In May, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and France. Then next day, my father decided it was important for us to leave Brussels as soon as possible as the Germans were approaching. Our relatives told us that the Magino line would keep the Germans out of Belgium and France. My father disagreed, piled us into our Renault car, and we left our apartment taking only blankets and some clothes. Other relatives, whom my father was unable to convince to leave their things behind and flee, never made it.
This experience strongly affected the way I value things, or the way do not value them so much at all. To this day, I would leave all my things behind.
We got to the French border at Moucront, but it was closed. We returned at dawn and were able to enter France. We met our first English soldiers in Lille, where we spent the night in a horse barn with other refugees. The English gave us chocolate.
We continued to Paris, where my father got a job in a printing plant taking care of the machines. We stayed there for about three weeks, but we had to flee as the Germans were approaching. Leaving Paris was a nightmare. People were escaping by whatever means they had: some pushed baby carriages; others walked with backpacks; some took bicycles. Fortunately, we had our car. The pace was very slow. German planes flew overhead and machine gunned the refugees. We were headed south, but others were headed north. They asked us why we were going south, and we said we were running away from Hitler. We asked why they were headed north, and they said that they were running away from Mussolini. As evening arrived, walkers cleared the road to rest, making driving quicker.
The next day we arrived in the Massive Central. There was a big field full of abandoned cars, and we left ours. We took a train to Sete, where my father joined the Czechoslovakian Free Forces. We lived in nearby Agde, a small town on the Mediterranean. Since we had no bathing suits, we bought wool and knitting needles, and knitted suits to enjoy the blue Mediterranean. We were warned not to drink water, but to drink wine.
A few weeks later, the army families were told to pack, and we boarded a coal freighter headed to Gibraltar where we were transferred to a British ship. We thought we were headed for Madagascar. On the ship we met our first turbaned Hindus. We arrived in Liverpool, England.
Before the Second World War, my Uncle Otto and his wife Erni lived in Sudetenland, where he was a physician. In the very late 30's, Otto decided that Germany was dangerous, and it was time to get out of Europe. Although he had a passport, the only visa he could get was to Paraguay, and even to get that he had to stand in line for hours. Since Erni was not Jewish, she felt that she had no need to flee and decided not to go with him. Their daughter Helga stayed behind as well.
Around 1946, after the war in Europe had ended, Otto returned to Europe expecting to stay. He traveled throughout but was very sad and disappointed. His brother Poldi had survived in Budapest, but his sister Elza was no longer there: she had been thrown into the Danube. His parents (my grandparents) were no longer alive in Pezinok, Czechoslovakia. I learned this summer (2005) from Poldi's daughter Vera that they sent a telegram to Poldi in Budapest, saying goodbye and not to worry about them. They said they were taking care of themselves. According to Vera this was their farewell before they committed suicide.
Otto did not see his wife Erni, who by then had divorced him. Helga (their daughter) explained that was the only way for Erni and Helga to stay safe. Otto was convinced that his wife had something to do with his parents' death. In his grief, he may have jumped to a premature conclusion since so many Jews were rounded up for deportation.
By the time Otto came to visit us in Belgium, he had decided to go back to Paraguay: Europe was no longer for him. My father and I listened with awe to his stories and decided that we too wanted to go to Paraguay. It affected the whole family, but let’s face it, the decision was my father's. This meant big preparations. For Ruth and me, it meant that we had to learn the language, Spanish. We took classes at Berlitz, and a Professor from Barcelona taught us very diligently. The two of us went to classes by tram twice a week. On the way there and back we used whatever vocabulary we had to have a "conversation." Either we were outstanding students or he was a good teacher, but we learned very fast. Ruth and I practiced our lessons every day, adding topics as our vocabulary increased. Ruth decided not to come with us. She had discovered an aunt in Bratislava and went to join her. Shortly after, she married Robert Neuman.
We planned to take equipment to provide electricity for Piribebuy, the village my Uncle loved so much. We also took two pianos: one for my uncle, a gifted pianist, and one for us for possible resale. Early in the fall of 1948, we left Belgium on a three week voyage aboard a merchant ship. The Govaerts family joined us. Govaert, a chemical engineer, was a friend of my father's. His big dream was to make batteries for flashlights. My uncle had told us that these were very expensive and difficult to come by. Paraguay had no foreign currency as it had nothing to export and therefore no money for import.
