The yellowing old photos show a sprightly young woman of 18 taking a sea voyage to San Francisco. It could be any vacation photo from 1940. But the smiling face and sea breezes belie the harrowing journey taken by Jewish refugee Eva Schott.
She and her family fled Berlin in 1940, among the last Jews able to leave Nazi Germany. They took a train through the USSR and China, and then sailed on an ocean liner from Yokohama to the U.S. immigration station on Angel Island.
While historians have explored the long and often unjust treatment of Japanese and Chinese on Angel Island, much less is known about the thousands of Russians, Eastern Europeans and Jews who came to the U.S. via Asia. Angel Island immigration records show some 500 Jews arrived on ships from Japan and China from 1939-40.
Eva Schott Berek is among the few still living.
Today the 89-year-old Eva Schott Berek, her married name, lives in the East Bay city of Concord, California. She kept the photo albums that tell her fascinating journey. And a fascinating story it is.
Life in Berlin
Berek was born in Berlin in 1921, where she lived with her parents, Ernst and Hedwig (Hedi) Schott. Ernst had owned a small shoe factory and later earned a decent living as a buyer for a shoe company. He had been a World War I vet and was wounded fighting for Germany.
But starting in 1938 neither Ernst nor Hedi were allowed to work under the Nazis’ increasingly repressive regulations. Eva was kicked out of high school at age 14 because the Nazis did not allow Jewish children to attend public school. By 1940, the Nazis had already deported many Jews to concentration camps. Berek thinks that her family might have been spared because they lived in a Catholic neighborhood and because her father was a war veteran.
Her parents were forced to sell their possessions to survive. After the 1939 German attack on Poland that began World War II, Germany faced many food shortages. Jews were confined by a curfew to stay in their houses until 4 p.m., after which it was almost impossible to find food in the shops.
Berek remembers the kindness of her father’s former employer, Mr. Grevenstein, a devout Catholic. “He came at midnight, and threw little pebbles against the window, and my father would go down,” Berek remembers years later. “It was a big apartment building. He would open the gate, and we would get like a care package from this man, with canned goods, which we were not allowed to have.”
Ernst Schott had a brother and sister living in the U.S. who sponsored them for a visa. Their visa application from the American Consulate in Berlin reveals U.S. government thinking about immigrants in those days. The Schotts had to swear they weren’t “idiots, imbeciles, feeble minded, … prostitutes or anarchists.” Their race was listed as “Hebrew.”
The family prepared to leave Berlin. The Nazi government wouldn’t allow them to take anything but some suitcases and 10 marks, the equivalent of $11 US for three people. “We were middle class people, and my mother had silver and crystal,” said Eva. “But we couldn’t take any of that.” They left Berlin by train on July 14, 1940 along with Jews from Vienna, Austria. “You can't imagine the feeling when we crossed the border into Latvia,” says Berek. “It was just a relief just to get out of there. Tremendous.”
Within a year Germany’s remaining Jews were required to sew yellow stars on their clothing, and virtually all were put in death camps. Eva’s grandparents were among them.
For those few able to escape, Germany prohibited emigration through Europe. So they were forced to take a train through the Baltic countries and entered the USSR. From 1939-41, Germany and the USSR had a non-aggression pact so that overland route was open. The Schott family got to Moscow and then took the Siberia Express for a seven-day journey across the USSR.
Soviet authorities provided meal coupons, but the Schotts still didn’t have enough to eat. The train was filled with wounded soldiers returning from fighting the “Winter War” with Finland. “Some of them had only one leg, one arm,” says Berek. The soldiers noticed that the Schotts had no food for breakfast.
“All of a sudden the door opened and they came in with big trays of food for us.” The family ate eggs and thick, Russian bread. “Nobody had been nice to us for a very, very long time, and we were all in tears.”
China and beyond
The Schotts took the Japan Express to Harbin, China. A Jewish community group there hosted a dinner for them and other refugees. The local Jews kept a strictly kosher diet, so of course, they served kosher food to the guests.
“Not that we cared, we were never religious people,” Berek says with a smile. “But to them it was terribly important.”
They continued their journey to Yokohama, Japan, and then traveled in steerage on an ocean liner, the Rakuyo Maru. Berek remembers 150 people were housed on one deck. “There were bunk beds with little curtains. And we got fish three times a day. Nothing else, just a piece of fish.”
The journey took three weeks and the family arrived at Angel Island on Aug. 28, 1940.
Even immigrants with valid visas had to prove that they wouldn’t be “public charges.” Since the Schotts had almost no money on arrival, they were detained at Angel Island. The men were separated from the women as was standard practice. Ernst was sent to the detention barracks and Eva and her mother were housed in the Angel Island Immigration Station Hospital.
Eva turned 19 on September 4 while on Angel Island. For the occasion, her father asked to see his wife and daughter. A guard escorted Eva and her mother to a bench located half-way between the detention barracks and the hospital where she met with her father for the first time since they arrived.
“The guard was there the entire time. He stood there while we were talked for that hour. My father wished me a happy birthday and even gave me a present: two oranges. And that was the biggest deal that you could imagine. We all cried.”
The family underwent questioning by immigration officials. Written notes of the meeting indicate that authorities were mainly concerned whether relatives living in New York would provide enough money for the new immigrants to become settled. After nine days on Angel Island, the authorities released the Schotts to the care of a Jewish charitable group in San Francisco.
Life in San Francisco
With only a small amount of money donated by the Jewish charity and some money saved from the trip, the family lived in a flea infested hotel for a while. In 1940, the U.S. was still in the throes of the Great Depression. So the Schotts worked whatever jobs might be available. Eva took a seamstress job in a garment factory although she had never seen an electric sewing machine in her life. Not surprisingly, she was immediately fired.
But with a sly smile, Eva says “by law he had to pay me for the day, which meant we could eat that evening. So I took any kind of job that I could, because I knew even if I worked only one day, or a half a day, or an hour, he had to pay me for that day. So I had all kinds of weird jobs.”
Eva attended Jewish community dances in San Francisco. Then, at the insistence of a girlfriend, she went on a blind date with Seymour Berek, a Jewish soldier in the U.S. Army.
“My mother was all upset. ‘What do you mean you're going out with somebody you don't know, you've never met him.' I said 'oh, I'll be with my girlfriend, and it'll be alright.'”
Apparently it was alright, because they met in May of 1943 and married six months later. Seymour went on to become an optometrist, opening his own East Bay shop in 1958. Eva worked as a retail clerk and later as Seymouur’s receptionists. They moved to Concord in 1981.
She volunteers at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum. Berek expresses a passion for wild animals, raising opossums at home.
Looking back on her experiences fleeing Germany 70 years ago, some memories still hurt. She never visited Angel Island again. “I cannot go back there and think of my parents. I just can’t.”
Nor does Berek think she did anything of historic significance. “It was a very good experience, once I got out of Germany. We were free people.”
---------------- Freelance journalist Reese Erlich has written about the holocaust and Jewish issues for AARP’s Viva magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. His latest book is “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire,” Polipoint Press, 2010.
This article was based on an interview conducted by Eddie Wong for AIISF on July 8, 2010. We wish to express our deep appreciation to Mrs. Eva Schott Berek for sharing her story and photographs with us.
Photos captions: #1: Mama Schott - Hedi Schott #2: Papa Schott - Ernst Schott #3: Eva Schott’s passport #4: Our ship to a new life in America #5: Eva and her new friends #6: Eva enjoying a happy moment #7: The young group (including Herta Loebl, Alice Edelstein, and Eva Schott) on the Rakuyo Maru