Hello, America : A Refugee's Journey from Auschwitz to the New World

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2006-06-20
  • Publisher: Simon Pulse
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Having withstood the horrors of Auschwitz and made it out alive, eighteen-year-old Elli is more than ready to leave behind the painful memories and start fresh in America. What she is not fully prepared for, though, are all the challenges of creating a new life in a completely new place -- especially one as hectic as New York City! Within moments of stepping off the ship and into the arms of welcoming relatives, Elli's mind starts spinning with questions. Will she go to college? Will she have to take on a full-time job to pay the bills? And will she be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher?Elli has dreamed for years of this abundance of opportunity and possibility -- and to think, this is only the beginning!


Chapter Three: Broadway

After the Goldstein family leaves with Tommy as their gallant escort, Aunt Lilly suggests that we all take a well-deserved rest till the evening, when Tommy would drive us to Brooklyn.

"I would rather go for a walk, if Bubi is willing to take me," I say and cast an imploring look in my brother's direction.

"Okay," Bubi agrees, and the two of us bidGood Shabbesto Mommy, Aunt Lilly, and Uncle Abish. "Where do you want to go?"

"Just walk...anywhere. Is there a park in the vicinity?"

"Not really."

For several minutes my brother and I walk in silence. There is so much to say after four years of separation, so many questions to ask. Where do I begin?

"I want to ask you..." My brother is the first to speak. "When you met Uncle Abish this morning at the pier, why did you cry on his shoulder, calling him Papa? Did you for a moment think he was Papa? Did he remind you of Papa so much? But he's not like our father at all, not in looks and not in personality. There's no resemblance."

All at once tears spring into my eyes. "To me there is. Everything about him reminds me of Papa, his body build, his high cheekbones, hazel eyes...there's an aura about him that's like Papa. Oh, Bubi, I miss him so much!"

"Ever since that scene at the pier, I've been thinking. You didn't get to know Papa very well...couldn't, really. You were very young when he was taken away. I had a chance to know him before it all started, but you...how much time did you spend with him? To get to know him?"

"But I did. He taught me to swim and to ride the bike. While you were away at school, he taught me to play chess. We would play for hours, late into the night. Do you remember the sports equipment -- the rings, the chin-up bar, the swing -- he fixed up in the yard and taught us to work out on them? I believe that's where my love of sport stems from."

How happy Papa was when I took to it like a duck to water...how proud. I was his kind of girl, he said. Ever since then wherever I have swum or ridden a bike, Papa has been beside me, cheering me on. I can hear his voice:Go on, you're doing fine....Just a little more! Don't give up....Never give up!

"Do you remember his dictionary of foreign words? We used to pore over it together, he, pointing out the origins of foreign words in Hungarian, and I, memorizing them. I believe that's where my love of foreign languages stems from."

The true source of my sense of kinship with Papa I can't reveal to my brother. During those years that he was away at school I overheard Mother say to Papa how Bubi was just like her family, her brothers, whereas I was just like Papa. "Bubi has a good head," I heard him concede. "But Elli hasSitzfleisch.She has perseverance. Sometimes, in the long run, perseverance gets you farther than a good head."

"Yes, I remember the dictionary of foreign words," Bubi says with a smile. "He was fascinated with the etymology of words. And of course I remember the sports equipment in the yard, how much he loved to exercise. You liked that kind of stuff....I must confess I didn't."

We walk on the colorless streets of the Lower East Side and talk of the Danube River back in Czechoslovakia, of its silvery blue ripples, of the brilliant green of the forest, and of the long, lazy summer afternoons when after a vigorous swim Papa would play soccer with us in the grass, then draw my brother into the shade of the woods flanking the river and study with him the portion of the week from the Pentateuch or a page of the Talmud.

"I'll never forget the passage of the Talmud that we studied together on that last night, before he was taken away," Bubi reminisces, and his voice is somewhat hoarse with emotion. "He said, 'This is how I wish to part from you, learning a passage of the Talmud. Remember this passage when you remember me....'"

Bubi falls silent as we stroll on the faded brick sidewalk past shuttered storefronts. All at once the elongated shadows of the tenement houses plunge the street into twilight, and Bubi is taken aback with the realization of the late hour.

"We must turn back," he says now with urgency. "We've wandered too far. We must get back to Uncle Abish's house before the end of the Sabbath."

We have wandered too far indeed. Although Bubi and I now gallop like racehorses through darkened streets and alleyways, it takes us more than half an hour to reach our relatives' flat.

"Where have you been?" The entire Friedman family is racked with worry.

"You can stop worrying," Bubi the cool pragmatist reassures the excitable Hungarian bunch. "We are here, safe and sound, andShabbesis not even over yet."

