A Childhood without Parents

Disorder and early sorrow 

I remember very little about my mother. I wish that I could remember sitting on my mother’s lap. Did she ever put her arms around my sister and me? No matter how hard I try, all I remember is somebody jumping off the table. She wore a long, black skirt and a blouse with a high collar. A man was standing there. He was a peddler selling vegetables. His basket was on the floor. I remember he also watched my mother jump off the table. We were all fascinated.

Later on in life I wondered: Why did she jump off the table so vigorously? When I told this story to a friend who had lived in Europe, she said, “Oh, my mother jumped off the table too. She jumped and jumped. They did not want to be pregnant again!’

We lived in Antwerp in a small apartment. There was a lamp over the table in the dining room. My father would put money into a box, and the light would be on for a while, and then there would be darkness unless my father inserted another coin. He would roll cigarettes.

One day, there was a lot of commotion. People were coming and going, and then my mother was sent to the hospital. I never saw her again. She had a baby and died. We never saw the baby.

Very soon after that, my father said to us, “Today I’m going to take you out and buy you clothes!’ He had a big piece of paper on which was written the list of things he had to get. A few days later we took a train and, although we didn’t realize it, we were in a different country. We were in Cologne, Germany, and the year was 1913.

We arrived at a big building. We were ushered into an office where a man talked to us, and suddenly my father was gone. He hadn’t even said goodbye. A woman placed us in chairs and was speaking a language we didn’t understand. She cut, chopped our hair off. I sobbed, bewildered, because I loved my hair. My sister kicked, spat and screamed. She tried to scratch the woman’s face. They had to discontinue the job for the day. Next, we were taken to a dormitory with rows and rows of iron beds. We were given one bed to share. We lay down, sobbed, and wondered why our father had left us there. From then on I can remember everything that happened to me — it was such a shock.

The next morning we were overwhelmed. We saw all the other children in our big room. They also had shaven heads and wore grey dresses and aprons like we had been given. I realized that I was not alone in my misery.

We followed the others into a large dining hall with long wooden tables and benches. There was silence; no one talked. At our place was a piece of bread, marmalade and a mug of brown liquid —a substitute for milk. The teacher, Miss Mayer, sat sternly at the head of the table and watched us eat. Afterwards, we were escorted back to our bedrooms where we were taught how to make our beds. From there we went to the school, which was upstairs on the third floor of the building. There was also a small sanctuary.

The home was very religious. It was like a convent, but Jewish. There were blessings for everything. Our meals were meager, and it always took much longer to pray after eating than it actually took to eat. At night we prayed to God and then our country and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

My sister and I soon became quite fluent in German. We could now talk with the other children. At night, after Miss Mayer had left, we would take off our aprons and place them on our heads, imagining that we had long hair and beautiful braids.

Leaving the home for walks was a torture for us. We were forced to walk three to a row. There were more than 30 of us, so we were quite a spectacle. Children we passed called us names.

There were boys in this home, but we were only allowed to talk to them on weekends. During the week, the closest we got to the boys was in the play yard. A big fence separated us from them. Sometimes we would push our faces against the fence and try to talk to them quickly without getting caught. Some of the children were brothers and sisters, so it was hard to understand this cruel separation.

We never saw a piece of paper or notebook the first few years. We had a slate and chalk. Our slate was our most valuable possession.

Soon after we arrived, we learned that our beloved Kaiser had declared war. We were told to say a special prayer so he could conquer ‘ I the whole world. One of the first countries to be invaded was Belgium, so we were never allowed to speak Flemish or talk about Belgium again. Belgium was my native country.

At night when I said all my prayers and prayed for the Kaiser, I also prayed for my father. I knew that, wherever he was, he would come and help the Kaiser and win the war. I imagined the war was like a great tug of war with a long line of Germans on one side, all the other countries on the other, and they were pulling, tugging, pulling, tugging and running. I could picture my father arriving, galloping on a horse.

In 1918, the Kaiser was defeated and went to Holland. We were very sad. The occupation came. At the school we had a new director, a man by the name of Mr. Schneider. We were given pretty clothes and were allowed to let our hair grow. Someone even gave us ribbons, and we braided our hair and tied it with bows.

On the first night of Passover, suddenly there was a knock at the window. We could see soldiers standing there. We were told that we would all be killed and we all started to cry. After a terribly long while, the director of the school came back into the dining room, arm-in-arm with the soldiers. The soldiers were not enemies after all. They were Jewish boys from Brooklyn, New York, and they sat down and joined our seder, singing and praying. From then on, they became our benefactors. They brought us gum which they taught us how to chew. They brought us soap which was very precious, as there was no fat, and we had to be very careful using it. The occupation, instead of being a horrible time for us, became, in a way, the happiest time in our childhood.

