As I was growing up, I often listened to my father tell of his experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, of the long and demanding process of getting a U.S. visa and of his lucky arrival in America on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1939. I knew also that he had helped his brother and then his parents to escape Hitler’s Germany, but the details were vague.
My grandparents, Kurt and Berta Sonnemann—the ones I called Oma and Opa—lived in a brick apartment building just two blocks from our house on Chicago’s South Side, and I remember my father telling me that to get out of Germany, they’d had to take a miserable train ride across Siberia subsisting on only bread and tea. They had lost 30 pounds each, he said.
That was a dramatic vignette, yet there was so much I didn’t know. I had no real sense of how unusual it was that my German Jewish grandparents were alive at all, how narrowly they had escaped, what they had endured and whom they had left behind.
Those details would remain for me to trace as an older adult. As I held my grandparents’ incredible passports in my hands (my father had given them to me) and leafed through their pages, I was struck by the profusion of swastikas, foreign languages and colorful stamps, and filled with a desire to discover the stories behind them. What had happened to my grandparents more than 75 years ago to bring them here, to America and to Angel Island?
After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, the persecution of Jews in Germany swiftly followed. My father lost his job as a pharmacist’s apprentice; his father, Kurt, a published poet and a freelance music and arts critic who wrote for various large newspapers throughout Germany, was forbidden to write for any “Aryan” publications. That meant my grandfather’s career and his income came to a virtual halt.
My grandmother’s sister, Frieda, lived with the family in Mannheim, a medium-size industrial city at the confluence of the Rhine and the Neckar in southwestern Germany. Frieda supported herself selling sewing machines door-to-door for Pfaff. Now that Kurt had lost the bulk of his income, my grandmother joined her sister in peddling sewing machines to help make ends meet.
Then, on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht happened. During the violent Night of Broken Glass that marked the beginning of the Holocaust, Nazi storm troopers burned synagogues across Germany and Austria, trashed and looted Jewish homes and businesses, and sent some 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.
After Kristallnacht, a throng of Jewish applicants, now truly desperate to leave, sought U.S. visas. Even the year before, in 1937 when my father had applied, the waiting list had been so long—his number was about 6,500—that he’d had to wait a year for his appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart. And after November 9, 1938, the wait would become terribly long, while the options for leaving narrowed more and more.
My grandparents were among those waiting, both worried and hopeful. My father, then 28, had left Germany a month after Kristallnacht, and a letter that his family wrote to him as he was on a ship crossing the Atlantic in March of 1939, reveals both emotions. They were studying English and waiting for their visa appointments. They’d had to take in boarders to earn a little extra. (The Nazis—even as they obstructed Jewish earnings—had imposed a punitive tax on the Jewish communities after Kristallnacht, making the victims pay the cost of repairs to their own property.)
My grandfather’s note to my father was especially poignant. “What you wrote . . . that you are going to do everything you can so that we can soon come,” he said, “is the only thing sustaining us.”
Meanwhile, measures to separate and steal from the Jews continued in Germany with the appalling process known as “Aryanization.” Jews were forced to sell businesses and property for far less than they were worth. Jewish families were often forced to move from homes owned by an Aryan landlord, and concentrated together in Judenhauser, Jewish houses. This happened to my grandparents and Frieda in August of 1939, as they continued to wait for their U.S. visa application to process. The wait must have been agonizing. At this point, Germany still encouraged Jews to leave (though robbing them of the means to do so) but U.S. policies for granting visas to refugees were becoming ever more restrictive.
My father, a new immigrant in the United States, wrote desperate letters marked “Urgent Matter!!!” to the American Friends Service Committee, looking for help for his parents. “I hope my letter is clear enough to show you how urgent it is for help and in which horrible situation my parents are . . . It is a fight for the security of their lives!”
The British government required $1,500 (the equivalent of $25,000 in today’s money) as a bond guarantee for my grandparents to reside in England while they waited for their U.S. visas to come through, but not surprisingly, no organization could provide that kind of financial help. Between May and November of 1939, my father wrote to governments of various countries – Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Holland and Mexico – looking for temporary refuge for his parents. The answers came back in English, German, Dutch, and Spanish. All of them said no.