In fact,Shabbeshas been over for some time, and Tommy has gone to bring his car and drive us to the pier for our luggage en route to Brooklyn.

Mommy and I bid a fond farewell to our American family, and they promise to come visit us in Brooklyn.

My heart is brimming with excitement as I am sitting in the front seat of Tommy's new car, in between Mommy and the driver. These amazing American cars are so wide there is room for three people in the seat. What an exhilarating experience, driving in the face of oncoming traffic, a sea of blinding light beams and a cacophony of honking horns.

"Is New York City like this every night?" I ask.

"Saturday night is. On Saturday night people go out. People from the boroughs drive to Manhattan to theaters, movie houses, concerts, restaurants. We're lucky to be heading in the opposite direction so we're not stuck in a traffic jam. Soon we'll reach the Brooklyn Bridge. You'll see all the traffic on the bridge. It's tremendous at this hour."

"I have never seen so many cars in my life!" Mother cries.

Tommy's car rolls onto the ramp off the bridge and soon makes its way to a beautiful boulevard, a wide, tree-lined street stretching on and on for miles.

"Is this Broadway?"

"Broadway? Oh, no! We're in Brooklyn now. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge twenty minutes ago. Broadway is in Manhattan."

"What street is this?"

"This is Ocean Avenue. It's the street where Aunt Celia and Uncle Martin live," my brother calls from the backseat.

"Really? I didn't expect such wide streets in Brooklyn. I thought..."

"That's the meaning ofavenue," my brother explains, "a wide street, like a boulevard."

"Is Broadway much wider than this? Is it far from here?"

"Do you want to see Broadway?" Tommy asks. "I can take you tomorrow, if you want."

"Will you? I can't wait to see Broadway, and the cloud scrapers. Papa told me that on Broadway there are cloud scrapers, buildings over a hundred stories high."

"There's one building like that," Tommy says. "The Empire State Building. It's a hundred and ten stories high. But it's not exactly on Broadway."

"And the word isskyscraper," Bubi pipes up again in the back.

I remember that New York was Papa's city of dreams, and he hoped one day to make it to New York. But I must not talk about it. Not now. I must not tell Tommy that Daddy promised to buy me the prettiest dress on Broadway. Papa would point to a picture of one of the staggering, tall buildings. "This is over a hundred stories high. Can you fathom a building so tall? One day you and I will walk up on Broadway and turn our heads to see the top of that building that touches the clouds. I guess that's why they call them cloud scrapers. Can you see the big shop windows?" He would go on. "We'll go into one of those big, fancy shops on Broadway and I'll buy you the prettiest dress." "Oh, Papa," I would exclaim, and give him a tight hug. "Oh, Papa. I love you so."

It was our game during the dark, difficult times. By then we had been waiting for more than two years for our turn on the American quota. The war was raging and Hitler's armies were drawing ever nearer, spreading panic in their wake. And there was no reply from the American Embassy to our inquiries as to when, for God's sake, we would get entry visas to America. It seemed hopeless, yet Father kept up our morale with tales of the dazzling metropolis we would reach "someday."

"Well, this is it." Tommy says as he pulls alongside the curb and parks the car in front of a large, impressive building. "2010 Ocean Avenue."

"This is where Aunt Celia lives?"

"Yes," Bubi answers. "This is the house."

I gaze in amazement at the stately building and follow Mother up three or four wide stone steps to the entrance and into the spacious lobby. The two boys follow behind, carrying our luggage to the far end of the hall. I cannot believe my eyes. The courtly look of the hall with its polished floor and fireplace reminds me of opulent, turn-of-the-century buildings in Vienna. This is more like the America I have dreamed about.

We climb the stairs at the far end of the lobby to the first floor. Bubi rings the bell on a door in the left-hand corner of the hallway, and I feel my throat tighten. In seconds the door opens wide, and Aunt Celia, as tall and as beautiful as I remember her, rushes to meet us.

"Laura! Elli!"


We cling to each other in exaltation tinged with pain. I remember another reunion, in another place, at another time. How long has it been? We are locked in a silent embrace, and all at once the dark hallway is transformed. I'm in the midst ofa desiccated vista battered by blinding, scorching sun...and in the distance I can see a tall, sticklike figure meander about, shouting, "Laura! Laura! Laura!" It's my aunt, Mom's younger sister, still stunning in the drab prison uniform with shaven head. "Aunt Celia!" She looks at me uncomprehending, locks me in a frantic embrace. "Elli! Little Elli, you are here? How can it be? And your mother...where's your mother?" Her tears smudge my face as I lead her to the dusty hollow where Mother has fallen asleep. Celia crawls into the hole next to her and the two sisters greet each other with silent panic, hold each other in a silent clasp, weeping silently in the scorching dust hole of Auschwitz, the most dreaded concentration camp...only to be separated again.

