By Flora Singer
Upon our arrival in New York we were met at the harbor by two men. I vaguely recognized one of the men, but the other was a total stranger. After being introduced, I learned that the one I vaguely recognized was my father. Although I recognized his face, something was wrong. I remembered my father as a very tall and strong man. This man was short—I later learned that in American measurements, he was only five feet, six inches tall. He also had a slightly protruding abdomen. The other man, six feet tall, was the uncle we had never met. He was married to my father’s sister, Sadie, whom we had never met either. What I didn’t realize at that time, was that eight and one-half years is a long time in anyone’s life, but more so in the life of a growing child. When father left Belgium, I was not quite eight years old, and now, when I descended from the steamship Santa Paula in the harbor of New York, I was a young woman two months shy of 16.
We were hugged by both men. I stiffened. I felt uncomfortable being embraced by strange males. Somehow at that time I had difficulty distinguishing between males who were strangers and those who were family members. Mama’s constant drilling to never allow anyone to touch us, especially a male, reinforced during our stays in several convents, had its effect. We were incredibly well trained. Mama was embraced and kissed by father whom we used to call “Papa” before the war. But now we called him the “man.” It was difficult for us to say “Papa.” We stood shyly by, while the adults exchanged a few words, before picking up our meager luggage and heading toward a car, a Cadillac, I learned later. I also learned that it was a prestigious car to own. The car belonged to our uncle. We sank into the comfortable seats, and as we headed toward the borough of Queens, we took in the awesome sights of New York, the skyline with the tall skyscrapers, the building we later learned was the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the streets filled with crowds of people and traffic. It was dizzying. It was exhilarating.
Simultaneously, however, what struck me and disappointed me during this first car ride through the city of New York, was the garbage, which I had already noticed as we walked from the harbor to the car. Also the graffiti on buildings and walls. I had dreamed of this arrival, but in my dreams I never saw garbage, I never saw dirt, I never saw graffiti. As the car exited the city and entered the borough of Queens, there were fewer tall buildings and the crowds and traffic thinned out, while the landscape and the streets we passed looked greener and calmer. After a while, the car turned into a street lined with elegant homes, then pulled up to stately brick house, with a meticulously landscaped garden facing the street, and surrounded by beautiful old trees. The front door opened and Aunt Sadie, Papa’s sister, came out to greet us, the new immigrants from Europe. Our luggage was taken into the house. We shyly made the acquaintance of our two cousins, Aunt Sadie and Uncle Isidore’s daughters, who were slightly younger than I.
Soon thereafter we were seated at a table in the dining room, laden with delicious American food. Although our eyes widened in anticipation, we tried to act nonchalant. We had strict orders from Mama, and we were trained by her never to appear hungry, even when we were. We were taught to turn down one food and accept another, and to eat very slowly, lest someone would think that we were hungry. We were also taught that when offered a second helping we were to, at first, turn it down. Then, while appearing reluctant, accept some, which was of course what we wanted to do in the first place.
Papa spoke very little at the table. Most of the table conversation was between Isidore, whom we learned to call Uncle Izzy, and Mama. Aunt Sadie occasionally chimed in, asking a question or two, but on the whole the meal passed rather quietly. Rhoda and Harriet looked at us, examined us, but no conversation was possible because, although we, the new cousins, spoke more than one language, we spoke no English, the only language they knew. I knew a few sentences in English. Prior to our departure from Brussels, Mama had hired an English-language tutor. She contracted for only five one-hour sessions, which was all we could afford, and I was the pupil. We needed one person to be able to ask a few necessary questions on our voyage like, “Where can we find...? Which way to...?” and so forth. These were not sufficient for a social conversation. Mama and the three of us were able to speak with Papa, Uncle Izzy, and Aunt Sadie, since we spoke Yiddish, the language spoken by most Europeans of the Jewish faith. But the adults were busy talking to each other and not to us children.
I remember looking at Papa at the table. Was this quiet man the Papa I remember...the man who used to laugh heartily while playing with us when we were little. I learned many years later that Papa, when faced with the four females coming toward him at the harbor, was totally overwhelmed. He had left a woman with three little ones, and now he was faced with this “new” family, after having lived as a single individual, a bachelor, responsible for no one but himself for so many years. For him, I realized much later as I matured, this must have been a very difficult adjustment. Not only were we new immigrants to America who had to adjust to a new culture and life, but we had also just lived through the difficult experiences of a war. In addition to the experiences of a war, as members of the Jewish faith, we were also pursued and had to hide, both our identity and physically, to avoid being caught by the Gestapo. Besides this new family that faced Papa, he was also readjusting to life as a civilian, for he had recently been discharged from the United States Army, which he had joined voluntarily and in which he had served honorably.
The sun went down, evening fell, and everyone began to feel the effects of this exciting day, especially the new arrivals. We were assigned a bedroom, which we expected to share with Mama, as we had in Brussels and on the ship.
However, she was not going to spend the night with us children. This caught us by surprise. Aunt Sadie led the three of us to the room in which we would sleep, and then we watched as Mama, after kissing us goodnight, entered another room with Papa. We waited for her to emerge, but she didn’t, and we spent a long time wondering how she would prepare for bed with the “man” in the room. We were not used to having a man with us at bedtime.
©2011, Flora Singer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.