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Posts Tagged ‘German Jewish immigrants’

            They were a prototypical upper middle class German – Jewish family.  Karl and Irmgard Romberg along with their two young boys, Manny and Ralph lived a comfortable, assimilated life in Germany.  Karl’s business prospered well after Nazi oppression had suffocated other Jewish businesses in the 1930’s, as he was the exclusive importer of English wool in western Germany.  But, as written previously, that all changed on Kristalnacht.  Their business was ruined and Karl knew it was time for the family to leave Germany.

It is clear that Karl had planned for this eventuality.  He had spirited money off to an English bank account in his trips to meet with English suppliers.  The day after Kristalnaht Manny and Ralph were each told to pick a favorite toy and then sent to the home of their uncle Emil’s widow.  Emil was Karl’s oldest brother.  He had been arrested in 1937 by the Nazis as one of the leaders of the Social Democratic party in Essen and beaten to death.  His widow (Ralph does not remember his aunt’s name) was a short, tough woman, who cared for the boys for one week.

The boys then moved back home for one day before beginning the journey to their aunt Julie in Sweden.  Julie was Karl’s older sister, who moved to Sweden years earlier with her husband, as her husband had gotten into some legal difficulties in Germany.  The boys, travelling alone, took a train to Hamburn, then a ferry to Malmo.  They went to sleep on the boat and woke up the next morning in Sweden.  Then they took a train to Stockholm where they were not met by Julie, as she had  physical difficulties, including heart problems.

The boys lived in Sweden from late November 1938 until late May 1939.  Three weeks after arriving in Sweden it snowed and they had to learn how to cross country ski in order to go to school.  One day in early May 1939 their father called and told them they were coming back to Hamburg, where their parents met them.  They had a passage booked on the Iberia to Cuba.  The boys were back in Germany for only one day, although it might have been longer as Karl did not like the accommodations.  The Iberia was not really a passenger liner, but a combination passenger and merchant ship.  The family was booked in third class which meant sleeping in hammocks.  Karl wanted to try for another ship, but Irmgard would have nothing of that and insisted on leaving Germany immediately.  In another piece of great planning by Karl, he bought a car just before leaving Germany, loaded it on the boat to Cuba, and sold it upon arrival in Cuba.  This provided enough money for the family to live on in Cuba without touching the money banked in England.

That was a fortunate bit of planning as most of the 20 thousand Jewish refugees in Cuba lived off of money provided by the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee).  These Jews were in a difficult position as they did not see Cuba as a permanent residence, but as a way station to America.  There were many reports of suicides among these Jews.  Some could not stand being dependent on JDC welfare.  Others were depressed by their inability to get a visa to enter the United States.  This was a time in which US immigration operated under a quota system, in which some countries were favored and their immigrants did not have to wait long, whereas others, such as Eastern European countries, had to wait for years to be able to enter the US.

Life for the Rombergs, however, settled into a kind of routine.  Manny and Ralph attended a Montessori school – the Miss Phillips School.  The lessons in the morning were in Spanish and in the afternoon in English.  Ralph really liked his teacher, an American, Miss Jones.  She would drive him home after school in an old Ford with a rumble seat.  They attended a Reform synagogue led by an American rabbi who spoke Spanish.  Many of the fruits and vegetables were new and strange.  They had never seen a mango, for instance.  Ralph remembers that shopping for a chicken dinner was a unique experience.  It involved watching the butcher take a live chicken and slaughter it.  One day he went with his father to buy meat at a butcher shop.  Karl spoke no Spanish, fumbled through what he wanted and paid for the meat.  As they were walking home he realized he had not gotten his change.  He went back to the butcher and tried to ask for the change and the man said in perfect Yiddish, “Bubbela, I left it for you on the counter but you walked away.”  The butcher turned out to be a Sephardic Jew.

Karl would check with the US consulate every month about a visa to the states.  Finally, they got word they could emigrate.  They had stateless papers, which the US accepted, got physicals and prepared to enter America.  Karl decided they would go in style and booked a flight on a Pan Am clipper to Miami.  From Miami they took a train to Atlanta and then another train to Chicago, where family was waiting for them.

Karl became a Fuller Brush man for two years.  One day he called on a woman who ran him through a full presentation but did not buy anything.  As he was leaving he muttered under his breath in German, “kiss my ass.”  The woman turned out to be German and when she heard him speak German asked if he was from Germany.  When he answered yes, she bought from him.

The family did very well in Chicago.  Karl eventually opened his own ladies ready to wear store.  Both boys went to college and served in the US army.  Not all of the refugees stories were tragic.  Some, like Karl and Irmgard’s family’s, ended by living and embracing all of the hope and possibilities that America represented.  They were some of the lucky few.

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