When I arrived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in October of this past year, Gaby Whittier graciously invited me to live with her until I was able to find an apartment. She fed me, brought me to work, and then when I found an apartment on Center Street, she more or less furnished the apartment with everything that I needed to get started.
The most wonderful gift, of course, was my adorable feline friends, Diana and Ross. Gaby was a wonderful story-teller, and was interested in everything. She was gracious, charming, and the very epitome of hospitality and welcome. I quickly discovered that she had a fascinating background. When I asked her a few questions, she shared with me a short paper which she had prepared for a middle school presentation dealing with Peace and Justice issues. This is what she wrote to me when she passed the article along to me.: ‘This is a copy of my story, which I present to local schools in a Peace and Justice Program. It is geared towards pre-teen audiences and written that way. But it is the story.” What a fascinating person Gaby was! So that you, too, may appreciate how amazing she was–truly a gift to me and to many others–I share her story with you.
How many of you have Grandparents? Brothers & Sisters?
Aunts & Uncles? Cousins?
I grew up without any of those. It was only me and my parents . . . until they died, and now I’m the only one left of my family.
I was introduced to you as Gaby Whittier . . . but my full name is: Gabriele Carola Louise Karpfen-Whittier. I have spent the last 68 years trying to find out what happened to my family, and it is just in the past few years, since the Internet boom that I have gotten a few shreds of information.
This is the story: –
My parents, Kurt and Theresia, were born and raised in Austria. My father was –
Jewish and my mother, who he met and fell in love with as a teen-ager, was
Catholic (the “State Religion”). They were planning to be married, and were working and saving money to immigrate to Australia.
My father had graduated from college and was an engineer. He had a job in a new technology at the time–installing radios in cars. He was his company’s “sound system” expert.
In 1938 he was sent to a small village to set up a speaker system for Adolph Hitler who was to give a speech. He did that and came back to Vienna a very frightened man. He told his parents, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins that war was coming and they were all in danger. He made arrangements to send his sister and my mother to England where he thought they would be safe.
When his sister and my mother arrived in England they were interred on The Isle of Mann because they were German speaking. But, at least they were out of immediate danger. They did live through the London Blitz and survived. My mother was even an air-raid warden, helping people into shelters when necessary.
Back in Vienna, my father tried to talk his parents into leaving, but they refused, preferring to take their chances in their home.
They lived in an apartment in Vienna. An elderly woman lived several floors above them, with her son, who held a job in the Austrian government. My grandmother would help that woman with her laundry, which had to be hauled down several flights of steps, washed in a public tub and then hauled up (wet) to be hung on lines.
One day, probably in early March of 1938, her son came to my father and told him that the SS were going to round up all the Jews in their neighborhood that afternoon. My father begged his parents to leave with him. When he could wait no longer, he slipped out the back door and fled, on foot, through the Vienna woods and made his way to the Swiss border. Once there, he was arrested for crossing the border illegally and put on a chain gang, building roads through the Swiss Alps. He never saw or heard from his parents, aunts, uncles or cousins again.
Eventually he somehow escaped from the road gang and made his way through Nazi-occupied France and Spain to Lisbon, Portugal. I have no idea how he did that, but must have been extremely lucky or have had help along the way.
You need to know that I didn’t learn any of these facts until I was in my 20’s, and my mother told me. My father never spoke of his experiences at all.
Lisbon was teeming with escaping Jews. My father got on one of three ships that were crowded with Jews trying to get to America. When the ships finally got to Ellis Island, the US had closed its borders and they were not allowed to land. One of the captains turned back – I’m sure to certain death. My father was on one of two ships whose captains refused to go back and instead went south to the Caribbean. Trujillo, who was the dictator of the Dominican Republic, allowed the Jews to disembark and gave them a piece of land–jungle, but with a beautiful beach, to settle.
(My father, who was extremely cynical, said that Hitler wanted to get rid of the Jews to “improve the race” and Trujillo welcomed them to “improve the race,” meaning that they were both evil men.)
In any case, there was enough talent and expertise in that group of hard-working people to indeed make a civilized community out of that jungle. They had a doctor on board, my father was an engineer and designed the water purification system, cheese-making factory, and meat production facilities, which are still in operation today. They had farmers, carpenters, etc. And they got help from the US Department of Agriculture to help them procure animals and resources that weren’t available to begin farming.
Daddy said the biggest problem they had was building fences for the cattle. The fence posts would grow into trees quicker than they could be replaced.
At the end of the war in 1945, the JDC (Jewish Distribution Committee) assisted my father in locating my mother in England. He sent for her and she came to the Dominican Republic. They married, and in 1946, I was born.
My mother, who was an excellent cook, ran the Hotel that they had built on the beach. She taught the native women how to cook Viennese dishes. When I was 30 years old, after my mother had died, my father and I went back to that village, and even though the hotel is now gone, replaced by a luxury resort, one of my mother’s signature desserts (a pyramid-shaped Dobosh Torte) was still being served in the area restaurants.