Then –- more than 18 months after they’d applied — my grandparents received a letter from the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart that their number had come up. On May 9, 1940, they were granted visas to the United States of America. But the very next day—May 10, 1940—Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
With Germany at war and the raging invasion of Europe, Kurt and Berta now had a terrible problem: How could they get out of the country? The ports that my father and his brother had left from, in Holland and Belgium, were now unavailable. My grandparents obtained Italian visas and planned to reach an Italian port, but in June 1940, Italy—on the verge of war--denied them entry.
There was only one desperate option left: the eastern route through Russia, Siberia and Asia. Germany's non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941 made it possible to use the overland route, if one had all the necessary visas and pre-paid tickets for travel.
“The only way to emigrate is over Moscow, Siberia and Japan,” my grandfather wrote in an account of their arduous journey. It had been hard enough to obtain ship tickets from Europe, my grandfather wrote, “but it was many times more difficult to obtain train and ship tickets and legal permits for this long trip . . . around halfway across the globe of the earth!” The Russian Consulate made them wait four weeks for visas, and travel to both Berlin and Hamburg to obtain them.
From Chicago, my father worked frantically with charitable organizations to arrange for the ship tickets and to secure loans and donations to help pay for the expensive trip. Only third-class tickets could be obtained for the Trans-Siberian train, a trip of one week. My grandparents, in their mid-to-late 50s, slept on sacks of straw. The summer temperatures rose to the 90s, but they were forbidden to open the windows because of the dust. Still “the dust of the steppe came through the closed windows and filled the train so that we could barely breathe,” my grandfather wrote.
The hardships of this journey were real, as were the many problems of adjusting to a new country and language. Yet these difficulties would pale beside the horrors of Nazi Germany. To illustrate how narrowly they had escaped, one need only consider my grandmother’s sister, Frieda, who had lived with my grandparents in Mannheim. She was still waiting for a U.S. visa on October 22, 1940, just one month and one day after my grandparents arrived in San Francisco, when police pounded on her door ordering her to leave, deporting her, along with 7,500 other Jews from the southwestern region of Germany, to a concentration camp in France. Later, she would be deported again, to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
Of course, as my grandparents boarded the ship in Yokohama on September 7, they couldn’t have known Frieda’s fate –- or that of my grandmother’s brother, wife and son, or my grandfather’s sister, all of whom would lose their lives in the Holocaust. But they certainly appreciated both the gravity of the situation and the fortune of their escape.
Aboard the M.S. Kamakura Maru, my grandfather penned a 24-page account of the rigorous trip. Even so long-- 75 years -- after he wrote the poignant, heartfelt concluding paragraph, it never fails to bring me to tears.
“After another week on the ship, we will arrive in San Francisco,” he writes, “and will then have seen the greatest part of the world. We know that thousands of electric lights will greet our arrival. We have been traveling underway for six weeks and our final goal is Chicago. There, we will be greeted by our two sons! There, after this long separation, we will finally hug our sons! It is all like a long dream to put our arms around our sons, to forget terrible Germany, the war, the persecutions of us Jews! I have lost 30 pounds, but here in the USA where one can get all, I will soon regain it all! Full of gratitude to all in reaching our new home, finally found in health.”
My grandfather's account was written a week before the ship landed and thus does not describe the Angel Island experience. My grandparents' ship arrived on September 21, 1940, a month after the Immigration Station’s administration building burned down, though other immigrants were still being processed on Angel Island.
My grandparents were likely questioned but not detained on Angel Island, probably because they had train tickets to Chicago waiting for them, and the support of their two sons. They lived the rest of their lives in Chicago, near their sons, and helped my father establish his business, Merix Chemical Co., selling photo-chemicals and anti-statics. Although my grandfather never regained his profession as a writer and arts critic, he continued to write poetry including this passage from “Abschied” (Farewell): “Do you remember the bad and bitter morning/ When we fled across land and sea/ To this land of freedom where our unrest/ Finally found again peace and security.”
Toby Sonneman (her father dropped the second "n") grew up in Chicago and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of three books: Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West (University of Idaho, 1992), Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust (University of Hertfordshire Press, UK, 2002) and Lemon: A Global History (Reaktion Books, London, 2012). She is currently working on The Grey Folder Project, at www.thegreyfolder.com, a website narrative of her search to discover how the Holocaust impacted her family. For more about Toby, see www.tobysonneman.com.