My Mother and I left the ship at Rio de Janeiro where I remember going to a very big synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. Black taffeta skirts were very stylish, so I bought fabric to make skirts for Gudelia (Otto's new wife) and for myself. I learned the word for black in Portuguese, which I recall as "preto." We stayed there for a few days and had a great time sightseeing. We flew from Rio to Asuncion, Paraguay where my uncle was waiting for us. At the time he lived in Piribebuy which was to be our final destination.
Tio Otto took us to his friend's house; Senor Nadel had a beautiful house with marble floors. I remember entering the bathroom, a smallish room with all marble tiles on the floor and walls with one missing tile on the floor. Not quite knowing what to do, I asked my uncle for directions; he said to aim for the missing tile.
My father eventually arrived, but the generator and machinery he had brought over from Belgium could not get to Asuncion right away. It had to come by boat, but the Parana River was running low. We had to wait for the rains to arrive.
When we arrived in Piribebuy with the Govaerts, the two families took over the house of an Argentinean who had had enough of this jungle and was moving back to Argentina. They should have warned us of the surprises that we were to have. A stream ran through the house. In the evenings, big frogs visited all over the house. Mrs. Govaerts, a true city person, hated everything about our new home. The stream, however, made it possible for us to generate electricity.
We had a cow named Reina, and the only person who knew how to milk her was my father. I have no idea where he had learned this special skill.
Very often you can take a French word and add either an "o" or "a" to make a Spanish word. So I took the French word embarrasse and added an "a". It turned out that embarasada in Spanish means pregnant. So much for short cuts.
A muchacha, a young girl who helped out, went to the market for us in Piribebuy. The market was about an hour's walk, and the chore had to be done very early in the morning. We also had chickens, and she was in charge of catching the chickens and killing them by twisting their necks. One day she was not around, so I volunteered to do the job. For quite awhile I was off eating chicken.
We were introduced to new foods like avocados. My Mother was very creative. She served the avocados as dessert, mixing them with bananas, which we had on the property. At other times she added oil and lemon juice. Bread was not available; galetas were used as substitutes. These were small round, very hard and dry "rolls" that kept forever. I believe they were made of mandioca flour. A mandioca is a root vegetable that was readily available and used in soup, baked as potatoes, and anything else my mother could imagine.
My father and I did accomplish one of our dreams; we went horseback riding.
Mr. Govaerts immediately started mixing his first batch to make the batteries. What excitement! The next day, we all went to examine the batteries, but lo and behold, our chemist did not take into account that Paraguay is a sub-tropical country and therefore very humid. He took to drinking for awhile to drown his sorrow. Shortly after, the family went back to Belgium.
Paraguay was quite a different world than Europe. Sub-tropical and below the equator, the seasons are reversed compared to what we were used to.
The Paraguayans had a lot to teach us. We first pulled up our noses at the idea of taking a siesta after lunch. Between noon and 4pm it was extremely hot. The best thing to do was take a break in the middle of the day, and then refreshed continue 'till late at night when the temperature is usually cooler.
After living in Piribebuy for a few months, I decided to go to the capital, Asuncion. My uncle arranged for me to live with a wonderful family, the Estradas. The husband, who came from Spain, was a pianist at the local casino. His wife, Adela, was a real Paraguayan: kind hearted and generous. Perhaps because they had no children, they teated me as their daughter. They had a modern house with running water, electricity, and inside plumbing. After living in Piribebuy, this was a house of luxury. We did have to pump the water by hand to take a shower.
I got a job working as an English secretary to the Norwegian Consul. There were three young women in Asuncion who knew English. We effectively formed a union, getting together whenever we felt it was time for a raise.
Shortly after I moved to Asuncion from Piribebuy, I had a date with a Paraguayan boy, and we went out for ice cream. On the way back he suggested that we get much more intimate. I was socked and asked him what he took me for? He said that was obvious. I did not have a chaperone with us on our date. Dating in Paraguay was a different experience than what it had been in Brussels. In Paraguay, you went on your date with a chaperon. If you did not, that implied that you were interested in all the consequences. My next dates were with Europeans where we understood each other much better.
There was one night club called the Intermezzo run by a couple of Hungarian men where we went to dance on weekends. Another favorite spot was the casino where Mr. Estrada worked. I enjoyed the roulette table and once won enough money for a beauty treatment.
A couple of years later, my parents left Piribebuy and moved to Asuncion where my father opened a repair shop. All kinds of repairs were needed since it was practically impossible to acquire new appliances. One big business was revitalizing car batteries. His skills were also needed to repair machinery at the sugar factories in the Chaco and to repair planes at the airport. He had a great ear: he could listen to an engine and diagnose the problem.