Now that we could dress like regular children, we enjoyed taking walks. During the occupation, there was one street where soldiers would go. We were told that there were women sitting there half-naked, so we would run through Molke Strasse and pretend we were covering our eyes. We would see what we wanted to see. We did not know what it was all about. I looked at the girls’ faces, and I felt sorry for them.

Lo and behold, one day, towards the end of 1919, we were sent to the office where Mr. Schneider gave us a letter from our father. It came all the way from Brooklyn, New York, United States of America. In it was a printed card: Mr. and Mrs. Morris Silber. “Mr. and Mrs.;’ said Mr. Schneider, “means Herr and Frau. It means your father is married again.”

In the letter was one dollar, and we were allowed to go out and buy something. I had always wanted to eat an egg and so went out and bought one. Mr. Schneider gave permission for me to go into the kitchen, and they boiled it for me. I didn’t get to eat this egg though, because it was a time when there were many refugees sent to our home to be fed (we had one of the biggest kitchens in Cologne), and in front of me a refugee sat, nursing her baby and looking at my egg. To this day, every time I eat a boiled egg, I can’t get rid of that woman’s hungry-looking eyes. I gave her my egg.

It was November, 1919 when we were told we were leaving the home and going back to Belgium. From Belgium we would be sailing to America. We would first be spending a few days with relatives in Antwerp. My sister was eleven-years old and I was twelve.

A man whom we didn’t know was in charge of us. We took a train from Cologne. When we arrived in Antwerp, the man brought us to our aunt. When he rang the bell, the woman didn’t know us at first. She said that she hadn’t ordered any children and refused to accept us. After a while, she looked at us and realized who we were. She said, “We will take you, but you cannot say one German word, because if you utter one German word, the Belgians will kill your We had forgotten Flemish, so there was no way for us to speak.

The few days we spent in Antwerp were a different world. My aunt had a beautiful house. There were loads of wonderful foods that I had never seen. The bread was white and so good that we were afraid to eat it. We would hide it in our briefcases, which were about the only worldly possessions we had. Mine contained my notebook with my compositions which I treasured very much and still have to this day.

Every morning my sister and I would take a walk, and all we would say was: “Quelle heure est-il?” “Quelle heure est-il?” “Quelle heure est-il?” Since we had forgotten Flemish and were afraid to speak German, we were reduced to one phrase we knew in French.

Our ship arrived, and we said goodbye to our aunt. We were all alone. We felt all alone, too. There were many people on the steamer. We travelled third-class, on the bottom of the ship, steerage. There was plenty of food. For breakfast we had sausages, which I had never seen before. However, people were always seasick, and sometimes the meals became a nightmare. People were eating chains of garlic which they had hanging around their necks, believing that they wouldn’t get seasick that way.

One of the stewards on the ship, a young man, took a special interest in my sister and me. He tried to teach us a little English. The first thing we learned was, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Our voyage took two weeks. Just before the boat landed in the New York harbor, and just before we saw the Statue of Liberty beckoning us, a woman came up to me. She said, “It is too dangerous for you to hold your passports and your papers. You’re too little.” She said, “Let me have your passports.”

I said, “No.”

She said, “I’ll take good care of them.”

So we gave her our papers.

The ship docked at Ellis Island. There was screaming and yelling. There were many people waiting for passengers. We couldn’t find the woman who had all our papers. We looked and looked, and then we all had to stand in line. We didn’t know what to do. We went to a bench and sat down there and cried and cried. We were very afraid that we would be sent back, but where to? God knows, where to? Where was the woman who was supposed to protect us?

Suddenly a man, a customs official, came up to us. He realized that we couldn’t speak English. He spoke German. We told him the whole story, and he took us into an office. There were the biggest books that I had ever seen. He said, “Let’s see.” He looked through one of the books, and there were all the names of the passengers who had arrived on that steamer. Thank God, there was our name. He said, “Now don’t worry, you’re okay and you will get new papers.”

With all the excitement of people entering the United States, I remember a pretty young woman standing by the dock, beautifully dressed. She was singing patriotic songs, welcoming all the immigrants.

We noticed a man waving at us. Of course, we didn’t know it was our father. The customs officer said, “Is this your father?” We just shrugged our shoulders. He kept nodding his head. We said, “If he says so, then he has to be our father.”

Edna Manes, at 82, lives in Bennington, Vermont. A great-grandmother, her hobby is handwriting analysis. She is a library and Red Cross volunteer