How long has it been? And now here we are, after years of longing, the three of us once again locked in a tight embrace....But now in a new world, at the threshold of a new life.

The ecstasy of our reunion is marred by the agony of remembering. Our tears of joy are mingled with tears of pain for the agonizing losses we suffered since that meeting in Auschwitz during the first day of our arrival. The ghost of seventeen-year-old Imre, Aunt Celia and Uncle Martin's cherished only son, is locked within our embrace as, still sobbing, Aunt Celia leads us into her American home.

The exuberance in Uncle Martin's eyes as he greets us and the two boys is in sharp contrast to the telltale signs of grief -- the deep lines in the boyish face and the streaks of gray in the once unruly red hair.

"How is my favorite chess partner?" he asks as he hugs Mother. And when it is my turn to embrace my beloved uncle, I break into sobs almost as uncontrollable as when meeting Uncle Abish at the pier. What's the matter with me? Why can't I keep my emotions under control? In front of my new cousin...how embarrassing. And in front of my brother...he used to call me a crybaby, but now, thankfully, he does not say anything.

My weeping makes Uncle Martin's eyes turn red, and he whispers, "There's so much to talk about....Thank God you're here."

In the sparse, well-lit kitchen the table is set for six. But my brother, Bubi, and my cousin Tommy decline Aunt and Uncle's invitation to dinner. Bubi has to return to his studies at Yeshiva University, and Tommy offers to give him a lift.

"Tomorrow at nine," Tommy promises. "I'll come pick you up and take you to see Broadway. And to the Empire State Building."

After dinner the four of us talk and talk late into the night. There is so much to say, so much to remember. And so much not to.

It is after midnight when Celia and Martin open the Castro convertible couch in their living room, and it becomes a double bed for Mother and me. When we finally bid each other good night and I crawl under the covers, I find it difficult to fall asleep. What a long day it has been! The deluge of new impressions surges like a torrent in my mind's eye. I stay awake thinking about all I've experienced since our arrival this morning.

And then there's something else that keeps me from sleep. Every half an hour or so there is a thunderous clatter like the rattle of an approaching and departing train. How can one sleep through all this noise?

"That's the elevated train," Aunt Celia explains in the morning. "The Brighton Line of the subway system, just about four blocks from here."

"You'll get used to the noise very fast," Uncle reassures me, laughing. "In time you won't be able to sleep without it."

The four of us have breakfast together -- orange juice, rye bread with cream cheese, and instant coffee with milk from a carton! -- my first American breakfast. Then Uncle Martin leaves for his workshop where he manufactures children's hats.

Tommy is prompt. At nine o'clock sharp he appears on my aunt's doorstep, ready for the day's outing, just as he promised.

Broadway is not as wide open a boulevard as I thought it would be. And Tommy is right: There are no skyscrapers, only ordinary two-, three-, and four-story buildings.

"Why is it called Broadway? It's not very broad."

"I don't know. There must be some story attached to the name. There almost always is."

But when we reach mid-Manhattan, Broadway becomes exciting. Colorful traffic. Beautiful shop windows. Huge multicolored posters and signs advertise everything from plays and movies to Camel cigarettes. There is a billboard that I can't stop staring at. It's a man in a Fedora whose mouth is open -- and puffs of smoke blow from his parted lips! A sign that smokes! Tommy turns off Broadway toward the Empire State Building.

"I'll park somewhere near, and we'll walk to it."

The Empire State Building is a staggering sight. It seems to sway as I crane my neck to follow it to the top. As the clouds drift above, the building seems to swing in the direction opposite to that of the clouds. The thrill reverberates in my body, makes my stomach churn.

Oh, Papa, it has come to pass. The "cloud scraper" is just as exciting as you promised. The shops on Broadway are just as glamorous. But, Papa, where are you? You promised to stroll with me on Broadway, to buy me the prettiest dress. I stand here at the foot of the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the city of your dreams, and the mass grave in Bergen-Belsen casts an enormous shadow over it all. And for a moment the excitement turns to ashes in my mouth.

But I will not let the mass grave be the final arbiter of your dreams! Your dreams are not buried in Bergen-Belsen. I will make them live on here in New York. I will make all your dreams live on. I promise I will make all your dreams come true.

Copyright © 2005 by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Excerpted from Hello, America: A Refugee's Journey from Auschwitz to the New World by Livia Bitton-Jackson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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