We had a dog, called Dukie that only liked my father. One day Apu brought home a monkey. Well, that was something. Anyu announced that either the monkey had to go or she would. My father had quite a decision to make.
At one point, Klari Equerme (my cousin from Belgium) and her family, husband Paul and daughters Georgette and Monique came to join us in Paraguay. They hated it there and shortly left for the US.
After four years in Paraguay, I was ready for a new experience and decided to head north to the States. Lisa and David Leneman, my father’s cousins, sent me an affidavit. I flew from Asuncion to New York on Braniff Airlines. At that time the planes were not pressurized, and we had to wear oxygen masks when we flew over the Andes. The plane stopped in Miami, and for the first time I observed discrimination in America. Some water fountains were for “colored” people to use. The toilet facilities had the same set up. This was my first culture shock in North America. I finally arrived in New York, where Klari and family welcomed me at the airport, all anxious to see whether I really spoke English.
I arrived sometimes around the high holidays, probably in September/October. I looked up Herta and Leo. With Herta’s help, I planned a cross country trip. I had $300 and a choice of either buying a new “American” wardrobe or traveling across the country. I ended up buying my first pair of jeans, a checked shirt, and a wide leather belt. With a Greyhound ticket all the way to Los Angeles, I stopped off in Buffalo, NY and visited Niagara Falls. My next stop was in Chicago, where Raya and Kurt Biss welcomed me in their home in De Kalb. I met the boys, Greg and Paul. We went to one of Raya’s concerts and I was introduced to my first shrimp salad, which I hated, but ate nevertheless. I also met the Biss boys Hans and Ernst and their wives. Liesel Breiner was also there.
Every one of the Bisses was extremely welcoming. Most of them knew my uncle Otto, since he had lived in Vienna during his medical studies. In the late 30’s my father went to Vienna and arranged for Hans, Ernst and Liesel to escape to Belgium. I stayed in Chicago for a couple of weeks, and then on to my final destination, Los Angeles. On my way to Los Angeles, I stopped off at the Grand Canyon.
When my bus finally arrived at the bus depot in Los Angeles six weeks after I left New York, Lisa was waiting for me and took me to her house on King’s Drive in West Hollywood. Was I ever impressed? The house was beautiful. Leah and Helen seemed very smart to me. They were very young and could already read and write Hebrew. Leah also showed special skills in writing at a very early age. David Leneman, Lisa’s husband, originally came from Poland. Had spent some time in Israel and ended up in California. He combined his artistic talent with his business skills. Looking back, however, I am not sure whether it was Lisa or David who handled the business. David’s studio was on the property on King’s Drive, and his business consisted of hand painted designs on scarves, neckties, blouses. Mainly young Japanese girls worked there and painted in many colors with small cone shaped papers with different water resistant paints.
After trying different jobs from which I was either fired or left on my own, I found an ad looking for Christmas help at the May company on Wilshire boulevard. I applied for a sales job and was immediately promoted to an office job, as they told me this would pay better wages.
I had quite a hard time adjusting to my new life in Los Angeles. It took time to understand that I did not have to change my values or ways of thinking to fit in; I could just be myself. It bothered me very much that the Leneman’s would not let me pay for my board and lodgings. For them it was natural, but it bothered me terribly. And, everyone around me seemed so much more intelligent. Although I did speak several languages, I was very timid in expressing myself.
After a few months, I had saved enough money to buy a one way airline ticket back to New York. I first lived in Manhattan with Klari and her family, but soon I found a room on the West side of Manhattan with a Mrs. Paley.
The next chapter will tell the story of my beginnings in Manhattan.
For many years I believed in all sincerity that I did not wish to become a slave of my possessions and therefore would not gather and accumulate beautiful belongings.
Recently a friend of ours passed away and her daughter held a celebration of her mother’s life. We were fortunate to be included in the gathering. The event was held in the beautiful setting of Allied Arts in Menlo Park where our friend had been instrumental in building and keeping up the place which donated its profits to the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, CA. The food was served on some of the beautiful china that our friend owned. It added beauty to the occasion.
Today I received a beautiful dainty set of Limogue dessert dishes. They are lovely and I hope to soon enjoy using them. All of a sudden it hit me; yes indeed we can own and enjoy beautiful possessions, and did not have to become a slave to them.
Is it too late to start collecting?