocaust survivors by visiting the camps, writing down the names of the the survivors and sending them to Jewish newspapers around the world. These, mostly yiddish newspapers published their findings each day in the Yiddish newspapers around the world. My uncle Morris, already living in New York for years read the Yiddish daily called “The Forward” and found his brother’s name, Nathan my father, on the list of survivors.

It took more than a year and a half to make the blue ink and red tape arrangements to brings us over to the land paved with gold and freely flowed with milk and honey.

When I was just two years old we were rescued by uncle Morris, aunt Rose and cousin Ann by having completed the lengthy document and verification process allowing us boarding privileges on a a ship to Boston. We bunked in the accommodating steerage section with all its finest amenities and services. Mom was sea sick throughout the entire ten day trip. Until the day she died, my mother vowed to never board a ship again - even a row boat would make her ill.

When we arrived in Boston harbor we were examined, deliced, given proper American names, appropriate documents and met with our aunt, uncle and cousin at the docks. We all boarded a train together to New York City where the South Bronx became our new home for many mesmerizing years top come.

The four of us first lived in a one room flat as part of a larger apartment sharing a kitchen, bathroom and living room privileges. We later moved to a larger one bedroom flat on a main thoroughfare called Webster Avenue. I remember all four of us slept in the one bedroom. When all the beds were side by side there was only a narrow walkway in which to move about, Yes it was quite cozy.

The south Bronx area in which we lived was an ethnic ghetto neighborhood shared mostly with other Irish and Italian immigrants. Yiddish was our first language and english was not yet a second language. In many cases english was a very foreign language which brought fear, uncertainty and confusion to more than a handful of immigrants.

Filling out any forms, especially the ones received by schools and the government; or answering uniformed people’s questions were the most imposing part of the day to day existence . Simple communication with those outside the ghetto neighborhood was scary, unheard of and tougher than making the rent or having enough food on the table at the end of the week.

The most prevalent form of communication in the ghetto were extremely loud voices, physical pushing and shoving, especially in food queues, some common violence and lavish verbal abuse. Those were a few areas in which the most illiterate uneducated and intolerant neighbors freely expressed their right to free speech and thoughts without having to construct a formal sentence or even utter a single word.

Oh they were the best communicators. As we sometimes ran from them out of fear and at lighting speed we knew their intentions without a word being spoken. Oh we were fast runners alright. Fast or beaten were the two choices. Diplomacy was not yet practiced. I should have tried out for the olympics in those days.

Even during the later years, my folks were literally shackled by the lack of a good command of the english language; both in written and verbal terms. At least in the factories most of the foreigners spoke the same language and was therefore not a barrier.

Mom and dad worked in the garment center where they toiled and slaved in dark and dingy factory lofts making umbrellas, hats, gloves and who knows what else.

My sister and I went to local public schools with creative names like P.S. 90, 22 and 40. To this day I don’t remember attending public school classes until I got to high school. And even that school still remains a mystery to me. How in the world did I graduate?

Bathgate Avenue, nearby, was the bronx version of Manhattans Orchard street. You could buy anything original on the wide lengthy streets spanning many blocks of old brownstones where people lived upstairs while selling their goods downstairs. Or there were street vendors with hand carts or tired old horses pulling old world shtele carts.

You could be measured for a suit, pick out a chicken, have it slaughtered and feathered by the chicken flicker in back of the barn, have your eggs candled, select a chunk of butter or cheese, buy a live carp to put into the bath tub until you were ready to make gefelite fish, finish your marketing and return to the tailor in less than an hour to pick up your hand made expensive $7 suit that fit well and looked great.

On the surface these all may sound like romantic experiences but they’re not even close to scratching the surface. These were just the highlights beginning.

More to come in the next chapters so stay tuned.

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