My mother’s family, who were non-Jewish Austrians, were pro-German annexation, believing that Austria should become part of Germany. In other words, they were Nazi’s. I have no idea how they personally felt about Jews, but I do know that at least one of my Uncles was an SS Officer. They disowned my mother when she went to England with my father’s sister. One of my mother’s sisters (out of six brothers and sisters) did seek her out and wrote a few letters to her, so at least she knew that I existed; but we never heard from her after 1955. My mother’s sisters & brothers, and their children have disappeared. I can find no trace of any of them.
After I was born, my parents decided to try to come to the US to give me a chance at a good education and a better life. Getting immigration permits was all but impossible. Finally, in 1951, during the Korean War, we were granted permits because they were looking for engineers. Qualified US citizens were busy fighting in Korea. We became US Citizens in 1956.
When we came to the US, my father got a job with RCA and we moved to their headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. Of course we had nothing except the clothes on our back and a few things packed in a suitcase.
We spoke German at home, but could speak both English and Spanish as well. (With heavy accents.)
Integration into the middle of the US in the 1950’s was not easy. We were “strangers” in a very strange land. In addition to his job at RCA, my father started a small television repair business and we lived in the back of a very small store-front in a corner strip mall. I had trouble in school because of the cultural differences; I had difficulties making friends; I was bullied and made fun of because I was “different”.
The first Christmas we lived in that store-front, (when I was six) the little church on the opposite corner, not knowing our back-ground, sent over a Christmas tree and Ornaments. My mother was so pleased and grateful for this gesture of kindness that she wanted to give them something in return. But, she didn’t have anything. My father, who was understandably anti-religion and afraid of people and their motives, would not allow her to get involved. So, instead, she gave “me” to them. By that, I mean that she sent me to church every Sunday (without my father’s knowledge) to somehow convey to them her appreciation of the friendship they offered. She also wanted me to learn all that I could about God and religion – something that I was not going to learn at home – so that I could make up my own mind later in life.
My mother, who only had the equivalent of a fourth grade education, was a very wise and intelligent woman.
When I was 14 years old, and entering the ninth grade, there were no local high schools in my area of the city. All the kids were split up and sent to different schools throughout the city. I was assigned to a school to which I had to take two different city buses. The first day, when I got off the bus, someone pointed at me and said “There’s the Jew”. Believe it or not, I had no idea what they were talking about. That night I asked my father “What is a Jew”, and told him what had happened. My father’s face actually turned white . . . and he didn’t answer me. Within a year, he had closed his TV repair business and we all moved to New Jersey. He was on the run again.
Growing up, my mother and I were not allowed to purchase anything that was German-made. The sight of Volkswagens on the road (and there were many of those “bugs” in the SO’s and 60’s) always brought some negative comment from my father.
My father guarded his privacy carefully. He worked constantly, and had only one or two friends. I can remember only two times in my childhood when my parents had a few people over to play cards. We spent most evenings doing TV repair service calls. My mother and I would wait in the car while my father went into his clients homes to fix their TV’s. I learned my multiplication tables in the car, with my mother drilling me. Weekends were spent in the shop, testing tubes and cleaning out the insides of the TVs to be repaired.
I took piano lessons, and was allowed to ride my bicycle to the teacher’s house. was expected to practice for one hour every day, and, of course, do my homework and earn good grades. When I got old enough to stay home alone on occasion, my companion was our cat, Linda, who my father claimed to dislike intensely.
We did not celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any holidays, but my mother would bake a lovely birthday cake for me every year. I led a very lonely life.
When I was in college, I met my husband (who, unfortunately, drove a VW). My parents disliked him intensely, but I married him anyway. They were right. After 10 years of a very unhappy marriage, we were divorced. Soon after that, my mother died.
My father, who by then was crippled with arthritis, could not live alone. I couldn’t bring myself to allow him to be put in a nursing home, so I moved him to Bethlehem, to live with me. He was again very upset by this, believing that living
in this area was dangerous. He was afraid that many ex-Nazis were hiding in the German community here. (And he was right- a few have been found.) So, he lived out the rest of his life in my house, refusing to associate with my friends or make any for himself.
After he died, I found myself alone. So, I started hosting foreign exchange students, and developed some wonderful relationships with them and their families in England, Russia, France, and even Germany. Taking a student from Germany was a difficult decision for me to make. But, I decided that I had to do something to break the fear of Germans that I had been raised with. I had to try to mend the brokenness that my father handed down to me. And that was the best thing that I could have done. I found a loving, sympathetic German family to befriend and who accepted me with open arms. I met my students Grandfather, who had been a Nazi and badly wounded in the War. We both learned to look at each other as people, not a Jewish descendant and a Nazi. Wounds were healed on both sides.
My father, who was highly educated, was also, like my mother, extremely wise and intelligent. Unfortunately, he was badly scarred by a very, very difficult life, with which he never was able to come to terms. He died at the age of 83, a very unhappy man.
I may not have any family, but I have wonderful friends, and a very fulfilling life . . . and I am grateful to my parents for seeing to it that I had every opportunity in life that they missed.
20 November 2013